Pascal’s Fire by Kristina Bresnen

With its multiple voices, surreal combinations, and religious motifs, Pascal’s Fire reads like a postmodern oratorio. Kristina Bresnen’s long poem, “Speaking in Tongues,” begins with Hestia lying in a hospital bed. As Greek goddess of the hearth, she is associated with heat and home – hence her connection to the titular fire. Although most of the sections of the poem appear in prose paragraph forms, their rhythms and sounds speak in poetic tongues. After the alliteration of Hestia and hospital, the first sentence concludes with a stronger poetic presence in metaphor, assonance, and consonance: “lashes scabbed with sleep.” If scab suggests blood, then the lashes belong not only to eyes, but also to punishment that would cause blood to flow. From the visual “lashes scabbed” the aural intervenes in the onomatopoeia of both words experienced in a different tongue. Bresnen’s poetry speaks to the ear.

“Bresnen makes an impressive name for herself in this debut colloquy; she notices, and should be noticed.”

            The initial sibilance is part of this speaking: Hestia, lies, scabbed, and sleep lead to “twist” in the second sentence: “Her feet push up against the footboard and twist the sheets like kelp around her legs.” Like a martyr or prisoner, the wounded patient is bound up, her feet pushing against the footboard, her legs twisted in sheets. The simile tightens the twist through the locking sound of “like kelp” and the final legs. From lashes to legs, Hestia is arrested and speechless, waiting for the speaker to take care of her: “I feed her water with a dropper and, when I look, I flinch to see her tongue, raw and caked with mucous.” The parallelism of “I feed” and “I flinch” connects the speaker to Hestia through action and emotion, both verbs further connected to the tongue of language. “Raw” echoes water and dropper, while caked hardens mucous. Moribund Hestia with scabbed mucous tastes but is tongue-tied.

            She is surrounded by “Scattered half-drunk cups of juice and tea”—scattered echoing the earlier scabbed. She is also surrounded by brighter notes and tones – “white carnations glowing buoyant in a bowl of water by the window.” That full bowl of water contrasts with the half-drunk cups and drops of water. “Time passes in strange increments, plotless and thirsty.” Bresnen’s poetic paragraphs proceed incrementally, evoke a strangeness, and an intertwined narrative that thirsts after truth. “The light blurs, shimmer of heat above the clanking radiator.” In this twilight zone the synaesthesia of sight and sound blurs, and the radiator throws off the heat of the goddess of the hearth. In much the same way that the poet processes her visual field, “I see it bend, refract, displace itself.” Pascal’s Fire is a displacement of tongues, each participating in sacred polyphony.  The tongue on the book’s cover rehearses the poet’s anatomy of sound.

            The second stanza or paragraph begins with “This bed is a raft” – a raft that floats from setting to setting, but also splinters into fragments, each piece flowing and colliding with other voices and places. “I strap the planks with willow bark and punt off from the shore.” Hestia and speaker coalesce, the former wrapped in kelp and pushing the footboard; the latter strapping planks of bark, and pushing off the shore. The poet covers Hestia with a shawl and marks the time in red – colour of blood and scab. As soon as the reader turns the page, (s)he is struck by a sudden connection to Hestia’s name: “To hesitate: from the Latin to stick fast, stammer in speech.” This stuttering zone of hesitation becomes a central theme of Pascal’s Fire, as various religious figures stammer in their indecision between faith and doubt. Hestia’s proximity to the hearth sets Blaise Pascal’s tongue ablaze, while the narrator sticks fast to her.

            We embark: “Think of the tongue as a ship’s rudder.” This tongue steers the reader from stanza to stanza, from voice to voice, and place to place. Bresnen’s tongue leaps from rudder to an abandoned hangar with two thousand people. “A preacher exhorted us to speak in tongues,” but the poet “could not speak.” This contrast between preacher and silent speaker leads to Paul’s address to the Corinthians: “If anyone speak in a tongue, let one interpret.” Much of the poem addresses interpretation – the hermeneutics of Hestia and the exegesis of Moses and other reluctant talkers. Bresnen quotes from the Book of Exodus: “And Moses said unto the Lord, O Lord, I am not eloquent.” Bresnen’s reluctant ventriloquism develops through the rest of her poem. Her hesitations cite a Sufi mystic, a Torah scholar, Prince Battus, the burning of Moses’s tongue, Isaiah’s tongue, Rilke, A.R. Ammons, and Saint Jerome. She reaches Pascal’s rented flat in Paris on November 23rd, 1654, when he writes the word FIRE and sews it into his coat before he dies.

            Her survey of stuttering includes Marilyn Monroe, Martin Buber, Augustine, Flaubert, the Desert Fathers, and Emily Dickinson. In her history of stammering she introduces the German surgeon, Dr. Dieffenbach, who cut triangular wedges out of tongues to help stuttering patients; there was some blood and no anesthesia. “Dr. Dieffenbach sets out across the desert” with his surgical tools; his tongue is parched and caked with mucous. These words carry us back not only to Moses’s desert, but also to Hestia’s hospital bed. She reminds us that the Hebrew word for desert, midbar, is connected to speech. Together, tent flap and cave mouth tongue the desert. In her ineffable oratorio, the voices of Simone Weil and Virginia Woolf also appear. All of these voices recombine as the volume nears its end, the echoes themselves reminders of Besnen’s stuttering process in Pascal’s Fire.             Her inclusion of Dickinson’s poem leads towards a promised land of poetry: “It always felt to me – a wrong / To that Old Moses – done — / To let him see – the Canaan — / Without the entering –.” All of these operatic mouth-pieces feed into the speaker: “Aslant in the splintered timber of my raft, my feet propped against the bedrail, I wake.” Dickinson’s dictum to tell it slant surfaces on the raft and on the rain that “slants against the window.” Flaubert’s Three Tales lies flat on the speaker’s chest and causes triple repetitions: “Dusk, dusk, dusk …. beep-beep-beep …. gone, gone, gone.” She repeats “ditto,” itself a repetition of voice and trace, a stammer of fire and faltering. Dusk is a time of hesitation, ditto its stammering. Speaking in tongues, Bresnen makes an impressive name for herself in this debut colloquy; she notices, and should be noticed.

Kristina Bresnen has published poems in Canada and the US. She is from Montreal and currently lives in Vancouver.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (April 4 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 64 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965436
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965439

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.