Poetry Review by Dean Steadman

Brent MacLaine, Prometheus Reconsiders Fire (Charlottetown: Acorn, 2016). Paperbound, 88 pp., $17.95.

Prometheus Reconsiders FireThe two poems prefacing Brent MacLaine’s Prometheus Reconsiders Fire provide insight into the collection’s inspirational foundations.  The opening poem, “The Northern Flicker,” describes the morning arrival of one of these New World species as it flies “from the east” to announce “something new, something just released / upon the day.”  There are echoes here, both in content and tone, of the “high argument” championed by the English Romantics, particularly Wordsworth, as the poet’s mind, in transaction with nature, is transported to a heightened state of consciousness that informs and consoles.  The bird’s plumage—“the splotch of redness on your cheek”—is seen as “memory’s mark of immolation, / the sign that every burning must bespeak / a promise in the ash of what’s undone.”  It is from such encounters that the poet has come to understand how the acceptance of change, including death, is paradoxically life-giving in its ability to intensify the experience of the everyday: “Thus, wary of death and with watchful eye, / you peck the earth eager for life—then fly.” Naturally at home with its earthly existence, the bird is empowered not only to survive but to embrace life in full flight.

Skillfully concise, “The Northern Flicker” serves as the groundwork for a secular theodicy—a theodicy without an operative theosthat underpins this collection.  Here, MacLaine is engaging in a tradition of thinking that, with the progressive secularization of the modern world, has as its focus the ontological significance of replacing the centuries-old Judeo-Christian view of a controlling Providence with a subjective teleology where the journey to personal redemption is to be understood as coterminous with life on earth in the here and now.  It is a world view intent on restoring self-coherence and moral purpose to existence in the modern world where the human psyche, no longer centred by religious beliefs, has become dispossessed and fragmented.

The second prefatory poem, “Prometheus Reconsiders Fire,” provides us with insight into the ethical dimensions of MacLaine’s thinking.  Prometheus, we know, was the great benefactor of humankind who stole fire from Olympus against the will of Zeus and gave it to humanity so that humankind could survive on earth.  Zeus punished Prometheus for his disloyalty by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus where, daily, his liver was gouged out by an eagle, only to be regenerated overnight due to Prometheus’s immortality as a god.  Zeus also sent Pandora to earth with a box that contained “gifts,” including all the evils deadly to humankind, which she released, closing the lid so that only foresight remained inside, depriving humanity of hope.

The poem begins with the sun rising “like a great red wing with many feathers,” an unnecessary reminder for Prometheus of Zeus’s relentless vengeance and the eagle’s daily return.  Yet, rather than regret for his “misdeed” and its consequences, Prometheus finds solace in knowing that the comfort he has secured for humankind is more than something physical:  “Regret?  Not when darkness falls and I see / the hovel windows lit along the forest edge / all down the coast—their flickering, however dim, / lets me know, we share the signalling of stars.”

Still, Prometheus’s thoughts are not without pause for reconsideration:  “Rock and flesh—is that the story here? / The dumb crumbling of time layer by layer / and always the body’s nervy watch for pain.”  He anticipated Zeus’s retribution but the torture of life on earth goes beyond expectation and, looking out on the world from his rocky promontory, Prometheus questions if the “ceaseless cycling of the hurting and the healing” is the sum of earthly existence.

Prometheus, however, endures, and this in itself transports him beyond his personal suffering to a realization that his endurance can by example be an even greater gift to humankind than the gift of fire:  “… my unflinching, self-shaped quietude, / I am proud to say, will be my call to generations— / though I admit, the future and its purpose / become a dying whisper in the trees.”  It is a faint gift of hope—hope that others may be inspired to persevere and arrive at a stage of achieved maturity where they too can find meaning and moral purpose in cultivating a selfless concern for the welfare of others.  As the poem ends, Prometheus watches a distant boat “bobbing beneath its dirty puffed out sail, / heading for a far shore” and, intent on encouraging the craft in its noble efforts, he shakes his ankle chains to make his “bruising knell like chimes upon wind.”

MacLaine has structured the collection so that it closes with three poems grouped under the title “Relics” in which the observance in Catholic theology of First, Second and Third Class relics is reconstituted to categorize the “remains” of a tree of personal significance to the poet that has been uprooted by a storm.  It is another example of MacLaine’s assimilation and reinterpretation of traditional religious concepts as constitutive elements of a secular understanding of the human condition.  Together with the prefatory poems, “Relics” serves to complete the ontological and ethical framework that contains and informs the other poems in the book.  These works alternate between nature and urban themes, sometimes with homespun humour, as in the poems in the two “Fire Hall Suites.”  Here, building on the Promethean fire metaphor, life is viewed through the cautionary eyes of the “Sign Person,” who uses a roadside sign, “a frontispiece for cheerfulness, rescue, and relief,” to share his “drive-by wisdom” with fellow urbanites by posting such maxims as, “A spark neglected makes a mighty fire,” “Carelessness does not bounce, it shatters,” and “Always leave yourself an emergency exit.”  These are poems that enrich the compassionate appeal of Prometheus Reconsiders Fire and provide the collection with a meaningful balance as MacLaine the naturalist and MacLaine the urban sign maker work together to “bespeak a promise”—the promise of hope for a renewed humankind, a New World species.

—Dean Steadman

As in The Malahat Review, 198, Spring 2017, 102-105