"Voice of Fire"
Tom Cull served as the Poet Laureate for the City of London, Ontario from 2016 to 2018. He teaches creative writing at Western University and runs Antler River Rally, a grassroots environmental group that organizes monthly cleanups of Deshkan Ziibi/Thames River. Tom’s first full-length collection of poems, Bad Animals, was published by Insomniac Press in 2018.
"'Voice of Fire' responds to Barnett Newman's abstract expressionist piece of the same name, which he painted for the American Exhibition at Expo '67 in Montreal. Newman had an affinity for Canada, and after he died, his wife offered Voice of Fire to the National Gallery of Canada for a very reasonable price ($1.8 million), believing that Newman would have wanted the painting to end up north of the border. Its purchase in 1990 caused a Canadian-sized stir: the Gallery Director, Shirley Thomson, was called before the House of Commons to justify the purchase; for weeks, the public engaged in debates about what constitutes art and how (or if) the National Gallery should spend public money. Though it inspired many roadside knock-offs and my-kid-could-do-that arguments, the painting is now worth considerably more than its original price (with estimates as high as $40 million), and the general consensus is that it was a brilliant purchase.
Where Newman's title alludes to God's fiery chat with Moses on the mount, my poem imagines the painting as ransacker, redeemer, destroyer—imagines a kind of return of that voice in the current age of fire and flood.
'Vanitas' is about the Gallery Director, Shirley Thomson, who was my aunt. She was, herself, a bit of a masterpiece."