[ToC]

 

FIRE

Donald Platt

Lord, our house is in flames

The MRI shows the ball of my wife's left femur has become flattened and will not fit her hip socket. Dana can hardly walk

Bone loss. One doctor says AVN—avascular necrosis: death of bone tissue from decreased blood supply, usually resulting from some injury or trauma. Another doctor says "bad case of osteoarthritis"

Either way, eventual hip replacement is "indicated"

Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, wrote in his diary for September 2nd, 1666: By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it was now burning down all Fishstreet by London Bridge

I too can hardly walk after the surgery to repair the torn meniscus in my right knee. I hobble on a cane, which I bought for six euros in a pharmacy in Newbridge, Ireland, last summer

So I down to the waterside and there got a boat and through the bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michells house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Stillyard while I was there

I do physical therapy twice a week at Miracles Rehabilitation. Sarah, my therapist whose hair is red as the flames of a bonfire, first had me sit on a reclining bicycle and try to pedal. I could not make my knee bend far enough to go all the way around. "We'll work on your range of motion," Sarah said. "For now, rock backwards and forwards as far as you can on the bike"

She has a measuring instrument of clear plastic, called a goniometer. Two straight pieces, one calibrated like a ruler, attach to a circular protractor and hinge as the femur and tibia do at the knee joint. She had me lie back on a padded table and bend my knee until it hurt. She measured the angle. My leg could bend to 89 degrees

Sarah said, "We need to increase that number to 135 degrees, so it can move like your other leg." I climb stairs by stepping up with my good left leg, then bringing the bad leg up. After resting a moment, I take another step up with the left leg

Everybody endeavoring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the waterside to another

On Friday nights, I help Dana inject herself with Methotrexate to control her rheumatoid arthritis. In a larger dose, Methotrexate is used as chemo to combat leukemia. One of the possible side effects is that Dana may develop lymphoma or leukemia

I draw up seven milliliters of the urine-yellow drug from a rubber-capped vial into a syringe, flick the syringe with my thumbnail so that any air bubbles float to the top. I push the plunger to expel the air bubbles back into the inverted vial, then draw up more of the drug, and hand the filled syringe to Dana

And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down

With a black pen Dana has drawn on a white sheet of paper a torso and two thighs. Every Friday she marks an X and the date on the headless, armless, footless body to indicate the injection site, so that she can keep track of her injections and inject the Methotrexate into the other thigh or other side of her stomach every week

She swabs a patch of skin with an alcohol pad and then gently pushes the one-inch needle into herself. I look away

I pray silently, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee

Sometimes the Methotrexate oozes back yellow out of the puncture hole

Sometimes blood

Now and at the hour of our death

When the body map of torso and thighs becomes completely tattooed with Xs and dates, Dana throws it away and draws another body map

Having stayed, and in an hour's time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods and leave all to the fire; and having seen it get as far as the Steeleyard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the city, and everything, after so long a drougth, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things, the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs Horsley lives, and whereof my old schoolfellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top and there burned till it fall down

Dana is still beautiful, but sometimes her skin is ashen from the Methotrexate. I look through the album of snapshots taken when we were first married. Here she is in her blue-and-white-striped bathing suit, doing yoga on her hands and knees in the grass, the cat pose with her back arched

In another photo, Dana and I stand on either side of our firstborn daughter Eleanor. Now twenty-five years old, she must be two in the photo. We each bend down to hold her tiny hands. She wears a yellow sunhat. We stand on a beach. Wave after wave crashes in, and the cold, hissing surf laps our ankles

The ocean keeps clamoring night and day

I to Whitehall with a gentleman with me who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat—to Whitehall, and there up to the King's closet in the chapel, where people came about me and I did give them an account dismayed them all; and word was carried in to the King, so I was called for and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire

The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts has asked our English Department to reduce the number of graduate students in our six graduate programs from 153 to 50 over the next four years. Our three-year MFA program in Creative Writing has 24 students. We accept four poets and four fiction writers per year. It can't get much smaller without going out of existence. Faced with similar budget cuts, the English Department at Penn State, one of our "peer institutions," simply phased out their MFA program

The Dean says that he is asking for these cuts so that he can increase the graduate students' stipends. The word whispered down the hallways is that he is the President's hatchet man. The President doesn't see any value in the Humanities and wants to defund them at our STEM university. He makes no secret of it. This is not paranoid thinking. The Humanities are not mentioned once in the University's five-year plan

For next year, the Dean has cut our budget by $200,000: 8.5%. We will have to reduce the graduate students we admit into our programs by 15

Literature has lost 5 graduate students; Rhetoric and Composition 4. Theory and Cultural Studies has been given only 1 graduate student admission. Second Language Studies has lost 3. Linguistics has been given no new students whatsoever. The MFA program has lost only 1 student

"Why isn't Creative Writing being asked to absorb proportional cuts?" my erstwhile friendly colleagues are demanding at faculty meetings

As the Dean has planned, we are beginning to cannibalize each other

They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him and command him to spare no houses but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers, he shall; and so did my Lord Arlington afterward, as a great secret

Last Sunday, by chance, I ran into a professor from our department at Von's Books. We stood by the "New Arrivals" shelves, brimming with new books—glossy, colorful covers like exotic or extinct birds, scarlet ibises, flamingos, or ivory-billed woodpeckers, sleeping with their wings folded about them—and talked

"We can't let this happen," he said. "I've given half my life to this department. We have to do sit-ins, get on social media, refuse to give grades, contact The New York Times, and get them to run articles about how our President wants to gut the Humanities in higher ed. I'm completely demoralized. We have to save ourselves"

And there walked along Watling street as well as I could, every creature coming away loaden with goods to save—and here and there sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary good goods carried in carts and on backs. At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Streete, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King's message, he cried like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent! People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses. But the fire overtakes us faster then we can do it'

Every Monday night Dana injects herself with Enbrel, a biologic, to help the Methotrexate slow down her rheumatoid arthritis. It comes in a blue-gray, six-inch tube and must be kept in the refrigerator. She rubs her skin with an alcohol pad and then puts one end of the tube against the sterilized skin. She pushes a blue button on the tube's other end, and a needle shoots out the bottom like a wasp's stinger. It injects her with Enbrel. Enbrel's side effects may include "seizures, bruising or bleeding, skin changes (rash, pustules, or blistery skin), swelling and difficult breathing or swallowing, vision changes, paresthesias (‘pins and needles'), weakness, dizziness, and multiple sclerosis." In the year since she started Enbrel, Dana has experienced massive swelling at the injection site. After three months, that reaction abated

Met with the King and Duke of York in their Barge, and with them to Queen Hith and there called Sir Rd. Browne to them. Their order was only to pull down houses apace, and so below bridge at the waterside; but little was or could be done, the fire coming upon them so fast. Good hopes there was of stopping it at the Three Cranes above, and at Buttolphs Wharf below bridge, if care be used; but the wind carries it into the City, so as we know not by the waterside what it doth there. River full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water; and only, I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that had goods of a house in, but there was a pair of virginalls in it

A "virginal" is "a rectangular harpsichord with strings stretched parallel to the keyboard, the earlier types placed on a table: popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries"

What wonder of water musicke doth the Great Fire of London make both day and night

Suite of spark and soot

Virginal: "of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or befitting a virgin; pure, unsullied, untouched"

Dana and I, what "a pair of virginalls"

Old age shall ravage us, shall play its minor-key madrigals upon us

We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch above a mile long. It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the racking of houses at their ruine

This morning it is four degrees Fahrenheit. Dana says that the cold makes her bones ache like broken glass and that she can no longer stand to live in this climate

I open the side door to our woodstove and see how well-seasoned logs of hickory, thick as a speed-skater's thigh, have been devoured by the fire overnight and are now only handfuls of ash and embers

I shovel some of the ash and live coals into our fire bucket, take them out to the driveway to cool, cover them with a large saucepan's lid so that the wind doesn't scatter them and set the neighborhood on fire

It will take two days for the coals to burn themselves out and be safe to toss onto the compost pile

Meanwhile I throw two logs onto the bed of coals, which I have raked together on the floor of our woodstove with the poker

The logs blaze, and thin diaphanous tongues of fire lick the logs all over hungrily, as once a woman I loved had done, licking my neck, shoulders, armpits, biceps, forearms, hands, palms, sternum, nipples, ribs, abdomen, navel, hard cock, and thighs

So great is our hunger, one for another

It was a summer night

Not winter

Wherever her wet tongue touched me, the patina of saliva it left behind would evaporate and cool my hot skin

So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops

 

 

 

 

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The original spark, if you'll forgive the bad pun, for this poem was supplied by a graduate student fiction writer in Purdue University's MFA program. At a Christmas party, Robert Powers gave all twenty-four MFA students and the six Creative Writing faculty small pocket editions of "Penguin Classics." Each book, measuring 4 3/8 x 6 1/4 inches, was black with the title and author's name in white. The books ranged from Herodotus and Catullus to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman to Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Kingsley, and Katherine Mansfield. There were eighty slim volumes in the boxed set that Robert had purchased online from the publisher for about thirty dollars, so roughly thirty-eight cents per book. He gave me The Great Fire of London,selections from Samuel Pepys's famous diary. I had never read Pepys before and fell immediately in love with the terse rhythms of his informal prose. The little book coincided with some health problems, my wife's and my own, and with some nasty academic politics. The conjunction of these elements seemed to be the right mix for this bitchy brew of a poem. Importantly, my wife, the poet Dana Roeser, had employed the Fire of London as background and metaphor for an eponymous poem in her second book, In the Truth Room. Though she did not use Pepys as her source, her example was also inspiring. The good news is that Dana's hip operation and my knee rehab were both successful and that our small MFA program, which has produced many well-published, prize-winning writers over the years, is withstanding the bureaucratic encroachments of our Dean. May that good fight continue!