"Voice of Fire"


Tom Cull

Tom Cull served as the Poet Laureate for the City of London, Ontario from 2016 to 2018. He teaches creative writing at Western University and runs Antler River Rally, a grassroots environmental group that organizes monthly cleanups of Deshkan Ziibi / Thames River. Tom’s first full-length collection of poems, Bad Animals, was published by Insomniac Press in 2018.

“‘Voice of Fire’ responds to Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist piece of the same name, which he painted for the American Exhibition at Expo ’67 in Montreal. Newman had an affinity for Canada, and after he died, his wife offered Voice of Fire to the National Gallery of Canada for a very reasonable price ($1.8 million), believing that Newman would have wanted the painting to end up north of the border. Its purchase in 1990 caused a Canadian-sized stir: the Gallery Director, Shirley Thomson, was called before the House of Commons to justify the purchase; for weeks, the public engaged in debates about what constitutes art and how (or if) the National Gallery should spend public money. Though it inspired many roadside knock-offs and my-kid-could-do-that arguments, the painting is now worth considerably more than its original price (with estimates as high as $40 million), and the general consensus is that it was a brilliant purchase.
 Where Newman’s title alludes to God’s fiery chat with Moses on the mount, my poem imagines the painting as ransacker, redeemer, destroyer—imagines a kind of return of that voice in the current age of fire and flood.
 ‘Vanitas’ is about the Gallery Director, Shirley Thomson, who was my aunt. She was, herself, a bit of a masterpiece.”

          1. Man and his World

     Islands rise
     out of the St. Lawrence.
     Dump truck after dump truck,
     builds the world homunculus.

     The future is dymaxion,
     is tetrahedral, hard-edge,
     pop, op, geometric—
     Voice of Fire, Mouth,
     Green Shirt, Up Cadmium,
     Firepole, suspended by steel
     cables in Fuller’s geodesic dome—
     Apollo space capsules,
     parachutes, blow-ups of moon
     and movie stars.
     Thousands escalate
     through the bubble,
     through its transparent skin
     spy Russians across the park
     rolling out heavy equipment,
     Sputniks and pamphlets.

     Over Da Nang, Phu Cat
     and Bien Hoa, the skies
     open orange.


         2. Abstract Sublime

     The flames
     boiled waterbombers
     like flying kettles,
     evacuated whole towns
     choking on soot,
     until the rains came
     and didn’t stop.

     They came shuffling
     along the gallery floor
     through half-ransacked rooms,
     busted terrines, smashed glass,
     looting so quickly pointless.
     They ate the meat dress.

     Some still dreamed,
     others hoarsely
     chanted dithyrambs—
     all gathering in the
     cathedral chamber
     to stand before
     the painting.

     That flag burning itself.
     Enriched cadmium-red zip
     throbbing against
     columns of cold-blue—

     the singing stopped
     and it spoke.


         3. Exodus

     Red zip time machine—
     figure forever falling
     through itself.

     Tell them,
     I AM sent you:
     the fire that burns
     without consuming.

     The line up
     recedes out of frame
     each waits their turn
     to pass through
     the burn radius
     emerging where a new
     gallery rises.

“One never hesitates before a masterpiece.”
—Shirley Thomson, Director, National Gallery of Canada

     The night the gallery opened
     we stole as many champagne
     glasses as we could hide
     under our stiff rural duds,
     dipped fist-sized strawberries
     into pools of chocolate.

     Aunt Shirl, herself a masterpiece:
     robes by Teruko Nakamura,
     figure-eight chignon, chunk earrings,
     schlepping VIPs through the gallery
     trailing assistants and Georgio of Beverly Hills.

     The walls were empty, silent;
     the firestorm coming later,
     when the purchase was announced:
     three stripes, one point eight million.

     The my-five-year-old-could-do-its.
     The aw-shucks Manitoba MP
     who could rip one off in five
     minutes with a couple cans
     of paint and a roller.
     The pop-up road-side
     replicas: Voice of Taxpayer.

     When Shirl died, we came together
     to tear her apart, we pillaged
     her down to the last Burtinski
     —the art of manufacturing a life
     to be carved up and hauled away.

     We spread her ashes
     in Huron County, at the farm
     near the grave of Bruno
     the headless dog.
     Everything now is worth more.