Reviewed by Samantha Hui
A dedication to the South; an indictment against corrupt ideas of god
“so next time you question why / the south is full of / lonesome / ghosts/ remember tall Hatuey / who burned alive and for his / trouble / now lives as a / brand of / cigars”
Love Letters from an Arsonist may be about how bleak the world seems to be, but the underlying tone is a desire for hope and optimism. The collection is filled with ghosts and history and personal experiences. Berg’s writing exemplifies the haunting and the rage of the Southern Gothic genre.
“if my heart was a womb i’d sow it with salt and lye / so naught would grow but tumbleweeds”
Love Letters from an Arsonist is divided into three sections called Epistles: “Salt River Blues,” “The Midnight Mass,” and “Pinecone Son.”
“Salt River Blues” tells readers legends about Grandma Voodoo, Carcosa, and witches at the bottom of wells. The title poem “love letters from an anarchist” encapsulates the haunting tone of the first epistle. In the poem, the speaker’s father burns himself alive but not before spitting out what the speaker calls “pinecone sons.” The pinecone sons only grow once there is fire. It seems that the children of this father will grow up in the face of annihilation and will become stronger because of it.
“still it feels good to worship God-in-the-Three-Piece-Suit on sundays when the rabbit ears pick up local public access broadcasts and preacher comes into the trailer with his teeth white as the lamb he eats to say that i can be rich like him if i give now.”
“The Midnight Mass” is a biting letter to the false prophets and false idols. This epistle is vengeful against millionaire televangelists and those who harm others in the name of “God.” The speaker questions the value of God and the value of heaven if innocent people have to die and suffer on Earth. This section makes intriguing and captivating choices such as giving the Bible verse “James 5:1-6” a poetic form and making the character of God into a simple man who merely hasn’t considered the consequences of his actions.
“so when the good book tells you that when the end of days comes we will perish in flames, don’t believe it, ‘cause fire is the heart of you and the world looks mighty dry to me.”
The final epistle, “Pinecone Son,” leaves readers on a more hopeful note. The poem “Fly-United” depicts a man on an airplane who dances with joy when he finds out that the Cleveland Cavaliers have won. The speaker is moved by this man’s joy and desires to experience the emotion this man displays. Though perhaps more accurate than hopeful, this epistle captures a feeling of longing. The subject of Berg’s poems seem doomed to their fate, and it could be easy to become nihilistic and accept their fate as is. But the speaker of poems in the final epistle suggests that they desire more than has been given to them, and they crave a love that has been lacking in their life.
“the ocean is deeper than the grave and / i fear drowning less than being alone.”
Berg’s writing is lyrical and profound. The poems in the collection utilize the lower case almost in entirety, giving readers the sense that the speaker is speaking truths in hushed tones. People will often use the old adage “Without the darkness, we can’t truly appreciate the light;” however, this poetry collection questions how much we should value the light if it is at the expense of a darkness that is so torturous.
“And if you have that light in you, i ask you now / share it just a little more often / for those like me who live in darkness / and spend our lives without”
Love Letters from an Arsonist captures what is gritty and vulgar about people and shows readers how this vulgarity actually has a beauty to it. Conversely, this book examines the rich and beautiful and reveals how there can exist corruption and hate hiding behind. The poetry acknowledges that there is an underlying sickness in our country and has the courage to articulate what that sickness is. I highly recommend this book to those who want to experience a real and raw portrayal of the ghosts of the South.
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