A review of Review of River City Fires by Derek Annis

Reviewed by Heather Campbell

River City Fires
by Derek Annis
Driftwood Press
Dec 2023, Paperback, 41 pages, $9.99usd, ISBN: 978-1-949065-29-9

Derek Annis’s chapbook River City Fires takes us on a journey through a “city of contradictions”, evident in the water and fire of the title itself. While this is the real city of Spokane Falls, Washington, where the author was born and still lives, the collection is far more focused on the internal subtext of the lives touched – or perhaps torched – by the city. These lives crystallize abstractly, in writing that is sharp in its absurdity, touching on trauma, trespass, and the parallel encroachment of the city on the natural world.

We’re not taken through the streets of this city as much as we are taken on a tour of language. These poems are driven by sound, and a tone that lulls us until images catch, tumble open, or almost combust. Pace and momentum shape the collection, delivering softly-stated violence often inflicted by the natural world upon itself. In Still Life with Razor Blade, we see “night cut evening’s /throat to let the dark out.” Slowly a more urban landscape encroaches on this violence and manmade objects join in: in Aviary, “blackbirds splash/against the walls/like bags of nails” and “[f]rom atop their towers of salt/blond children sing/bullets into existence” (Independence Day). While we do see the hard edges of the city, ultimately what seems to be on fire here is a landscape of memory, colored by loss, loneliness, and trauma. 

The poems introduce images that break above water abruptly, as though to show that the surface we were looking at maybe wasn’t water after all, so much has the calm been shattered. But at times these jarring images feel isolated from the rest of the poem, as though that sudden surfacing drowns out the poetic world that has been created up to that point. In Dysgeusia, “[t]hey’re sweet as children/in a river of mud/with their mouths open wide like baby birds/on an autopsy table.” As stunning as those lines are, it’s hard to recall what the original ‘they’ referred to, or what the perfectly crystallised baby birds are leading me toward – or away from. This may be exactly the author’s intention. “I want to feel less like I’m writing a poem, and more like I’m documenting its movements,” says Annis. “These poems find their way by following sound.” Perhaps we’re being led softly down a route as though the destination is never in doubt – toward those combustible images – but we’re just not supposed to know where we started. 

The author has experienced trauma, and the collection draws on this personal history. These multi-layered metaphors could be seen as a way to literally achieve distance from such trauma. Annis says, “…it’s often the case that traumatic or ecstatic experiences are particularly difficult to transfer [to the reader] by using facts or details rooted in realism.”  And so we have an industrial abstract, a landscape grappling with its memories of itself.  

These poems lull us until they explode, a feat perfectly captured in Descent: “in a fit of turbulence, the plane shakes free/of its wings, born again as a bomb.” Substitute ‘poem’ for ‘plane’ and the collection is well summarized.  

About the reviewer: Heather Campbell is a Montreal-based poet with publications in Grain, Prairie Fire, CV2, The Capilano Review, and PRISM International. Her reviews have appeared in Grist, the Women’s Post and Dance International Magazine.