Tuesday 13 June 2023

Review by Harry Owen of "Wildfire" by David Mohan

Where does one begin with the ‘wildfire’ running through this excellent collection? With an attempt at definition, perhaps.

The obvious one is of any raging, destructive conflagration that consumes vast areas of woodland, brush and veld, devastating wildlife and threatening human habitations. Even in a world increasingly familiar with the devastation caused by anthropogenic climate change it still shocks to read the first lines of the title poem, ‘Wildfire’:

           The world is kindling for a dropped match … 

           the fire spreads like dawn
           igniting brush, forest, grass, it cuts
           black footprints, a poacher’s report
           in backwoods, on the street.

Different forms of wildfire emerge, from the strange incendiary mixture of ‘Greek fire’ used in ancient warfare, to the mysterious will-o’-the-wisp and luminescent ‘foxfire’ of the imagination, something half actual, half mythic, wherein

          wildfire will sleep between dreams
          of lake water and reservoirs
          riled and vicious and ready to terminate
          this touch paper planet.

The ecopoetic spirit of Wildfire – expressed in the recurrent motif of burning – is clearly evident, as in ‘The Field Fire Almanac’ where 

           you might find a thousand 
           charred spiders, larvae,
           crickets, beetles, slugs,
           two centipedes: a mass grave 
           just the potash of dust.

Other forms of burning, psychological and emotional, smoulder in poems that explore close human relationships of one kind or another – friend, lover, spouse – experienced in times of despair or loss (‘Black Dog Tattoo’; ‘Gorse Fire’; ‘Black Light’). In the yearning poem ‘Votives,’ for instance, we learn, without being told directly who is being addressed, that 'I wanted // more than this for you, I swear, / a bonfire, flames, a burning ship.'

And in honour of Oscar Wilde, a fellow Dublin native, David Mohan pays his moving tribute to the great man after visiting the hotel room in Paris (‘Hôtel d’Alsace’) where he died, sick and destitute, in 1900. 

For all the recurrence of ‘black’ and ‘fire,’ I very much enjoyed these finely crafted and emotionally powerful poems, genuine amusement appearing in the wonderfully dark humour of ‘Vacuum’:


            I like retraction, reversal
            of the Hoover’s stomach—
            disembowelled it reveals
            what’s left to settle in a room.

            I find pockets of lint,
            cough-balls of fluff,
            a static vest
            of vacuous fabric;

            what’s through with happening;
            the fall of dust become edit—
            yarn bulbs of stuff,
            a bolus strung out to a mess.

            Unravelled, I relish strewing it,
            returning it to the carpet,
            to mattresses, polished surfaces,
            like a mourner emptying ash.

About the reviewer
Harry Owen is the author of nine poetry collections, the latest being Thicket: shades from the Eastern Cape (2022), and editor of three anthologies. Before emigrating to South Africa, he had been appointed the first Poet Laureate for Cheshire in 2003. He lives now near Stellenbosch in the Western Cape winelands. His website is here and his blog is here.

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