Pasture Fire

J. Scott Brownlee


Call me Last Star, Worst Plague 

Reigning Hell’s Brimstone Down. 


Trunks of cedar and oak for miles 

dismantled signal my reckoning, 


which is disappearance. If you don’t 

believe me, ask the sky full of light. 


My reflection’s in it. If you still don’t 

believe after that evidence, I will rise up 


to prove I’m the culprit of this—paving blank 

as asphalt black landscape beneath me. 


Widow Maker, Satan’s Finger, Bitter Infidel 

of the Summer Grass: I am their combination. 


Without any regret, call me Absence simply. 

See?:                           I cover the land simply

third draft (9/15/13) // Pasture Fire

I’m the last star, worst plague
come to reign fire down
over every green thing
in my conflagration.

Trunks of cedar and oak
for miles dismantled
signal my reckoning,
which is disappearance. 

If you don’t believe me,
ask the sky full of light. 
(My reflection’s in it.) 
If you still don’t believe

after that evidence,
I will rise up to prove
I’m the culprit of this—
paving blank as asphalt

black landscape beneath me. 
“Widow Maker,” “Satan’s
Finger,” “Bitter Infidel
of the Summer Grass”:

I am their combination. 
Without any regret, call me
“Absence” simply.  See?:

I cover the land simply. 

first draft (10/21/11) // Pasture Fire

Our real words should / be as flammable as these.
-James Knippen


Let the hill country burn.

Let it all conflagrate.

Let the sun’s glint reflect

thick ash on everything.


Scott's Commentary

  One of the joys of writing poetry no one told me about when I first began is the pleasure of going back and rediscovering your own lines and creative impulses.  In the case of “Pasture Fire,” I had completely forgotten the poem’s genesis until I dug up its first draft.  James Knippen, a poet buddy of mine down in Texas, had a line that I riffed on after one of our impromptu workshop sessions: “Our real words should / be as flammable as these.”  At the time I was working on several persona poems in the voices of Texas wildflowers, doing my best to channel Louise Glück’s persona work in The Wild Iris while also maintaining my own aesthetic sensibility, which is closely tied to the rural Texas landscapes where I grew up. 

As you can tell from the earliest draft, I was obsessed with the vocabulary of burning things (e.g., “conflagration,” “sun,” “glint,” “reflect,” “ash”) and still am as a result of wildfires and a decade-long drought that continues to shape much of my own internal landscape.  If you drive alongside pastures that are burned black on a regular basis as a child, those scenes enter your imagination and remain in you for good—which “Pasture Fire” evidences, certainly.

The clipped lines of later drafts of the poem were an attempt to emulate fire’s brevity and puncturing capacity down the page, though I was also thinking about the idea of erasure itself and how to physically account for it.

That didn’t happen in a pleasurable, “final” way until the last draft, which I almost didn’t write. When The Winter Tangerine Review asked for a poem last year, I sent in the 9/15/13 draft of “Pasture Fire” and had it rejected.  I remember thinking, These editors are in high school.  Who do they think they are, rejecting me? 

But then, of course, that rejection was a fortunate thing.  The poem had to wait to continue getting born.  And it finally did—in large part due to that late-stage no.  Yusef Komunyakaa also played a crucial role in making this poem better.  He taught me to key in on the linkages between internal and external landscapes at a metaphysical level in my own psyche, and kept challenging me to make this particular poem better throughout the time he taught me by letting its meaning and message rise out of its own vocabulary and the erased, negative Texas landscape it attempts to praise.



Texan Landscape

Larry Levis, one of my favorite poets, writes in The Gazer Within that each poet has an Edenic place, an imagined garden of sorts she/he is always trying to cultivate and articulate but can never quite conjure.  "Pasture Fire" comes from what you might call an anti-Edenic sensibility and is as much about the Texas Hill Country's ability to erase itself as it is my own town's gradual erasure due to climate change in the region.  In 2011 we had about two weeks of water left, and that is more than likely going to happen again in future summers.  

While I am a white male who enjoys a great deal of privilege in being able to speak my mind, and have had the good fortune to be able to write poems and attend graduate school in New York City, the working class folks I write about make $7.25 an hour working at Taco Bell or the local hardware store, and I think it's fair to say the culture at large cares little about what they have to say about anything.  They're painted in a negative light as George Bush loving conservative Christians with gun holsters.  While some aspects of those stereotypes have a basis in reality, I think it's also fair to say America consistently attempts to erase the presence of the rural working class poor because they represent the best and worst of what this country represents: on the one hand, the possibility of growth, of improvement, the first bloom of a blue, dew-soaked wildflower; and on the other, the discontent and malaise of meth, of brimstone and bad loans and sin that can only be cleansed, reclaimed, by a pasture fire.

Originally from Llano, Texas, J. Scott Brownlee is a founding member of the Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class.  His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden's Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, Drunken Boat, RATTLE, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere.  He is the author of two chapbooks: Highway or Belief, which won the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, and Ascension, which won the 2014 Texas Review Press Robert Phillips Poetry Prize.  C. Dale Young recently selected his first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize.  Brownlee currently lives in Brooklyn and is the Assistant Director of the University Learning Center for the College of Arts & Science at NYU, where he earned his MFA as a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow.