Book Review: By Fire
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A hauntingly beautiful collection that explores the life of a daughter seeking love and reconciliation
By Fire is a fervid debut poetry collection, retracing the life of a youth growing up in southern Indiana with a father whose mental illness took the form of an overzealous belief that he was the prophet Elijah.
Slota delves into the complicated relationship with her mother, among other strong women in her life, and all the sorrow and yearning that her mother endured throughout the years. Slota instills in each of her poems not only a palpable feeling of devastation, but also, eventually, renewal. She earnestly exposes and examines a family’s secrets and vulnerabilities; she need only describe the mother’s hands or the change in the father’s eyes and hair for us to feel the weight of all their suffering at once.
Slota leaves us with an enduring impression of a life lived in rural Indiana in the 50s-70s. She makes sure that we see, hear, feel, the beauty of the town’s nature along with an undercurrent of despair and emotional turmoil.
In the third poem, “July,” she does this so expertly: “beyond the oak trees / a rooster’s ragged / edge of sound / hollow, desperate.” The distress creeps up, slowly, and then it shows itself full force as we get further along in the poetry. The fear she felt from her surroundings is mirrored in her poem’s imagery. “Bats”is a fine example of this: “Outside the window, / pink faces grin, / black wings flap upward / into moonlight.” The collection is steeped in the ambivalence of feelings growing up in this small town where nothing and everything happened.
The young daughter is the speaker in these poems, and she so ardently admires and respects her mother, and yearns for her mother’s love—who is tainted by the loss of her first son, the brother she never knew. This relationship hit me the deepest.
Slota captures that plunging feeling of dread that comes over you when you learn something new and shocking about the one person you thought you knew completely.
From the first poem to the last the speaker is searching for an understanding of her mother. Looking back into her memory, she recalls the moments her mother had to send her father away. She remembers flashes like her mother gathering up some photographs, his radio and his false teeth, right before she put him in the ambulance.
The speaker doesn’t grasp it then, but later she knows fully well why her mother must send her father away. She morphs seamlessly from a young girl desperately confused by her mother’s sorrow into a mature woman who recognizes her mother as a strong, protective force in her life and home. I relate fully to this recognition, and I’m sure so many others will too.
By Fire does justice to the life of those with mental illnesses and the effects it has on loved ones. The safety she feels with her mom, versus the unsafe feeling of being with her father, is heart-wrenching, but Slota sets out to portray this truth of a life. The harm the father might have inflicted is outweighed by the love, and by the end of her book she creates a dynamic and complex understanding of feelings for him.
This morphing of the father-daughter relationship is beautiful and haunting, and just another example among the many of why By Fire is an exceptional work of poetry. I recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring the duality of one woman’s life: pain and beauty, self loathing and loving, death and rebirth.
There is both a silence and a bellowing call in each of these poems: the silence to quiet out the cries of pain, and the bellowing call for love. She paints a life with so many brilliant colors that all fade at once before brightening up again.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Print Length: 88 pages
Thank you for reading Madeline Barbush’s book review of By Fire by Rhonda Harris Slota! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.