In her introduction to Fire, a collection of short stories, poems and images from Margaret River Press, editor Delys Bird describes the primal place of fire in our culture, and its kaleidoscopic exploration within the collection.
Echoing this sentiment, David Milroy’s opening story ‘Walardu and Karla’ weaves the traditional story of Karla, a fire that burns for twenty years, into a tale of a husband waiting for his wife to return from hospital. There are flickers of fire throughout the story – from the lizard cooking on the coals at night, to an unsmoked cigarette, to the final image of ‘the distant horizon where a spinifex fire burned.’ Fire is ever-present, an inevitability, and Milroy depicts this in the connection his characters feel to the legend of the twenty-year fire and the companionship the land has with fire, even if it brings about unwanted endings.
There are stories of families fleeing the coming bushfires, of fires from ancient rituals and mythology, and from Australian history. Brooke Dunnell’s ‘The Pressure Suit’ examines the physical and emotional toll of fire through the story of a schoolboy, whose external injuries mask the internal struggle of losing his mother in a domestic fire. Through all these stories the reader is left with one conclusion: fire is inescapable.
The poetry in the collection displays the spectrum of fire as an event, from its beginnings in Moya Pacey’s ‘Building Fire’ to the transformative, conversational and metaphorical aspects of fire in Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s ‘Playing With Fire.’ And finally there is disaster and its aftermath, with Paul Hetherington’s ‘Bushfire’: catastrophe renders life into ash as ‘particles of memory’, scattered and incoherent and leaves us with a teenage girl seen ‘by three men walking/ on the road out of town/ although no girl lived there.’
The images punctuate the stories and poems throughout. Sharp and vibrant photographs of bushfires and charred landscapes combined with paintings such as Djambawa Marawili’s ‘Garrangali’ and its accompanying story, give testament to Fire as cultural document of Australian landscape. While the inclusion of oddities like Wikipedia explanations of the colours in fire overstate the thematic richness of some of the images, their inclusion in the collection is effective.
Fire works as a dense and layered collection, and while there are some obvious explorations among other more surprising and subtle entries, there is minimal overlap. The occasional contradiction between the images, the stories and the poems – destructive or renewing? loss or discovery? – illustrates starkly the untameable nature of fire and its intertwined nature with the country.
Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. His writing can be found at craighildebrandburke.com.