The World Stands on Its Head: a review of Between Two Fires by John Grey

Reviewed by Pete Mladinic

Between Two Fires
by John Grey
June 2023, Paperback, 101 pages, ISBN-13: 978-8119228294

The world stands on its head in a moment in poem after poem in John Grey’s new collection, Between Two Fires. The speaker is an ordinary person performing an extraordinary feat on a page with language. Grey’s topic is the human condition. Fate rolls the dice. Fate, like fire, is both friend and enemy. The people in these poems are resigned and resilient. They choose and do not choose. The poet’s concerns are vitality, perplexity and empathy.

What it means to live between two fires is conveyed in a person’s vitality. The vital signs of youth are clear in “A Boy At The Wake,” in “the moaning, the tears, the low conversations that broke out here and there,” in things that distinguish the boy from “the man in the box up front” and what is clear in the boy’s reluctance to be at the wake is his vitality. A resistance to death is also conveyed by a hospital patient in “The Rounds.”  The patient, an elderly man, is alive enough to be annoyed by whispers of the doctor and nurse at his bedside. He’s being discussed, and it’s humorous when, finally, the doctor speaks not about him but to him.  The humor is often self-depreciating, but not always.  Consider “Poetry Lesson 1,” which begins this book:

a poem is words
arranged in such away
so as not to be

Perplexity in Grey is a matter of uncertainty, of choices, chance, and fate. People in Grey move through time and space, and are perplexed. “My Connection,” with its physical exhilaration, is a good example. Anyone who has traveled by air can relate to things beyond his or her control. As the passenger in this poem travels, readers chart his emotional landscape as he sits beside a woman “who’s been all the flight working on the one Sudoko problem.” When he finally disembarks, he does his “best Usain Bolt imitation up the escalators.” What is stressful to the traveler, with only thirty minutes to make his connection, is pleasurable to Grey’s readers. It’s a matter of perplexity and ironic distance, also hyperbole as the traveler says,

Skip ahead six hours,
and I’m kissing and hugging you
like I’ve been on Shackleton’s
Antarctic expedition
and not a two-week business trip.

Empathy is the big thing.  The speaker, on the surface so absorbed in his own life, is, beneath the surface, quite caught up in our lives. His being caught up is what this book is about, us;  we are the ones between two fires.  Empathy in Grey is heart knowledge.  “The Bet” is about parents raising children.  Not just this parent.  “It’s a bet you place at a random totalizer.” Not just for one but for all. “You bet the future without even looking at the odds.”  By way of metaphor “The Bet” concludes:

So few horses running in a race
against all that can happen in this world.
And maybe a finish line out there somewhere.
Be grateful if you can’t see it.

About our human condition, no poet is more emphatic than this poet, who often makes us laugh. Grey is no stranger to satire. There are many satirical episodes, and satirical flourishes in this collection, in “My First And Last Time Hunting,” “The Hurt Does Not Inspire Me To Write,” “Welcome To The Natural World,”  and in “Regarding Love” Grey makes his point with this deflection:

The need for love is as basic as the need for
a quarter-pounder with cheese at McDonalds.
Perhaps even more so.

Irony, satire, hyperbole and understatement are tools in Grey’s poetic tool-chest. Having been raised in Australia and now living in the United States, his experience is unique, that of a person between two continents, two fires. There are many memorable poems in this new collection.  For the discerning reader, they worth reading for the pleasure of their sights and sounds.  And for the wonder of how John Grey makes his experiences ours.

About the reviewer: Peter Mladinic’s fifth book of poems, Voices from the Past, was published recently by Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA.