• Amber Shockley

Other People's Poetry: "Wildfire" by Kate Levin

Let’s go, gang. Another poem. Wildfire by Kate Levin was published by Chronogram, which isn’t strictly a literary journal! This is exciting because it indicates the recognized at-large value of poetry, or at least provides at-large exposure to poetry. In other words, readers outside of the poetry community might put eyeballs on a poem. For just a second! Maybe.


As per usual, of course, I’m going to take more than a second. Let’s looks at, essentially, the first half of the poem.


"These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.

When my mother calls to tell me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

along the highway, police cars

Something awesome happened while I was reading this poem, and while I’d like to take credit for it, I can’t. It’s all down to poetry. Poetry is awesome. Even when your brain fucks up.

If anything takes the pressure off of people who are new to reading poetry, or traumatized by stink-breath grade school English teachers, or otherwise hesitant, this post should be it. I’m going to tell you how my brain glitched while reading, causing me to hallucinate a whole other poem, and it was still okay.

Also, re-reading is important.

Everything went super fine with the first line…

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell”

Okay, this is going to be normal. Easy reading. Nice and smooth. No tension, so far, which is really okay for the beginning of a poem. We need to dip our toe into the water. Everything is fine and normal.


Another rule: Poetry is never normal. Because poets.

Cue next line,

“in my throat, wild”

Ahem. I see your frog and raise you an alarm bell in your throat.

Cat got your tongue?

Well. Let’s see here. That’s some tension, isn’t it? We can think of tension as a moment of confusion or surprise. And what do we do when we experience tension while reading poetry? Become frustrated and stop reading? No. Absolutely not.

With this poem, we’ve encountered tension through a sort of surrealism, it seems, and the only thing to do, as always, is to roll with it. Loosey goosey.


Rolling on, I’ll take the next three lines in stride.

“with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

Actually? Actually, let’s back up. I want to take the entire poem from the beginning up to the point we just arrived, and I want to highlight some choice words.

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

Now, notice that one word I didn’t include was the title. Ah, here we go again. Why do I do this? Blame it on my neurodiversity, but I really would like some scientist somewhere to point, on a chart, or an animating rendering, to the little bitty part of my brain that says “No, no - skip that part” when encountering what, presumably, is a fundamental piece of information at the top of a poem.


Because if I had read the title, Wildfire, then absorbed the words I highlighted above - alarm, wild, dread - I might have been very well set up for the few lines that followed, and might not’ve thought, “Oooooo, a sunset?” when reading “the sky turns orange.” Silly me. But by “and then black with smoke,” I got it. Sort of.

Let’s do some more highlighting. Notes this time. I love music in poetry.

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

What I’ve highlighted here are the following notes: m, w, k, l, t, s

Let’s look at the effects of these notes - their brilliant use to replicate, with sound, what is happening to the speaker in the poem, thus bringing the reader in directly, albeit perhaps subconsciously, to the speaker’s experience.

The sounds of m, w and l are muted, lulling. The poem starts with the speaker waking. How many of us awake totally alert? Especially if awoken by alarm? If so, you are of stronger stock than I, by far. Most of us, I’d wager, experience some degree of muted, lulled state, however long it lasts, while we try to gather our wits about us. The repeated m, w and l sounds here, focused mainly at the beginning of the poem then fading, mimic that stupor. These sounds, perhaps entering our brain stealthily, serve as an uncomfortable counterpoint - a tension - as we’re reading, and absorbing at a more conscious level, the words “alarm,” “wild,” and “dread.” You feel, you experience, at some level, with the poet, what it might be like to wake to an alarm, still sleepy, and yet aware of some dreadful, urgent matter.

As consciousness descends upon us - the speaker and the reader - the k, t, and s sounds increase. These are sounds of alarm - the k is a small choking sound made at the back of the throat, the t and s could be a rattlesnake’s shake and hiss, or a snare drum’s war march. Through the dissipation of the lulling sounds, and the increased repetition of these alarm sounds, the reader is ushered from sleep and into fear, just as the poem’s speaker experienced it.

Cool, huh? Now we'll move on to the last three lines that we’ll look at for this post, and I’ll introduce you to my incredible, dysfunctional, amazing brain.


When my mother calls to tell me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

along the highway, police cars

Taken as is, as it really is, these three lines make a horrifying statement. The dread we are made to feel in the opening lines comes to fruition.

I want to point out how deceptively straightforward and simple the language, the storytelling, is in this poem. Without taking a deeper look, you could almost think you were reading prose. Amongst editors, there is a bit of a lip curl when lamenting “prose with line breaks” submitted as poetry, as if division were the only element of crafting a poem.

In this poem though, breaking the line is indeed craft that elevates prose to poem. Consider the meaning created by “the ranchers set all their fifty horses free” - the choice of the line’s end word - free - and it’s exuberant connotations, as opposed to “loose” or “out,” before tumbling down to the next line to have our hearts trampled by “along the highway” and it’s inherent danger, even in attempting to escape danger.


What would have happened if the poet had ended the line on “horses,” moving “free” to the next line? Visually, it would have made the lines more even. But imagine the loss of not just meaning making, but meaning-shifting, of having a poem come up and push you down the stairs from behind. It’s a choice, an important choice, an effective choice, to have “horses free” jutting out from the ledge of the other two lines.

The choices here also allow us to enjoy a moment of rhyme - just a moment, which is more appreciated than being beat over the head by rhyme - with “me” and “free.”

(Please don't beat me over the head with rhyme.)


Okay, I promised you a look at my brain. Here it is:

When my mother calls me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

On my first read of this poem, my brain totally took out “to tell” and just read “When my mother calls me,” making “the ranchers set all their fifty horses free” not a piece of information communicated, but an action that is the direct result of the speaker being called by her mother.

In other words, the speaker of the poem, or else the mother in the poem, or perhaps both, is/are such a powerful/weird force, that communication between them causes random ranchers to just spontaneously and simultaneously let all their horses go free for no other reason.

Also, I did not interpret or imagine “calls” as a phone call, but “call” as in “yell” or “holler,” as in “Come in from the fields, it’s dinner time!”



With the surrealism of “alarm bell/ in my throat” before it, I was primed to believe that ranchers would/could do anything, and that those actions could be in response to this speaker, this mother - that the speaker, and/or the mother could be some kind of magic.

Having read the poem more than once now, and deeply, I can still say perhaps they are magic. There is definitely something mystical both at the surface and below the surface of the poem, even if it is magic hoped for, perhaps superstition, as simple and profound as our belief that the tiniest of our actions might matter.

Please go read and enjoy all the tiniest actions of craft in the full poem, explore further magic from the poet, and consider the other poems published over at Chronogram.

* If you are the poet, and anything I have put forth here is wrong or offensive, please do let me know.

© 2020 by Amber Shockley.