This Poet is on Fire

Kirsten Kearney catches the Fire Poet at the Opera Fringe Festival

If you set yourself up as ‘The Real Poet Laureate’, a ‘one man poetry renaissance’, you are usually heading for a fall and the firing of your spin doctor. However, in the case of Englishman Philip Wells, aka The Fire Poet, it is worth believing the hype.

A select crowd at the Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick on Friday night, June 16, were treated to a manic-slow-musical-emotional journey as part of the Down District Opera Fringe.

Tracking gorillas in Uganda before conceiving your first child, 9/11, the joys of early mornings with toddlers, thoughts on death and love… diverse and perennial poetic themes maybe, but rarely have they been handled with such gusto, such a warm yet professional performance and the unnerving power of a strangely expressive right hand.

Wells’ work is so varied that it is hard to believe that nonsense syllables that delight the severely disabled children in the hospital where he works as Poet in Residence, hymns to beer-drinking, and sensitive meditations on the frozen moment when two people jumped hand-in-hand from the Twin Towers all drip, flow and rage from the same tongue.

Ironically this is not a one man show. It is a rounded performance with diverse musical influences, with Sirish Kumar, one of the world’s most famous tabla players and the Inklein Quartet, an unique string collective who play original genre-bending pieces written by lead violinist Stephen Bentley-Klein.

The poetry and rhythms played off each other in ways that lent depth and magic to both the words and the music. The multi-national performers gave credence to Wells’ call to ‘Imagine all the people, living beyond the nation’, while being allowed to be proud of being whatever nation you were born into.

The evening was profound with pathos, spiritual without preaching, activist without being offputting and was a real wake-up call to those who think poetry is dead and exists purely on a dusty page. Each renaissance is a rebirth, and in Wells’ Fire Poet, there’s even a phoenix in sight.

There Will be Poets
a version of Rilke's First Sonnet to Orpheus

A tree is rising, there - it's a miracle!
God sings a tall tree in your ear
And all is still.  In this lyric, all
Begins now; all is changing here -

Animals from the silence come into the clear
From dens and nests, into the open wood.
It wasn't guile that brought them here,
Or let them breathe so softly: they could

Only come to listen. Howls and roars they found
Too limited for their hearts. And though, before this,
The tiniest hut had held what was heard here -
An airless space of longing and fear
With a rickety old door for an entrance -

Now you build them cathedrals in their sense of sound.

From The Firebridge, by Philip Wells, (Vernon Harcourt Press, 2005)