Either Swallow Fire or Iron Jaw
Every time I looked at this photo…I had the same thought, it looked like the
[gallows], but then when I looked at it blown up it didn't look so bad. I have lots
of photos of aerial acts hanging from telephone poles. It must have been nice for
acts to come into a fair and have poles already up. —Bill Strong “24 Hour Man”
At first she worried she would become a fire
eater as well—: sleepwalking she found herself
tenterhooked, swifting through cupboards for safety
matches, for the kick of slow-acting
wicks her mother had long since
stashed. But who didn’t love how a mouth
could clench could hold onto something, more than
how it could let go? To let an object slip
into the stomach—easier than bracing the whole
heft of a body on a line.
She started with the insignificant—picture a glass
neck twisted between teeth: wet kiss of a cold
beer opened; the latex-dressed
pinkybone of the dentist tentatively held
in dark cusp between molar & molar.
Then everything a testing—shoulders, leather
belts, the too-quick give of a water
Her mother had also believed in starting small
things—a series of self-fires, a scatter of tongue-
snuffed matches here & there swallowed
whole. The child of an unholy
roller—: a daughter a burning pink
mouth. Eventually each phosphorous
flame became a habit: luck & hunger.
Did a mother never wonder what it is to be held
by a scene: the criminal about to drop
to death, the already gathered
crowd expecting spectacle? To be the woman left
dangling-alive by the iron rind of her
own thirty-two teeth?
Before each show she flashes them
a dry smile, pictures herself picturing
her mother’s matches: an arson
piling up—first rows, entire books,
then boxes & boxes of just-licked
no-longer-flames sliding along a throat
until the slick sticks settle and
stack evenly inside her; until a full house,
burning, swallows her.
Cori A. Winrock
"Either Swallow Fire or Iron Jaw" first appeared in Indiana Review, Issue 31.2 (Winter 2009).