1. Of fire: she remembers sitting with her father at the upstairs hearth, before they had a furnace. Not the conflagration of the high school, not the brick church burning. Not the Duck Hill men blowtorched just before her birth. To be born white in the state of Mississippi is to be born rhetorical: back then was a different time, she tells me. A remarkable time, whose activity was simply characteristic of fire; you can’t imagine how hot it got, what it was to be in the state of combustion.
Sometimes the prominent men of the town, including her father, put on fake beards and robes and greasepainted their skin, not black, but the tones of imagined Arabia, a notion of dunes and dates and palms. Is that a dog with a woman’s head on the noble council seal? The temple is gold, the ground is sand, the imagination is an intense heat (whence also transf. of a fever, etc.): which heat has consequences in the world, sometimes that of the visible flaming or blazing, though not in the world she’d say was hers, her side of the street they called Commerce, now Dr. MLK, Jr.
2. Of matter or spirit, of bodies and buildings: she was a child, she says, what could she know. To be in process for decades of consumption by fire; to be on fire; to be enveloped in what, then, to now say this and nothing else: she’d been a child, what could she know? Less flames than thick insulation, flammable as a child’s nightgown is flammable, pretty until it melts to her legs.
3. To become or be violent, as though a difference worth marking: a man may be violent by nature, whereas his neighbor was not but became so. What provocation? An unseasonably hot month, unreasonably brought to a head by the sit-ins, said the local paper, though by then they’d moved. Instead of solid shapes of men in the doorway of the gas station café, instead of Bellflower Baptist burning, instead of flatbed trucks to Parchman, my mother and her sisters (not of school age any longer) watched liquid images of marchers on TV, if they watched at all.
Also, by that time being women, they must be careful of their persons: remember the nightgown, cloaking a body which emanates heat. Remember the men in their decorative robes. To have a sensation arise from under her gown, like that arising from exposure to fire—risks burning up, burning into a seal in the shape of a bitch. Often in town still, or on television, my aunt will point out what makes a woman something other than a lady: too much rouge, the face flushed cosmetically pink as though an effect of shame or anger.
I think of how my aunt loves the dictionary for its authority, also how my mother did, how they loved English, Oxford, Ole Miss, how dearly they’ve felt pride in their sensitivity to injury. I should have put my questions to my mother, but she’s gone and so is shielded. Instead I task my aunt. Colloquially, we speak of the ears burning, in allusion to the superstition that a person’s ears feel hot when he is spoken of in his absence. I am sorry to speak of her failures here, where she cannot counter what I say.
4. Of candles, lamps, etc., though, all the fires she lived through, watching or not watching—to be in process of combustion so as to give light; did they not give light? Hence, the fires she’d say she never lit herself, never helped to light, to fan to flames—they do give light, they shine from her despite herself. Also transf. of the sun, stars, celestial glitter in the pink-flocked wand she gave me when I was ten, I loved, I’ve kept; the same fires shine from me, pink-cheeked, pink-eared, all-over pink, a scar in this or any other luminary.
Collier Nogues is the author of The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground, selected by Forrest Gander as winner of the 2014 Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest, and On the Other Side, Blue (Four Way, 2011). Her work has been supported by fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Fishtrap. She is the 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Lingnan University and a PhD Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, where she studies contemporary poetry’s response to US militarization, particularly in the Pacific. Her bilingual digital collaboration with poets Mei Kwan Ng and Jhave Johnston launched in June 2016 at the City University of Hong Kong’s 360° immersive theater.