Darren Bifford’s debut collection of poetry, Wedding in Fire Country, is hard not to notice. The punchy-yellow of the book’s cover and the bold black typeface of the title grabs at you in an urgent way. It is bright like the allure of a warning road-sign as you enter a wooded road at night.
Its brightness is not misleading. Although many of Bifford’s poems seem to revel in the fleetingness of the aesthetic experience, his poems are hardly a run of the hand. Bifford’s poetic voice is constantly engaged by a daunting community of male writers including Robert Lowell, Czeslaw Milosz, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Charles Simic, and Robert Kroetsch. Woven with intertexts and shifting in and out of a range of forms and traditions, Bifford’s sense of ephemerality is more conscientiously crafted than one might initially glean. Poems like “Nightmare” are made all the more sinister for a careful reader who is familiar with the call-and-response poetic tradition that the poem is working within.
Wedding in Fire Country is imbued with a suspicion of supposedly comforting things. The hatchet-axe on the book’s cover loses its safeguarding image as a Can-Lit survival tool and instead hovers menacingly and uselessly while the speaker in “How I Lived Briefly Among the Wolves” realizes that the pack of wolves surrounding him “knitted closer & did not care about Farley Mowat or any compassionate man” (58-9).
The first poem of the collection , “Possibilities of Prometheus,” reconsiders mythological gift of fire to humans as less of a sacrifice and more of an accident. Thus, the romantic image of rosy mountains on the dawn of the bridegroom’s wedding day in the titular poem “Wedding in Fire Country” is undercut by the fact that the nearby forest fire draws closer and “leapt the highway last night as we slept” (43), as are the wispy white clouds that are actually not clouds but smoke being issued from the fires. In “No Hurry” fire destructively liberates Bifford’s old friend as he prepares to burn “most of the junk from 10 years that hadn’t been taken for debt” (54). The image of a burning building amidst the wails of traffic and sirens in the city is disturbingly beautiful as the speaker witnesses it from the top of a roof in “Listen.”
In some ways the collection is a bit of a conglomeration of disparities. The book travels from urban to natural setting and from present to ancient time without warning. The speaker hotly apostrophizes Milosz in “Letters to Milosz,” ventriloquizes Faulkner’s Dewey Dell in a re-imagined fiction involving the biblical apostle Paul during a series of poems, and then seems to self-consciously recall a semi-biographical memory in “No Hurry” and elsewhere. Although it becomes somewhat difficult at times to differentiate voice, Bifford fluently draws affinities between these otherwise disparate aspects of his collection.
The terseness of his more compact poems such as the epistolary sonnet-like series “Letters to Milosz” reveals the sardonic wit of his language and most deftly exhibits the sharpness of his turns; but Bifford is at his best in his longer-lined poems like “Near Coral I Listen for Trains” or “Wedding in Fire Country,” which seem to unfold with their own brisk momentum.
Wedding in Fire Country
by Darren Bifford
Harbour Publishing, 2012