WATER AND FIRE
by Rick Cannon
For a long time
with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,
the natural cupping of the hands,
the lengthy earning of a stroke,
a man does not know fire.
It’s not until he sees how easily things melt
and slide away,
how his father went,
his mother fails,
the skin over his wife’s cheekbones
suddenly softens, is looser,
not until then does he walk on flaming grass
into the furnace of the trees
and wonder that he’s not consumed.
Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while. If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it. There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs. How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended? In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore? Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them. To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.
So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work? Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote? A few appropriate spots came to mind: a urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.
But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree. Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging. One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed. (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)
If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.
Onto the poem itself. The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments. In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists. All his energy is focused on moving forward. And then Everyman’s perspective shifts. Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place: his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents. Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it. But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.
I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles. But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials. And what does he become? A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.
I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be. But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem. Specifically, the lines
the skin over his wife’s cheekbones
suddenly softens, is looser.
Ouch. Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.
(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union. Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs: “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)
Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him. God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss! Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces. We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station. But not most men. Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.
Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men. But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.
Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop. In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks. He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children. You can read more of his wonderful poems here.