Where in Canada: Sourcebooks for Our Drawings
Danny Jacobs takes us through a singular and idiosyncratic portrait of New Brunswick through the commercial sprawl of contemporary Atlantic Canada. In this excerpt from Sourcebooks for Our Drawings (Gordon Hill Press) we get a closer look at the realities of the village fires of Petitcodiac mixed with elements of prose, and speculations of generational arson.See more details below
Tinderbox: Dispatches from the Village of Fire
Burned to the ground
means nothing’s left
but the need to say it
— Lia Purpura, “History”
My conjectured arsonist hurries through prewar penumbral streets, joyous, while oil lamps pulse like backaches through waved glass. He scouts unlocked barns and warehouses, carriage houses, shut up structures glutted with hay and raw timber, backing businesses on Kay and Main. My conjectured arsonist has an eye for aridity and wither, for bad ventilation and opportune vectors, can knock a wall’s shake and feel how fast the wood might succumb, dance with oxygen, go up up, transmogrify. Chemistry through instinct. He looks at the stars: so many cinders. He licks a finger, tests the wind.
We tally fires at the Legion, the County Fair exhibit hall, the public library’s Heritage Week Community Social; we surmise, ballpark years. Hazy and half-crocked timelines.
“Oh, she’s burned, what? Five times.”
“Five? More, sure.”
“Those two in the aughts, wha?”
We say “Yep” on a quick intake of breath, what counts for casual affirmation in the Maritimes. The local histories, pages held fast by the plastic tube of comb binding, constitute the not-quite-official record of spotty citation and anecdote. Arthritic fingers scan the lines. We slide from photos from pH-neutral folders. We pour coffee from the Tim Horton’s Take-12. But no one knows how many times Petitcodiac has burned.
“Now see that, there. That was my grandfather’s store. She burnt.”
You see the photos and assume it all burned. A denuded record in black and white, pen and ink. Fire the default for the no-longer-standing, even if there’s no longer anyone to say for sure. We nod: She burnt.
Everyone in the village is a few degrees from conflagration. They had a long-lost relative who saw their business turn to foundation hole and charred girder. They can recite the second-hand accounts, the generalities. They sure as shit remember when Stedman’s went in ’93. In Village of Fire (1997), authors Robert and Mary Hibbert bold all instances of the word fire, including adjectival variants like fiery. It’s a stylistic choice that lends the book an insistent, obsessive edge. Your inner voice shouts fire! as you scan paragraphs—a mantra, an earworm, a warning. Even if looking for something else, fire foists itself upon you. Turn to chapter 12— “Fire, War and Fire” –and the fires ladder from the page, zigzagging down paragraphs, screaming from burning streets.
Photo by Flickr user James P Mann, used under a Creative Commons license.
Hard to catalogue each fire; there’s no definitive list. The histories on this point are fuzzy, contradictory, fire years blurring into one another. The Hibberts have it at nine to ten between 1859 and 1902, then major fires in 1913, 1919, 1925 (two), 1947, and 1993. That makes sixteen, by my count. While Hibbert & Hibbert place two major fires in 1925, Rogers has only one, and in 1924 to boot. The earlier Burrows starts with the 1868 fire at the Dunlop Spool Factory, then goes on to say Petty averaged a major fire every four years. He doesn’t list them, assumes we’ll trust his figuring. All three books agree that ’13 and ’19 were the biggies; Burrows bestows the Great epithet to both, and doesn’t deviate. After reading through the accounts—exhaustive, often sporadic—I wish for an archivist of fire, a position passed down like a village scribe, an ageless official who tallies and knows the number, can tell you combustion rates, how fast each took the town, how long the smoke held in the upper atmosphere of outer townships.
They all mention arson. While Hibbert and Rogers tend toward the dismissive, Burrows really speculates:
The most serious question, which might seem a bit far-fetched at first, upon deeper reflection causes one to wonder if perhaps for some bizarre reason there weren’t just too many unexplainable fires to chalk up to coincidence. Is it, in fact, possible that a closet arsonist was plying his craft in Petitcodiac – perhaps even for decades?
There’s this great bit where he dreams of hiring a specialist to investigate. Some part of me wishes that Burrows had followed through, got the municipality to pay a fast-talking gumshoe to knock on doors, trace the genealogies back to a culprit.
The histories paint the fire as predatory, almost sentient. It has agency; regularly referred to as an enemy that has “victimized” the village (Burrows), it caused villagers to be “constantly living in dread as to when another fire would strike again” (Rogers). Fire exists on the same moral continuum as the colourful characters these books detail. It is the village foe. But it’s an old friend, too, a foil for their gumption. For the archive of Petitcodiac history—the photos and self-published books, the hearsay and handed-down talk—is defined through its many burnings-down. They triangulate the narrative of the village, hold it together. Burrows has “Fire” indexed 11 times, the most after “Blakeney”— the surname of the town founder. Local history is written out of the flames; a key plot point and a lodestone in the telling. Flash burns on the map.
My conjectured arsonist grows with the fires. Maybe there’s fire in the blood, a generational pyromania. Maybe this is my conjectured arsonist’s earliest memory: it’s 1868, and he sits on an uncle’s shoulders in a frozen field. They watch a small factory burn in the distance, stacked spools in the loading yard lit like trees, falling on their ends. Firewheels on the hill. His strongest memories are the rolling spools, huge bolted cylinders trailing light like something thrown by gods; and the heat on his face, too, bonfire-close except it was so far away.
“Look what I have wrought, nephew. I was catalyst, fire-carrier. Follow in my footsteps, for your father is a weak man and I’m Prometheus of a kind.”
For what he saw was so beautiful, roaring like a storybook dragon. Like every wind rolled up since his birth.
* * *
Danny Jacobs’ poems, reviews, and essays have been published in a variety of journals across Canada, including The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Grain, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, PRISM International, Hazlitt, and Hamilton Arts & Letters, among others. Danny won PRISM International’s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest and The Malahat Review’s 2016 P. K. Page Founders’ Award. His first book, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry.
His poetry chapbook, Loid, came out with Frog Hollow Press in 2016. His latest work, A Field Guide to Northeastern Bonfires, is a hybrid lyrical essay/prose poem sequence published in 2018 with Frog Hollow’s NB Chapbook Series. Danny holds a BA in English (Hons.) from Saint Mary’s University, an MA in Creative Writing from UNB, and an MLIS from Dalhousie.
He lives with his wife and daughter in Riverview, NB, and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.
comments powered by Disqus