“Pyriscence” by Angelique Zobitz






















This poem first appeared in Rise Up Review and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Listen to the poet read this poem here.


Angelique Zobitz
’s chapbook ​​​Love Letters to The Revolution is her first. She is a 2020 Best New Poets nominee, a Spring 2019 Black River Chapbook Competition finalist, and a two-time 2019 Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared in The Journal, Sugar House Review, The Adirondack Review, Obsidian: Literature & Arts of the African Diaspora, Yemassee, and many others. She lives in West Lafayette, Indiana with her husband, her daughter (affectionately dubbed “The Revolution”), and a wild rescue dog. Learn more about her at angeliquezobitz.com. Photo Credit: Mike Zobitz.



Preorder Angelique Zobitz’s chapbook, Love Letters to The Revolution at https://www.apjpoetry.org/


Poet’s Note

Recent years have led me to examine how modern policing has grown out of the vicious upholding of racial hierarchy and structures. We know that Black Women and girls/Black Trans Women are even further marginalized, criminalized, and subjected to state and personal violence at disproportionate rates to their peers. In a time of unprecedented calls for social change against the backdrop of environmental change, all of this is on my mind. What is happening with our precious resources?

As a Black Woman, I needed to tell this story of Black Women adapting, thriving, living, and/or dying in suboptimal conditions.

To understand this poem, you have to know about the phenomena of pyriscence, a serotinous adaptive phenomenon wherein a seed is released through heat or fire. In pyriscence, new blossoms require the destruction of old structures, and the forest is renewed through the burning. This is the world I envision, one where old structures are destroyed and the ecosystem is renewed for blossoms free to grow.

So my poem gives homage and eulogy to Black Women who are pyriscent. We’ve been here under heat, blossoming and thriving and dying but not before laying roots for the new. It centers the lives (and deaths) of Black Women and Black Trans Women who are statistically most likely to suffer violent deaths in the United States.

The only form I felt I could use to tell one certain truth, but also compactly reveal underlying truths was the burning haibun. The form that gender queer poet torrin a. greathouse innovated builds on the Japanese prose poem and is part invention, part erasure, and part revelation. The burning haibun was the perfect marriage of form and content for a poem about burning. It burns and it moves.

In this poem specifically, the visual movement from white space to black space doubly mimics the forest burning away and leaving little seeds scattered within and represents the voices and truths emerging from where they are buried within. This poem’s content, of course, addresses so much reality of living as a Black Woman: the awareness of my own mortality, knowing that my navigation of the world is fraught with peril and survival requires adaptation, and that even then, maybe not.

“Heat” of course has the dual meanings – heat as in intense environmental pressure and as finally revealed in the last verse, heat also as in slang for police. In that final form, it’s a stark reminder of why #SayHerName is important. Don’t forget, we’re dying from heat. It’s at turns a triumphant celebration and a devastating reminder.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

To use a received form in poetry is to inherit not just the rules of the form but its history and legacy as well. A poet may subvert and play with historical elements as much as the formal ones, but the subversion is always informed by the form’s genesis and usage. Even the most modern sonnets, for example, are never truly free from their Italian and English roots, and the fun of reading and writing them is in exploring how much to embrace, reject, ignore, or even pay homage to the ghosts of Dante, Shakespeare, Petrarch, Sidney, and others. The popularity of the sonnet has waxed and waned since the 13th century, but contemporary poets are creating new versions that invigorate the dynamic between form and content and challenge readers and writers to reimagine new possibilities. For example, Wanda Coleman’s and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets and Tyehimba Jess’s Syncopated Sonnets subvert and/or embrace traditional sonnet elements with an awareness of the form’s history, deepening the resonance of the resulting poems.

Todays “Pyriscence” by Angelique Zobitz makes extraordinary use of a modern, invigorated traditional form. As Zobitz explains in her Poet’s Note, “Pyriscence” is written as a “burning haibun,” a form created by poet torrin a. greathouse as an adaptation of the Japanese haibun. The adaptation includes an innovative element of erasure in its movement toward the concluding haiku; greathouse describes it as “a prose poem that erases itself, then erases the erasure to create a haiku. The burning haibun also tends to focus on an internal rather than external landscape and holds at least one image involving fire” [Source here]

Popularized in the 17th century by Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, traditional haibun were often used in poetic diaries or travel journals, most notably in Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, which recounts a journey in alternating passages of prose and haiku. Because there are no metrical or rhythmic elements in the prose portion, the haibun’s formal characteristics are mostly content-based and evolved as the form traveled and modernized. Bashō’s tend to begin with a concentrated description of a place or scene, followed by a haiku that distills or comments on the scene, explores a single element of it, or makes a zinging statement of what’s at stake. As the haibun evolved across time and various cultures, practitioners both embraced and subverted these elements so that it is recognized today as a concert of prose and haiku. Some poets use the form more narratively while others employ it more traditionally to explore a natural scene. In my own practice, I’m interested in the tension between the freedom of the prose and the compression of the haiku—I use it to explore liminality. If you want to know more, read poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s marvelous essay, “More than the Birds, Bees, and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun.”

The burning haibun adds a stanza between the prose and the haiku: an erasure of the prose passage which will itself be further erased to reveal the concluding haiku. What I admire about this distillation is that the erasure makes discovery work of the prose, digging beneath the surface to reveal novel elements and ideas by connecting the language with new syntax and structures. The intermediary passage literally uncovers new elements. The resulting haiku, like Bashō’s, can be a distillation, a commentary, or a new angle on the topic. The revelation that comes from making use of language present in the poem from the beginning deepens the resonance of the closure.

I can say little of Zobitz’s “Pyriscence” that she doesn’t explain better in her eloquent Poet’s Note, which demonstrates how much intention she put into the combination of form and content in choosing a burning haibun for her poem. When I first encounter the poem’s dedication to an alarmingly long list of Black Women and Black Trans Women who have suffered violence and death at the hands of a racist, transphobic society and police force, I have to reckon with more than just the prevalence of this violence. Only some of those names are familiar to me, and so I also must recognize my own willful ignorance of and complicity in their erasure and violent ends. With some simple Googling, I can learn many of their stories and those of others who, at the time of the poem’s composition, “we have not learned of,” and I accept this as part of the work the poem asks me to do.

Tracking a traditional haibun, the poem begins in the natural world; we are in “the woods,” noting how “a lodgepole pine seed sealed tight with resin…can only be opened after calefaction has broken it apart.” That a tree in the forest not only contains the seeds of fuel for future fires but also relies on fire to procreate imbues the poem with danger from the outset. Peril is everywhere, and “calefaction,” a term referring to heat transfer in nature, is often the means of transformation. Next, the poem reveals that “We” (the first-person plural narrator and other Black Women) “can’t go into the woods and come out the other side untouched.”

Zobitz sets up an important contrast here with her imagery, noting the difference between the dandelion seed  “outfitted with parachute free to float and grow” and Black Women who are “tough seed or tree or strange fruit or kindling.” The tuft of white dandelion seed allowed gentle passage and ability to thrive wherever it lands implicates a system that is increasingly understood to prefer and protect white privilege and comfort at the expense of others. The poem reminds us that others tends especially to include Black Women and Black Trans Women, who must constantly embrace “adaptation” in order merely to survive, much less blossom and thrive.

As the poem moves into erasure, the syntax becomes fragmented, highlighting key elements— “tree,” “kindling,” and “fire”—that comprise the speakers’ experience as they “go into the woods.” The significant-if-subtle departure from “we can’t . . . come out . . . untouched” to “we…come out touched” moves the poem from theoretical recognition of dangers faced by Black Women to actual, devastating experience. The erasure dispenses with the more gentle and metaphoric elements of the first stanza to state more concisely that “Black Women are strange fruit.” This allusion to the chilling song (“Strange Fruit”) by Billie Holiday, who burned brightly and suffered immensely in her all-too-brief life, is another painful note of recognition sounded by “Pyriscence.” Like the poem, Holiday’s song explicitly addresses trees, and anti-Black violence:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees [Source here]

“Pyriscence’s” concluding stanza, a further erasure of the first two, distills the work of the poem to a single statement: “We Black Women are dying from heat.” I appreciate the intense focus of this haiku-like stanza, an explicit statement of the main idea after all the brush and kindling have been burned away. These words are seared into my consciousness as I leave the poem, and its journey from beginning to end clarifies and simplifies even as it destroys.

Although I drafted this column before the Northern California wildfires, it would be difficult for me to conclude without commenting on the thick cloud of smoke just outside my window. As I write and edit now, San Francisco is surrounded on all sides by fires raging through grasslands and old-growth forests, towns and suburbs. The effect is apocalyptic, with dimmed yellow skies and ash coating every surface. In my view, these fires are a direct result of climate change and blatant disregard of indigenous fire management practices that kept the land safe for generations. The forces that work against the preservation and protection of our natural resources sometimes feel so entrenched that I worry we will destroy the environment before we can change prevailing attitudes. While this isn’t precisely the danger that Black Women and Black Trans Women face in Zobitz’s poem, the wildfires do evoke the heat on which the poem closes. I see parallels, too, in the disregard, the danger, and the terrifying devastation.

As fire evacuations continue and more land is consumed, there has been heartening news: Some mighty redwoods thought lost have withstood the blaze that consumed Big Basin, California’s oldest state park. These trees, some more than two-thousand years old, are singed and battered but still standing, adding to their collections of scars from past fires. This news of trees, fire, and survival holds out the same hope that “Pyriscence” does when it refers to “serotiny,” the healthy proliferation of seeds and growth that can come after a destructive force like fire. Nevertheless, we have to ask for better for our Earth, for Black Women, and for Black Trans Women. Celebrating survival isn’t enough if we aren’t also working as hard as we can to create room for future growth. I’ll leave the last words for Zobitz, whose Poet’s Note asks us not just to celebrate the resilience of the Black Women and Black Trans Women who adapt, survive, and flourish in the flames but also to remember their sisters lost to violence, in a poem that is “at turns a triumphant celebration and devastating reminder.”


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