Poet and essayist Deborah Cummins begins her third poetry collection, “Until They Catch Fire,” with an epigraph from memoirist Patricia Hampl: “the dry twigs of a vanished life . . . are rubbed together until they catch fire.” Fire, aptly represented in the gorgeous cover art by Jeffrey Haste, appears in these poems sometimes as flame but mostly as illumination. These 43 poems, many of them responding to the deaths of the poet’s brother and mother, provide a kind of illumination for both speaker and reader.

Cover courtesy of Deerbrook Editions

Early poems capture the gut-punch grief of her brother’s sudden death. “On the Morning Of,” one of several references to the fire of the book’s title, evokes the skewed reality of bereavement with references to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Just as no one noticed Icarus plunging into the sea, everything churns on as usual (“the lobster boats chugged toward /deeper water”) as her brother’s body lies “in the crematory chamber / . . . being burned up.” Another poem, “Medical Examiner’s Report,” presents clinical details (“skull sliced open,” “left lung collapsed”) that startle the reader in their coldness. Cummins reasserts her brother’s humanity with the simple use of his name, “Joe’s 1625 gram brain,” and by calling him brother and son.

While Cummins, who lives in Portland and Deer Isle, also shares the “irrefutable, overwhelming absence” of her mother (“Departed”), she goes beyond grief to shine a light on that troubled relationship. “Windows,” a poem in five parts, uses the motif of illumination, as light from a window, to offer several visions or re-visions of the mother. The speaker recalls her mother’s voice soothing “as if she rocked me in her arms,” and then doing laundry in the basement, bathed in the “rich amber hues” of a Vermeer painting. Another vignette shows mother and daughter side-by-side as they look out the window, longing for closeness:

. . . rather than looking out and away,
we might face each other, discover two women
with sorrows and broken dreams,
our gaze narrowing, our vision broadened.

The narrator muses that she’d paint her mother as a Madonna with light spilling over her “like a mantle,” and finally depicts her in the nursing home gathering “bits and pieces” of memory that create “the shape/she . . . had made of things,” mirroring the task of the poet.

While the loss of brother and mother form the heart of this book, nearly a third of the poems offer other moments from Cummins’ life: a few minutes of solitude in the ruins of Sant’ Eufemia (“Illumination”), breakfast with a granddaughter (“Breakfast Geometry”), and a trip to the supermarket with her husband (“At The Grocery Store”). These glimpses, besides providing counterweight to the poems of grief, flesh out the speaker, still as keen an observer as the little girl who loved the “shadowy / coolness, the hushed expectancy of twig and leaf” (“In the Treehouse”).

The final poem of the collection returns to the archetype of fire. The narrator of “Walking Shaw Prairie after the Burn” chooses to burn both literally – telling her family of her wish to be cremated – and metaphorically: “I prefer / the fire of a well-lived life.” This choice echoes the assertions of the collection’s opening poem; “So It Happens” presents an “Eve” who “knew / exactly what she was doing. /Not falling from but into. Not succumbing / but choosing.” The final image of the “controlled burn” of a prairie “to invigorate growth” suggests a spiritual rising to counter Eve’s fall. Overcoming the weight of grief, Cummins’ brave narrator chooses a fully lived life, lifting herself and the reader into a “cathedral of light.”

Jeri Theriault lives in South Portland. Her poems and reviews appear in The American Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, The Texas Review and The Collagist, among many others. She is a 2019 Maine Literary Award winner. Find her at www.jeritheriault.com

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