Slow Fires by Dan Wylie and Roxandra Dardagan Britz

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

slow fires

Terry Sanders’ 1987 documentary Slow Fires ‘looks at the disintegration of library holdings worldwide due to acidic paper’. Fast forward to 2016 and not only are we still concerned with ways to preserve fragile formats such as sound recordings, but, also with the uncertainty of digitisation. ‘Save it in the Cloud’, we hear, but what happens if the Cloud, the internet as we know it, becomes inaccessible? How do we save knowledge?

Dan Wylie and Roxandra Dargazan Britz’s Slow Fires is what one can term environmental. It’s also one of the most beautiful books I’ve had the pleasure of handling in a while. Dargazan Britz’s etchings, which extend to the book’s dust jacket, give you the perhaps false feeling that if you rub it too hard, the artefact in your hands will vanish. This is apt for a collection full of Wylie’s poems of animal consciousness which are both alive and vanishing. Likewise, Dargazan Britz’s etchings are both figurative and fugitive – I think of her ‘Head in the Sand’ which I mistook for a strange Bigfoot before realizing it was an ostrich, or her haunting ‘Burial at Banket’ in particular. The majority of her animal portraits included in Slow Fires come from the series ‘Political Animals… which one are you?’ and you do wonder at each turning how much you should, or shouldn’t identifying with these fleeting portraits of Zimbabwean wildlife.

The poem titles, when grouped in the table of content, read like a separate poem:

4 Whatever hope is yours, was my life also
7 Shall I at least put my lands in order?
8 Drift in this present paralysed state
11 You walk here as a destroyer
13 People must not listen

There is a useful ‘Source of poem titles’ at the back which shows that each title comes from a book – these range from modern novels, to political speeches, to the Bible. Again, this feeds into the collection’s interest in the fragility of paper-based works, there’s a satisfying circularity in this being printed too.

From the start, you know that pessimism is the plat du jour in Wylie’s poems: ‘There’s no escaping that westering cloud / of terror and rust’ (“Even a darkness which may be felt”). Slow Fires is relentlessly gloomy, a pile-up of dark aphorisms:

This is what history is: a throne
from which one cannot descend

(from “Shall I at least put my affairs in order”?)

What’s evolution but a mask for nostalgia,
a salve for the knowledge that life
isn’t going anywhere that it can know?

(from “Perhaps this dread of transience”)

Hygiene’s the mask of the manipulative,
morality the glass house of the dreamers

(from “Your poverty will come in like a vagabond”)

Birth, our arriving in this world, we accept unthinkingly,
but we have yet to accept the leaving of it

(from “All the animals lie prostrate”)

Anything that smacks of preaching has a tendency to turn me off, but these statements chafe against less cut-and-dry moments. The dung beetle’s poem “Grander, more ominous and magical” has swagger:

The voyeurs gape; they move one; are replaced –
some ineffable treadmill grinding into the consumptive sun,
leaving the sky sulphurous with pollutants
that I cannot solve.

Hey, who do you think you’re looking at?

There’s even a certain gallow’s humour to be found in the poem “People must not listen” which is accompanied by Dardagan Britz’s aforementioned ostrich etching. In its entirety it reads:

It’s dark down here. Soft-grained. Comfy.
The wind is blowing straight up my arse.

Denial is a comforting thing, but ultimately, Wylie doesn’t want thing to get too comfortable:

Some say all this is redeemed
by your invention of the stylus or the wheel,
by your sanctifying songs, your remorseful poems.
Alone now, dust shuddering round my knees,
I think not. I despise; I accuse.
I see nothing to detain me here.

(from “Where in the waste is the wisdom?”)

Ultimately, the dialogue between etchings and poems makes Slow Fires more than an apocalyptic warning. Part-elegy, part-menagerie, part-living library, it’s more than the sum of its parts.