Book Review: How to Carry Fire by Christina Thatcher
“Feel the heat enter your stomach.
Stay wary now. You must never let the light
go out. Keep it lit until you learn to glow.”
–How to Carry Fire, Christina Thatcher, How to Carry Fire
Poetry that Ignites
Christina Thatcher’s, How to Carry Fire, is a poetry collection that ignites from every page with the finesse of a controlled burn. The poems in this collection lead the reader through the literal burning of her childhood home and the collateral damage involving family, drug abuse and poverty.
The Things that Matter Cannot be Replaced
“After the fire, we had 48 hours
to produce exact numbers:
How many forks?
How many pairs of underwear?
How many items in the fridge?”
–Insurance Report, Christina Thatcher, How to Carry Fire
I’ve written before about growing up in the ‘Tornado Alley‘ area of the United States. Thatcher calls me back to that time again, where I remember watching news reports of homes destroyed. My home, which I considered a stalwart presence in my life, faltered a little bit when I saw roofs and doors scattered across the Midwestern plains like pages flung from a book. That could be my home, I would think.
People say that when a house is burning the most important thing to do is to get yourself out of it. This is logical. Fire is destructive. But, that simple logic in no way prepares a person for the actuality of leaving behind what the poet refers to as ‘totems’ in this poem. These are the pieces irreplaceable, that cannot be assigned a value for insurance reports. Once they are gone, nothing will bring them back.
Imagine photos curling in flames of birthday celebrations, weddings, long dead relatives. Imagine the things we love the most, that aren’t available for Prime shipping via Amazon. These are the things that matter and this poem pays homage to that.
The Glowing Embers of Addiction
“head upstairs, bolt the door,
slip from your pocket a spoon and needle
you’ve saved as easy as a child
slides their favorite pencil from the case,”
–Relapse, Christina Thatcher, How to Carry Fire
Several poems in this collection explore the addiction of a brother and the love of a sister who wants desperately to save him. The cycle of addiction is not unlike stages of a fire. Unfortunately, once a fire lights, the potential for subsequent fires is always lurking on the edge of recovery. Those trying to assist someone with recovery are often vigilant. However, addiction is sneaky and it tries to find ways to worm back into the addict. It looks for the opportunity to ignite.
In the poem, Relapse, Thatcher gives us a front row seat to the most innocuous ways it can push back in for the addict. She describes how this will happen after dinner, when her brother slips away with a reasonable excuse about the food not settling well. It’s a peek into this world, to how easy it is for this fire to be stoked when even the vigilant least expect it.
Throughout Christina Thatcher’s, How to Carry Fire, poetry about addiction is also fueled with flames of determination and love by family ties.
Down a Rope Ladder, Across the Ocean
“we are only ships…
just waiting until
someone comes quick in the night
to cut our ropes clean.”
–At the UKVI Office, Christina Thatcher, How to Carry Fire
At the UKVI Office, proves that few words are needed to translate the power of experience sometimes. Fresh off of my own expatriate interactions with the UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) Office, I understand these feelings well.
It started with two hundred pages of documents that included transcripts from WhatsApp chats, documents proving my identity, fingerprints and a myriad of other information that I can barely remember now. All of this bundled together and sent off with the whispered plea: “Please let me in.” I tied so many of the knots hoping they were tight enough and right enough to hold me to the shore of this island.
The fear that perhaps my knots weren’t strong enough or that I was completely in the hands of an individual with a stamp reviewing my worthiness to enter and stay was fraught with worry. Each time I have escaped a bad situation and climbed up into the light, it has been fearful. I held my breath waiting to see if someone would send me away. They tell me that these good things aren’t meant for me, after all.
Thatcher’s poetry captures these feelings with such clarity that I could feel myself standing hopeful and wary in the UKVI office once again.
The Things We Don’t Want to Admit
“What the doctor means when he shows you the scan, points
to visceral fat clinging like anguished ghosts to your pancreas,
is that you were poor. He means your body was built on Big Macs,
stacks of Ramen noodles. “
–Subtext, Christina Thatcher, How to Carry Fire
People dance around subjects. As a result, news is a headline and soundbite no more than thirty seconds long. Within complex issues of health care and opportunity, poverty is a silent insidious root. Most of my adult life, I lived paycheck to paycheck. There were times when I parceled out small amounts of cash to make sure I had enough gas to get to work and a few dollars in case I needed to pick up medication for one of my children. Illness is expensive, even with the ‘magic’ of health insurance.
I had bad credit. I paid too much rent. If there was any disaster, there would be Ramen noodles to pick up the financial slack. Cheap food. Quick food, because I ran from one place to another trying to make a living and still living in poverty. Becoming homeless was a real possibility. I’d seen it happen. I lived right on the edge of stability. At night I shook in my bed.
As with so many of her poems, she gives us the truth without flinching. It brings the subtext into unforgiving light. It calls into question the attitudes and opinions that read like hot take tweets. This is poetry that humanity needs.
Beyond the Burning
Christina Thatcher’s poetry collection, How to Carry Fire, is about destruction and survival. I was only able to highlight a few of the poems here, but they are representative of the power in this collection. Throughout the book I felt seen and heard, even though I don’t know this poet. Fire can destroy, but it can also be cathartic. It can forge new pathways and encourage growth, her poetry promises us this and gives room for a little hope on the other side of trauma.
How to Carry Fire, by Christina Thatcher is now available for purchase at Parthian Books.
About the Author
Shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition in 2015 and a winner in the Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers in 2016, Christina Thatcher’s poetry and short stories have featured in over 50 publications including The London Magazine, Planet Magazine, And Other Poems, Acumen and The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection, More than you were, was published by Parthian Books in 2017.
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