This summer is marked by smoke, our town covered in an urgent haze from nearby wildfires. I sympathize with the neighboring communities that are directly impacted. Homes burned, life plans changed, suddenly, and without much warning. In Carrie Jerrell’s narrative poem “The Fire Tower” we first meet a willful girl determined to make the steep, revolving climb up a fire tower staircase and we follow her to adulthood where she faces an unexpected, terminal diagnosis. The three stanzas in the poem represent a distinct movement through time (a beginning, middle and end) and I appreciate how Jerrell incorporates images of fire and the fire tower throughout the poem to tell this brave story. The little girl rebukes her brother’s taunts until “his wails ran through the summer trees like/flames.” Both the hospital and the “spiral staircase” of her DNA are reminiscent of the tower’s iconic architecture. She envisions the view from the top of the tower as an “autumn blaze.” These physical places, our touchstones, can unknowingly offer comfort through change and mirror the grace that comes from accepting time and uncertainty. In the final stanza, the narrator revisits the tower, now condemned, and remembers her own “initials scratched like undeciphered codes” that are “rusting/away.”
Eight, mouthy, and proud, you didn’t want his help,
so while you watched the stairs revolve below
your feet with every gust, your father watched
you climb the last three flights dizzy, on your hands
and knees, before your brother, crouched by the door,
jumped out to scare you, and you missed the step.
Which felt worse, time’s yawn as you went down
or air across your bit-through lip, you don’t
remember, but you slapped him, hard, and sent
his paper airplanes to the ground in shreds,
holding your forced apology until
his wails ran through the summer trees like flames.
At sixteen, you climbed there with your first. Shed shoes,
dress, slip that disappeared down sixteen flights
of darkness, wearing your sweat in beaded stars
across your collarbone, a universe
you wanted him to rule. Next day in church,
you lied about the bruises from your fall.
When your turn came to answer Heidelberg,
What does the law of God require of us?
you stretched your skirt across your knees and passed.
From the office window on the sixteenth floor,
you think trees circling the hospital
seem predatory in their brilliant orange.
Your doctor holds the model DNA
as he explains the flaw in your design,
your treatment options, how much time you have.
The double helix turns, a spiral staircase,
in you from the start, sending you back
to see it one last time, aging, condemned,
the first steps broken. You recall the climb
of Luther up Rome’s Scala Sancta, raw-kneed,
steps kissed with Pater Nosters, how he asked,
And yet, who knows if this is true? You know
that posture, practiced since you dreamt yourself
alone in the tower, waving handkerchiefs
of pages torn from a book that didn’t end.
And even though your legs can’t carry you
to the top, the picture of what’s waiting there
is clear: the autumn blaze, spray-painted hearts,
initials scratched like undeciphered codes,
your name somewhere among them, rusting away.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Carrie Jerrell
Carrie Jerrell’s debut collection, After the Revival, received the 2008 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Waywiser Press. She is an assistant professor of English at Murray State University.
Above image by Balint Földesi, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.