Brother Fire by W.S. Di Piero
Even in the wake of his eighth published book of poetry, W.S. Di Piero seems to be in denial as an established poet. His introduction at a December reading at Chicago’s Newberry Library included a critic’s past comment that Di Piero is “in the Academy, but not of it.” During the reading’s Q&A, the author drove the point home, remarking that he’s not part of the writing culture, that he prefers being on the street “rubbing elbows” and “mixing it up.”
I was suspicious. In the business of poetry it makes sense to avoid looking lofty or inaccessible, since those stereotypes drive so many people away from reading the stuff in the first place. This guy, I thought, is trying to flex some street cred and I’m not buying it.
But I couldn’t stay wary, because W.S. Di Piero reads like a cop. In his charcoal suit, burgundy shirt and silver tie, he looked a lot more like his South Philadelphia roots than his current home of San Francisco. His speech was punchy and accented, his commentary sparse and to the point. A few times during the reading I closed my eyes and laughed at the ease with which I could pretend that Al Pacino was reading me a poem.
I don’t mean to rag on Di Piero; it was the sense that he felt cornered at the podium that made him seem sincere and relieved my fear of literary pretense. So let’s trust that he still is W.S. from the block, even if he’s “mixing it up” in a teaching gig at Stanford, because his book, like his persona, is all about finding the shepherd in sheep’s clothing.
Brother Fire is a reference to the Catholic saint Francis of Assisi, who, Di Piero explained, addressed objects in nature as Brother or Sister. The title and its related frontispiece “Brother Francis to Brother Leone” elaborate the landscape as a machination of God, wherein each creature, object, and force works in a grand system manifesting the divine will. Human life, existing within that system, becomes a continuous task of discerning and separating the wheat from the chaff. When Di Piero, in the guise of St. Francis, writes: “Brother Ash / the less I become of what / God made me the more real / I am in His heart,” there is an echo of Yeats’ great line: “Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire.”
Faith isn’t really a question for Di Piero -- the presence of divinity
humming away in the background of the everyday is what enlivens his plain-style
diction. At its best, his conversational tone works so subtly that some of the
most artful poetry almost slipped by me; only in rereading did I notice how
his nonchalance gives way to lyricism and touches of unpatterned meter. Di Piero
constructs holy underpinnings to day-to-day life, but he’s not writing
that horrendous plastic-bag scene from American Beauty. Brother
Fire is sure that God is present; what it examines is our floundering in
the physical plane, the way the world reveals the divine while separating us
There are moments in Brother Fire when the mortal coil, for all its beauty, becomes stifling. In “On the Island,” Di Piero adopts an unusual sensuality that starts as a pleasant surprise but soon whips up to a sense of uneasiness. In the span of four lines he goes from the enjoyably tactile “a darker mass / of spined oily leaves” to the gooey “slipped on creamed / guava-blossom flesh.” The sensation is similar to Gauguin’s later paintings of the tropics, with those rich, saturated colors that almost turn the stomach. It is a skillful use of diction -- I felt as entangled in the language as the narrator in his surroundings.
The paradox of the physical world is handled most beautifully in “All in One Day,” in which humans are “blood ghosts… passing through a world that doesn’t exist, / or exists in the mind of God.” Like much of Brother Fire, the imagery of the poem is alluring, even while the narrator is contained “inside matter’s reechy stuff.” As when he is “held and rocked by the L’s steelworks,” there are moments that flirt with captivity.
So what do we do, we poor humans, blessed with awareness of God but trapped in the secular world? We mow, we iron our clothes, we celebrate Halloween, New Year’s, and the Fourth of July. Di Piero infuses longing into our mundane routines and emphasizes their nature as ritual. And with a few exceptions, it’s engaging. Di Piero’s knack for weaving complex spirituality through sensory description -- all bundled up in rarely-faltering plain style -- won me over. For all my chiding, the man runs Stanford through South Philly and comes out on top.
What gets frustrating -- aside from Di Piero’s penchant for the occasionally brutal enjambment (“high- / schooler”) -- is the author/narrator’s constant inaction. If I pick up a book called Brother Fire, I expect some shit to go down. But while Di Piero creates lovely undercurrents, he sometimes relegates the poems’ foregrounds to still-lives or collections of observations that dilute the intensity of his creation.
That said, two of my favorite poems in the book involve a sort of metaphysical thrashing about. In “Susanne on the Sofa” the maimed female character comes at us with such tenacity that her disfigurements become erotic and commanding, trophies of living, like the side mirror smacked off of a speeding car. In “The Kiss,” Di Piero autobiographically recounts a priest telling him not to join priesthood. When the author says “some nights / I sleepwalk, curl inside the tub” the confusion of faith and anxious desire is apparent. The priest questions his motivation: “What are you running from, my dear / at morning mass five times a week?” The assurance of those two lines of tetrameter, sudden among the surrounding free-verse, makes his point. Di Piero’s no holier or more certain than the rest of us, and maybe because of that, we can trust him.
Brother Fire by W.S. Di Piero
Alfred A. Knopf