"Voice of Fire"


Tom Cull

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."

     1. Man and his World


Islands rise

out of the St. Lawrence.

Dump truck after dump truck,

builds the world homunculus. 


The future is dymaxion, 

is tetrahedral, hard-edge, 

pop, op, geometric—

Voice of Fire, Mouth,

Green Shirt, Up Cadmium, 

Firepole, suspended by steel

cables in Fuller’s geodesic dome—

Apollo space capsules,

parachutes, blow-ups of moon

and movie stars.

Thousands escalate

through the bubble,

through its transparent skin

spy Russians across the park

rolling out heavy equipment,

Sputniks and pamphlets.


Over Da Nang, Phu Cat

and Bien Hoa, the skies

open orange.


     2. Abstract Sublime

The flames

boiled waterbombers

like flying kettles,

evacuated whole towns

choking on soot,

until the rains came 

and didn’t stop.


They came shuffling

along the gallery floor

through half-ransacked rooms,

busted terrines, smashed glass,

looting so quickly pointless.

They ate the meat dress. 


Some still dreamed,

others hoarsely

chanted dithyrambs—

all gathering in the

cathedral chamber 

to stand before

the painting.  


That flag burning itself.

Enriched cadmium-red zip

throbbing against 

columns of cold-blue—


the singing stopped

and it spoke. 



     3. Exodus 

Red zip time machine— 

figure forever falling 

through itself


Tell them,

I AM sent you:

the fire that burns

without consuming.


The line up

recedes out of frame

each waits their turn

to pass through

the burn radius

emerging where a new

gallery rises.

     "One never hesitates before a masterpiece."

     —Shirley Thomson, Director, National Gallery of Canada


     The night the gallery opened

     we stole as many champagne

     glasses as we could hide

     under our stiff rural duds, 

     dipped fist-sized strawberries

     into pools of chocolate.

     Aunt Shirl, herself a masterpiece:

     robes by Teruko Nakamura,

     figure-eight chignon, chunk earrings,

     schlepping VIPs through the gallery

     trailing assistants and Georgio of Beverly Hills.

     The walls were empty, silent;

     the firestorm coming later,

     when the purchase was announced:

     three stripes, one point eight million. 


     The my-five-year-old-could-do-its.

     The aw-shucks Manitoba MP

     who could rip one off in five

     minutes with a couple cans

     of paint and a roller.

     The pop-up road-side 

     replicas: Voice of Taxpayer.

     When Shirl died, we came together

     to tear her apart, we pillaged

     her down to the last Burtinski

     —the art of manufacturing a life 

     to be carved up and hauled away.

     We spread her ashes 

     in Huron County, at the farm 

     near the grave of Bruno

     the headless dog.

     Everything now is worth more. 

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