by Patrick Coleman
“The poems in Fire Season are full of friction—common word touching common word … They are also philosophical and personal. Patrick Coleman is tuned in to landscape, language, and humanity, each poem casual as office talk and heightened by their proximity to art and by the force of the sentence—such arresting sentences.”
—Carol Frost, judge for the Berkshire Prize
Winner of the Berkshire Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry
Occasioned by the birth of a first child and originally spoken aloud into a digital audio recorder on the poet’s long commute between the art museum where he worked and his home in a neighborhood burned in the Witch Creek Fire of 2007, each of the poems in Patrick Coleman’s first book resists the confusions of twenty-first-century parenthood, marriage, art, and commerce. By turns conversational and anxious, metaphysical and self-mocking, celebratory yet permeated by an awareness of life’s flickering ephemerality, Fire Season is a search for gratitude among reasons to be afraid—and proof that a person can pass through the fires and come out the other side alive.
From Idyllic to Deadly: A Conversation with Patrick Coleman in Los Angeles Review of Books.
In the grasslands they put an airport. There’s always a good reason. The grasses are dry, golden around the coyotes, late summer. On the drive to work, exhausted, I see two large white planes—heavy-bottomed, boat-like—pass low. On the tails and fuselage are wide orange stripes. They’re going to drop water on the wildfires, the wildfires that rained ash over fifty miles onto the hood of my car, the hood of my car that was up to keep rats from chewing the wires, the wires that they’ve chewed anyways. My wife saw the fire start from where she nursed on the couch. The lightning of a summer thunderstorm that came in from the desert struck the mountain two ranges over. This is in southern California. We have a baby. There’s always a fire somewhere, and we spend our days pacing out the distances between there and now.
Deer in the Break
Maybe there’s music, maybe there’s a movie at low volume. Put away the dinner dishes, the meal we ate staggered. My hip is kinked and painful, I don’t know why. Think about work. Think about no rest from work, weariness. This is what I want. But still, unfocused desires squeeze through the seams, the vague dissatisfaction that is always mine. Like a hustling retriever, I’m a dog who needs usefulness. Without it, high-strung, hungry, my bearish mind staggers through several campsites, becomes a hummingbird too blighted by possibility to stop and drink, and scatters into light and bone and anything else that fails to form a body. Accept the braces like a field-bound ox. That’s goodness. That’s the good. Reason is the baby in the bassinet. The fear every time I pass her, it stops me like a deer in the break. Her breathing.
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Patrick Coleman is the assistant director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California–San Diego. He earned a BA at the University of California–Irvine and an MFA at Indiana University, and he was editor/contributor for the exhibition catalogue The Art of Music and a contributor to Into India: South Asian Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art. His literary writing has appeared in Zócalo Public Square, Black Warrior Review, ZYZZYVA, and The Writer’s Chronicle, and his first novel, The Churchgoer, will be published by Harper Perennial in 2019. He lives in Ramona, California, with his wife and two daughters.
“‘Every morning I drive past wild horses on the way to work,’ writes Coleman in a superb debut composed via audio recording during his commute to and from his job at the San Diego Museum of Art. The book features a rich mix of ekphrastic, landscape, and self-reflective prose poems. ‘I need distance, loss, or its possibility; I need the world to cede to mind and memory,’ Coleman writes; this sentiment runs through the collection and complements his interest in the movement of thought through conversation and wordplay. Throughout, he muses and observes in understated lines: ‘Can it be childlike when it comes from a child? But childish isn’t right either.’ Each poem is paired in loose conversation with a color image of a painting or sculpture from the San Diego Museum of Art. This added visual dimension expands each poem’s universe, created as they were in small pockets of time between the attentions of new fatherhood and work meetings and against the backdrop of California wildfires that smolder on the horizon. ‘I think of my wife and daughter, at home now, waiting for me only five minutes away, and how all distances are now measured as time.’ Coleman artfully captures the transcendent moments within a busy life when ‘unfocused desires squeeze through the seams.’” — Publishers Weekly
“The way this landscape can turn on you in just an instant, does feel like a metaphor for having a new baby and you’re worried about her health and so many things in our lives. I mean are days aren’t guaranteed and anything can happen tomorrow,” he said. An interview with KPBS Public Broadcasting
“The poems in Fire Season are full of friction—common word touching common word … They are also philosophical and personal. Patrick Coleman is tuned in to landscape, language, and humanity, each poem casual as office talk and heightened by their proximity to art and by the force of the sentence—such arresting sentences.” — Carol Frost, judge for the Berkshire Prize
“Fire Season is a gathering of prose poems that are smart, funny, tender, and illuminating. It is clear that we are with a writer who enjoys putting sentences together, who delights in playing rigorously with the language, crafting poems with a palpable and persistent sweetness. But there is also fire. Fire in the near distance. Fire on the hills. These poems are made of that fire. This is a powerful, strange, and beautiful book.” — Ross Gay
“These are poems of quotidian life – childrearing, commuting, working – in a place (the San Diego backcountry) where the question has become, ‘How far off is the fire right now?’ Danger and loss flicker in peripheral vision. Fire Season takes a lot into account. It feels honest, important, and perfectly calibrated.” — Rae Armantrout
“Fire Season becomes sound track to what’s outside and inside the windshield in a moving continuum with daily action, daily thought, daily daily.” — Ed Ruscha
“These quiet poems are composed of affection, worry, disbelief, and wonder, and occur often serenely amid the confounding ironies of American life. Setting these snapshots of our contemporary world beside perspectives taken from historical paintings is a subtle and moving gesture. The visual art here provides a complement and a counterpoint to the unsettled textures of the poems, suggesting that even in our current disposable reality something of value may yet endure.” — Maurice Manning
“These are lucky horses, in a way. Moved here, protected by fences, photographed often, Facebooked. I should see myself so lucky as well. I have 187 friends, plus or minus two, depending on whether I’ve posted something political recently.”
Coleman’s prose poems (each poem takes the shape of a paragraph, and there aren’t any line breaks) reflect the tension of the commute, of moving from one place to another, from a world of the familiar and into one that is decidedly less so.
But even the familiar has been rendered strange by upheavals both in the author’s life and outside of it. In 2007, parts of Coleman’s neighborhood burned during the Witch Creek Fire. And shortly before the composition of these poems, Coleman’s family welcomed a new baby.
Naturally, many of the poems are ruminations on the world his child will inherit. All parents experience this existential dread in way or another, but in the title poem, these anxieties are poignant.
“My wife saw the fire start from where she nursed on the couch. The lightning of a summer thunderstorm that came in from the desert struck the mountain two ranges over. This is in Southern California. We have a baby. There’s always a fire somewhere, and we spend our days pacing out the distances between there and now.”
The notion of “there’s always a fire somewhere” works in many contexts: the pressure of being a new parent, the collapse of stable governance, the growing calamity of climate change.
Yet Coleman’s poems are oddly soothing. Each poem is presented alongside a reproduction of a classic work of art, which adds another layer of meaning. These images of paintings and sculptures from centuries ago reassure the reader that just as the human project has endured plagues and invasions and weapons of mass destruction, we will survive this crisis. We will make more babies and more art and more problems to worry about.