Atar Hadari on Daniel A. Nicholls
The title of “hearth gods” leads you to expect knick-knacks, pottery, painted things—the sort of idols people have stationed around a fireplace, but what the first line gives you with its demotic, un-capitalized evocation of grandparents as “gram and pop” is a child’s voice, definitely a child’s ungrammatical and evocative recollection, a voice calling on the past and making it sacred. It is also clearly a vernacular and pastoral voice—this is a land of porches and yards, clearly, where your grandparents do not chat, they jaw. By the end of the first stanza we know we’re in the countryside, that the children whose point of view the poem is told from (“us” in line 6) are abandoned somehow, gone feral. And yet in its formality of structure, its quatrains and its couplets, this is a deeply conservative, even nostalgic poem—so what we have is that classic conceit, the noble savage, the artless child who is wise beyond their years, what we have here is Huck Finn telling us all about how things went wrong out there in the wild even before his useless Pap ran away.
When the grandparents are humanized in the second stanza they’re still inhuman—crackling into fiery conversation like logs of wood. Even as stanza four brings us into the twentieth century with its afghans, the evocation is still of pre-twentieth century fixtures and social patterns—the center of these people’s lives is not their conversations with each other but the fireplace; in fact, their relationships are all wood, to be chopped with bare hands, shaped into shelter, burned in the occasional jaw and occasional internal cookery, as there is something inside Dad which makes him seethe alone in his study, quite apart from the heat that draws them all together, the heat of the fire which is nourishing, the warmth of the afghans which is nostalgically evoked, a kind of magic Gram had that Mom does not.
Stanza six makes that conflict explicit—everyone but Dad is willing to enjoy the popcorn-like sound and comfort of the blazing logs, everyone but Dad enjoys taking in heat and making it a community, unlike Dad who generates his own heat in his study. And as Dad’s bourbon glass rattles in his room—is that the demoted study, or does he shuffle from a study to a bedroom?—the conflict thrashed out in the poem is set squarely before you—you can be committed to liquids—that seethe, or rattle into a bourbon glass—or you can be committed to fire. Fire breaks out of wood in conversation and makes a home. Liquids, unlike fire, swim away from home. What the thin white smoke knits is “something to be finished above”—that is what makes the grandparents hearth “gods,” not simply objects like everything else the poem is about. The grandparents have the ability to create something that goes on, something that rises into the air when they court and spark, and it is their ability to tend that flame, to tend a home, that the poem finally celebrates. It is a poem of thanks. A poem of tribute to where a family came from and what it finally survived, what allowed it to rise and knit, get beyond the dark.
This essay (as well as the poem it is responding to) first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. They appear here online for the first time.