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Review: ‘A Man’s House Catches Fire’ by Tom Sastry

A man’s house catches fire. A title poem.

What kind of fire is it? At first, the man thinks the smell of smoke is “just me going off my head// which I have learned to expect”, but the fire continues to rage all month. He steps outside and a friend asks, “Is it that time?// Are the houses of men burning too?” The man denies the reality of burning and re-enters the house.

The fire is a symbol. The man remains alive but his home – a place where he should feel safe – has become an inferno. He resigns. There’s “no help coming”. The fire is extreme, more than melancholia, but when he goes outside and is confronted with questions, he can only issue a denial and return to his torment. Perhaps this feels easier than exploring whatever out there is fanning the flames?

This book is a burning house and, fanning the flames, are losses and regrets, venal politicians, shattered identity, and feelings of powerlessness. You can hide behind walls, but the flames will reach you. Somehow, it isn’t a book of despair. While ‘In the Third Year of National Renewal’ reminds us that it is possible to consider “politics/ as just another cause of death” and to use “words precisely/ so as to mean nothing”, the poems themselves constitute evidence of alternatives: dissent from official discourse, a cry against cynicism, clarity that probes beneath the surface until truths find articulation. And, of course:

         when, in their dangerous messages
the exiles dreamed loudly

we imagined their hopes for us
and hated them, without prompting.

The apathetic hate those who offer hope – it’s a light shining on passivity, a reminder that supporters of political conservatism often have everything to lose from their own doggedness. But this isn’t a book of judgement. The poems are often written in the first person and whether the “I” is Sastry or not, it feels like he isn’t exonerating himself. ‘Thirty-two lines on loss’ has the narrator lose his glasses. He can’t see the world properly, but does “a lot of thinking”. When the time comes to pick up his new pair, he prefers the fog. “I must have really hated the idea// of functioning again.” It’s simpler to switch off than to engage, to indulge in thought rather than face either reality or dream, to rest in a house of fire as long as he isn’t actually being burned.

‘Normalisation’ showcases Sastry’s knack for conveying such ideas through sharply drawn images and memorable phrases. There is a crisis, but some days feel almost normal: there is the usual “outrage, sport and gossip” on the news, and “they haven’t yet asked you for your passwords”. The burning world rotates as before:

The wild existence the hippies wanted
is here. We are a tribe with toasters.
We sing to the fire.

Havoc becomes the new normality. In ‘Complicity’, clowns are disappearing, mounds of “red wigs” and “oversized shoes” wash up “on the mud at low tide”:

If they have left says the PM
it was their own choice.
I myself am the son of clowns.

These lines echo real political soundbites. Sastry’s flights of imagination stem from reality: the slippery words of treacherous governments and the gnawing anger of the well-behaved. “I am full of hate for everyone./ I am more polite than I have ever been” goes one couplet in the discomfortingly titled ‘We are drowning. Everyone else is Noah’. The poems rarely tell stories or ruminate on abstraction, but convey scenarios that can’t quite be reduced to logical thought or the lexicon of conventional emotion. They thrive on paradox, that point where many people find themselves caught between fear and desire, accommodation and rebellion, fury and helplessness.

It is harder to write positive poems than negative. When Sastry tries, valiantly, to channel hope, he doesn’t always convince me, but the moments when he does are worth the effort. Hope is found with other people. Isolation in the fiery house is ruinous but the narrator’s “daughter/ still young enough/ to reach for my hand when we cross the street” is a demand that life must continue until he manages to “say that one thing/ I will finally know I was put here to say.” (‘Thank You’). An act of will is necessary to navigate through chaos and depression. In ‘Man and fire move house’, Sastry imagines the “old inferno” falling from the man’s ear by a tilt of the head until it’s “no longer fire, just the knowledge of it.// I put it in my pocket.” He doesn’t abandon the fire. He no longer denies its existence, but bears its weight, a cooling reminder that flames can be overcome.

Rob A. Mackenzie

A Man’s House Catches Fire, by Tom Sastry, is published by Nine Arches Press, 2019, £9.99

Rob A. Mackenzie is reviews editor of Magma Poetry. His reviews and articles have appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry London and The Dark Horse, among other magazines. His third full collection, The Book of Revelation, will be published in Salt in summer 2020.

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