Off the Fire Road

Haines Eason

Off the Fire Road
by Greg Wrenn
Green Tower Press
2008
$7.00

Poet Greg Wrenn is classically attuned, but not in any classical sense. His first collection, the chapbook Off the Fire Road, is a brazen, electric collection of poems exploring clandestine desire and tracking said desire amid the AIDS pandemic. On the one hand these poems track discreet sexual encounters along a fire road—a set-aside stretch of dirt traversing unwanted land, a place meant only to give access to somewhere else. But then there’s the other hand: before the reader can settle into the fire road motif—and it is very easy to fall right in step with Wrenn’s five to seven syllable lines and quick stanzas (he prefers the couplet and tercet)—once one is comfortable inside Wrenn’s meditations on passion in these times, one is then, perhaps, jostled into imagining a surgical procedure in which a man is fused with a horse, making centaur. It’s by this last surprise that I mean Wrenn is classically informed, and after a very new fashion—his fresh poems explore classical Romance and Christian motifs with such immediacy that the poems’ combined effect is nothing but startlingly visceral.

Individually, too, the work shines. In “My Thomas,” Wrenn contemporizes the story of Apostle Thomas by forwarding the often ignored aspect of romantic love contained in that Biblical parable:

          Sweetly he appeared 
                    to me with a gash under
          his nipple. Suddenly the slit
                    I had desired to thrust into.

          Only he saw me entering
                   Him, eagerly, with my finger.
          —How could I stop myself? Ecstasy, 
                   how I’ve made a faith of you. (3)

Note how the line construction “his nipple. Suddenly the slit” both captures the immediacy of the wound caused by the centurion’s spear—the abrupt barbarity of the action—and how the same line intimates something miraculous—the idea that the nipple, an erogenous zone that is also closed, could suddenly open to permit sensual entry. Going further, this latter reading could even be seen to erase the act of wounding, remaking the gory opening into a wholly intimate site, given the context of this poem.

Beyond Thomas, there are poems in Off the Fire Road addressing Reuben and Joseph (which explores the idea of fratricide), and the Christ-child, as in “One of the Magi”:

          Buggy baby, the Thou 
          In the deep feedbox

          that rams snort around,
          I’m shaking a vial 

          of my fragrant
          blood. Other resin’s

          in my tatty pockets.
          O Mumsy and “Dad” 

          and you donkeys braying
          toward Aries and Vero Beach,

          you hogs inhaling
          half-thawed Swanson slops—

          clear the barn, he’s
          mine. I see his unhealed 

          wound, a fresh
          umbilical stump

          that purses and dilates
          so urgently.

          Do I unstopper,
          pour, and smear?

          Gift him everything
          human, myrrhed virus? (7)

That Christ could be brought more fully into the human realm—perhaps made more fully human is the assertion?—by the introduction of HIV is a revolutionary foray into new poetic territory. Many of Wrenn’s poems explore uncharted ground as boldly while managing to posit such risks within the realm of the interpersonal. This makes the largeness or rawness of the events described somehow immediately comprehendible. Meeting the Christ-child becomes a palpable, possible thing; it is an event fraught with dark emotion—with guilt and white-knuckle restraint.

That there be something left to entice you into buying the book, I’m leaving the best of Off the Fire Road undiscussed—I was tempted to quote extensively from Wrenn’s Centaur surgery section (weighing in at a full quarter of the collection). Simply know that the section is devoted to a long poem involving a Dr. Angel from Brazil, and that it leaves the reader with the nagging question of whether or not the surgery should be taken literally, given how richly the operation is described. Is Wrenn really fusing man with beast, or are we being led by the nose into allegory, into a description of a most deep pairing between lovers?

In Greg Wrenn’s poetry one can easily let himself be distracted by the mystical surfaces and allegorical flash. But it’s important to remember that underpinning these motifs is naked, firsthand truth delivering a bare commentary on human desire. As mentioned above: when you read Fire Road, think of a gravel secondary cutting through a cane break or marsh grass, a liminal place stripped of the accoutrements of developed society. Cutting across the unconscious land, this road is a raw insertion of civilization into nature. Here sometimes appear pairs of anonymous strangers who meet to exchange intimacies away from the notice of society at large. These people, bound in their anonymous desire, are perhaps something like ancient devotees of Pan, or Dionysus/Bacchus. Wrenn is a formidably conscious poet—dangerous, in the best sense of that word. Once he has that conception of the road and its travelers in place, you’ll soon realize that he’s asking you to consider the nature of desire itself—is it not also a fiery, solitary road?  Does it not tear through the unnoticed, last soul of the wilderness, linking such a place to this tedious human world?

Capture