If one were to look for extensive fire metaphors in Notes for Lighting a Fire, one would most likely be disappointed. Gerry Cambridge’s first poetry collection in eight years is not so much interested in fire itself, but rather what its origins are, what effects it has, and perhaps most importantly, the consequences of its absence. Many poems, such as “Young Snow” or “Two Chirps at Mid-Winter” deal with the cold, or more exactly with the absence of a fire’s warmth quite subtly. Rather than being a simple vilification of temperature, they hint at the potential benefits that the absence of fire might have. For instance, the narrator’s agreement with the old lady’s statement “Is this no awfy, son?” might be taken as a generally negative perception of the cold, but it is strongly implied that this is ironic, or else merely polite, since the initial description of the snow is highly enthusiastic: “That day there were poems everywhere.” “Two Chirps at Mid-Winter” on the other hand is a lot more. “I saw in that white simplicity”, where emphasis should be placed on “saw”, and where the phrase “white simplicity” acts as a kind of tabula rasa, a white slate which can then be filled anew, suggest the benefits of winter. The clarity of the narrator’s vision is the result of light which, incidentally, is another effect of fire. Thus fire is both present and absent: its effects, which are positive, can be felt despite the lack of its warming presence. The clarity its light offers, then, may be seen as an instance of enlightenment. And this, arguably, is the actual point of Cambridge’s verse.
The recurring image of light is not the only leitmotiv however: birds and eggs, or else flying insects are used almost as frequently. This binds into the imagery of learning from the past, transubstantiating negative past or present experiences into positive future ones. Moreover, the poems treat the question of ancestry or origin. This is almost explicitly stated in “The Queen”:
It is Easter Sunday: she wants to begin
Her own fierce story of resurrection
Though they could kill her still
Those bleak gusts of March.
The queen wasp, in this case, is the progenitor of future generations of wasps; despite unfavourable circumstances, she will endeavour to secure her lineage’s future. If the present is bleak and cold, insight will allow an individual to grow the figurative wings that will allow them to fly. If eggs are static, and their essence is hidden in a shell, they still have the potential for an exalted life. That potential however is always in danger of being crushed, as suggested by “Blowing out an egg”, where “the egg was fresh as it could be” but which concludes “you’d flush that voice away”. The potential of the bird-to-be is destroyed, not by malevolence but by lack of reflection of the narrator, who at the time is “age[d] 12”. The greatest strength of Cambridge’s verse lies in denouncing uncomfortable truths without being bitter or cynical. When destruction does occur, it is described in respectful terms: “it was a ritual exercise in care” or
transforming the patterned container of life
into the prize itself.
The potential of the egg may be wasted, but its shell is turned into something desirable instead: as such, it is an instance of transubstantiation rather than wanton destruction. The main focus of Cambridge’s verse thus appears to lie with our past and what we make of it. Notes is not necessarily very accessible, but it benefits greatly from subsequent readings, so it might not instantly light a fire – but it will likely spark your interest.