Tramp in Flames

by Paul Farley



Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry
to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.
We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch
from the Fantastic Four. We can switch to art
and imagine Dali at this latitude
doing CCTV surrealism.
We could compare him to a protest monk
sat up the way he is. We could force the lock
of memory: at the crematorium
my uncle said the burning bodies rose
like Draculas from their boxes.

            But his layers
burn brightly, and the salts locked in his hems
give off the colours of a Roman candle,
and the smell is like a foot-and-mouth pyre
in the middle of the city he was born in,
and the bin bags melt and fuse him to the pavement
and a pool forms like the way he wet himself
sat on the school floor forty years before,
and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.

Notes on the Poem

Paul Farley manages to juggle intense images with devastating emotions with aching human compassion ... and a dash of sly wordplay, all in one swift, breathless and truly incendiary poem. It's the wordplay that starts things off, sending us as readers on a careering course to a devastating conclusion. (Let's revisit this previous Poem of the Week while we await news of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist!) As the Poetry Foundation glossary states, a simile is a comparison made with “as,” “like,” or “than.” How clever and ironic, then, that Farley commences with a simile for a simile, in effect. How quickly, too, do we realize that we will not be shielded by layers of language and linguistic constructions from the force of a horrific scene occurring right before us. With vivid, fantastic examples, Farley mocks very instinct that comes into play when we're faced with but don't want to accept something so shocking: "We can switch to art" or "We could force the lock of memory" ... and then he uses those very devices to make us see, even smell what is happening. In fact, he grinds the lock of memory to make a grim and pathetic metaphor connecting the unfortunate soul before us and heartrendingly connects him back to childhood and innocence. In the midst of horror melded with helplessness, the poem compassionately acknowledges the mortality of the person, by simultaneously using the power of language and stripping it to its unvarnished essentials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *