- Fireworks in the Graveyard by Joy Ladin
It doesn’t take a long foray in adulthood to realize it takes a lifetime to get to know oneself. Each human has personal themes she returns to and grapples with repeatedly. “I’m becoming what I’ve always been / dust and silence, but also earth,” Joy Ladin writes in the final poem of her newest book Fireworks in the Graveyard. Perhaps one of life’s primary actions is growing into one’s fullness. In Fireworks, the poet tugs on her vital threads, reflecting on the inevitable fact that each one has two ends. “I’m learning to live by learning to die,” Ladin writes. The book lives in this paradox.
Fireworks is about facing death while living a life. “I want to say goodbye to my body / before my body says goodbye to me,” Ladin writes in “Corpus.” The poems in Fireworks do both, grieving the body as a deteriorating vessel, but celebrating the wonder of having that body. In another poem Ladin writes, “I could talk about being sick, but I always talk about being sick, / because I’m always sick, but today I’m sick / and happy…” How does one appreciate what she still has as she mourns physical losses?
Ladin pulls typically private questions out into the public. “I, like you, became myself in darkness, // in carbon seams and basalt basements. / None of us is pure, we all have traces,” she writes. She ponders various deaths— not only the death of the body, but the deaths of former selves, of ways of seeing, of relationships and phases of a relationship, and the inevitability of each moment’s death. Ladin delivers keen observances and celebrations of temporariness. “Spring unbanking banks of snow, it won’t be long / before you vanish / into leaves. How can I trust // what comes and goes?” How do we appreciate sweetness without obsessing about its end? Ladin crafts space for these and other questions.
One can find endless examples of art about temporality. It’s comforting to ask questions instead of passively worrying about them. What differentiates Fireworks is the historical moment into which the book is published. In 2017, we find ourselves asking how we got here. How do we undo the forces that are trying to stuff us back into “carbon seams and basalt basements?” These forces that kill and deport and incarcerate?
“The city is full of people like me / who survived the winter / and people like me who didn’t.” I cannot read Ladin’s Fireworks, published by a lesbian press, the author a woman who is trans, and not think about how many of our friends have killed or attempted to kill themselves, how many perish due to structural oppression, and how many women especially hold together friend groups and families and our survivor selves.
“I didn’t kill myself last night…” Ladin writes in “Sabbath.” How do we resist killing (parts of) ourselves when it seems that the world wishes we didn’t exist? When we must look death in the face, how do we continue to grow and thrive? As a women and as a poet, the speaker,
break[s] apart like a family, my members
wandering off in different directions, my reptilian nature from my conscience, my stupidity from my intelligence.
She continues, “I think of this as dying, though none of me is dead.” There is a strange and poignant beauty in this look at the evolution of the self as a good death.
Ladin writes, “Listen, the blossoming evening sang, / you have no reason not to die, / but you have reasons to live.” Much of Fireworks is a litany of reasons to live, listed in lyric fashion,
wind-combed, bee-haunted, burrowed barrowed lissome lawless legless legions marching without moving, many and no one.
Such litanies are necessary. We have to share and connect with each other. We must avoid too much time inside. We have to shine while we have these bodies. Fireworks lives outside in the graveyard, the meadow, the spring and summer, the quarry. Ladin shows you how you’re...