“Man on Fire” by Martin Vest

Martin Vest


At first he looked nice lying in the hearth.
On the end of a torch he kept Frankenstein away.
He lit the streets on a dark walk from a seedy bar.
When you wanted to dance he danced.
When you wanted to sleep
he was a lamp that wouldn’t shut off.
He seethed and roiled in his body of tongues,
climbing the walls like a madman …
He flickered and snapped.
He grew to a roar.
Alarms went off, sirens sounded,
the throat of his upturned flask
chanting go, go, go,
like a flammable cheerleader,
but you stayed …
His smoke clung to your skirts
and coated the dishes
as he tumbled from room to room
screaming more, more
You remember the night that you met him.
There had been others to choose from—
the drowning man who sat next to you
groping at your blouse as he sunk
to the bottom of his whiskey and soda—
the rain-maker with cold gray eyes
who stared into the melancholy
of his gin and lime.
But Man-on-Fire never stopped grinning,
Man-on-Fire with his twenty shots of everything,
with his flash-paper sleights
fueling the crackle of their own applause—
And you, parched wind,
whistling like a spoke, like a runaway train,
howling in your body
for a keyhole of quick escape,
for a fast way through the wall—
What would you want with water?

fromRattle #28, Winter 2007
2008 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor Winner


Martin Vest: “If my house were haunted, I would toss buckets of flour into the places where a ghost might hide. Eventually, the flour would find its mark, and the ghost would be given a form. When I write, I often begin with only a sense that something is there—a presence of some kind. I start throwing words around. With a little luck, they hit their subject and a poem appears. I’m always shocked by what they look like.”

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