Cocoanut Grove My life began with the fire


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Cocoanut Grove

My life began with the fire,

glimmering in the birthwaters.

The voices beyond my bedroom wall

were murmuring a memory.

My father’s mother died in the fire.

He said: Nothing would be the way it is

If she had escaped to Shawmut Street.

Been saved. In this way How is it?

palled and quenched my days.
Such is the virtue of messages

irrefutable and enigmatic –

they are receptive to reinterpretation.
I stared at a wire service photo

fixed with brutal light, a firehose

snaking through soaked debris,

faces slack with shock, abandoned by disbelief.

How compelling for a family

to have such a story to tell.

Nothing would be the way it is.

To speak of a desirable world,

the listening leaning in, entranced.
It was November in Boston,

women collapsed waiting

for their coats, the ceiling’s satinette billows

crackled and melted and were drawn

into their throats.

A shoe goy wedged in the revolving door.

A face was pressed against glass.

The fireball: described as bright orange, or bluish

with a yellow cast, or bright white.
The Cocoanut Grove burned in minutes, in 1942,

with a huge sibilant exhalation.

I tell this version as if before an inquest,

but even a single night evades judgment,

bloated with storied fact

and unassignable blame.

Such a story should be told quickly

or not at all. Allure of the lurid past,

corrosive worm of remembrance,

the nozzle’s snout regressing

through ash and debris –

it is difficult to adore the damaged world

without abusing it.

I told the story for many years,

then I resisted. The scene of disaster,

portable into the future like installed art,

burned up the present like a painted poster,

gaudy ink its own accelerant.
When flames rage at the generosity

of oxygen and race up the stairwells

where we wait for the music to begin –
when the inner life is unformed, flame-like –

who hasn’t seen shapes and faces in the fireplace?

I move within spaces constructed

on the sites of catastrophe, grateful

when these renewals inspire

such indifference. Our purest gaze,

in the atria and the lobbies,

even as the alarms sound, evacuations rehearsed,

the streets filling with imaginary survivors.
I tell this story

to abandon it for something like the sleep

settling on the boy like asbestos.

To turn away from terror

and touch a charred and unexplained world.
A story to survive the clearing of its smoke,

dissipating over many tellings, centuries.

Overtaken by events,

what does the boy do? Strikes

matches, sets fire to the fence

next door, conceals himself

and listens for the sirens.


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