Etymology of the Living and the Dead

by Claire Millikin Issue: Fall 2015
It was once believed that fire was a living being:

fire consumed what it swallowed,
fire moved and had body and a kind of voice,
and yet fire had only one name,
while trees had many—olive, juniper, cypress—

so fire was something living
but only partly named.
Over time it emerged that fire swallowed sky,
and the skin of earth, phoenix, alive without source.

To touch this vivid thing—fire—hurts more than any other longing.
Unlike snow, fire is always itself.
There could be no category of fire, because burning is burning.
A body of water drowns, if deep enough,

liminal, between the rains,
but fire takes on the depth of all that it contains.
Black pine, longleaf, and plum,
each tree got named, living.

Only fire has no story.
Fire marks the end of stories.
And so it was the first
to be removed from the category of the living,

to be taken out of history,
the flattened needles of bad luck.
It once was believed that luck was a living thing,
but fire consumed

sticks, fruit, and needles,  
juniper and olive. Even still fire shakes in ladders of light
and the latches flash
under the doors of names,

fiercer if never allowed to enter
past the hearth’s boundary.


Claire Millikin is the author of Motels Where We Lived (Unicorn Press), a 2015 finalist for the Maine Literary Awards in Poetry, and of After Houses-Poetry for the Homeless (2Leaf Press). The recipient of CALYX Journal’s Lois Cranston Prize (2015), she has two books of poetry forthcoming, Television (Unicorn Press) and Tartessos and Other Cities (2Leaf Press). She teaches for the program in Art History at the University of Virginia.