The story of William Evans’s poetry collection “We Inherit What the Fires Left” is one caught not only between generations but also between worlds. He remembers the struggle of growing up in a rough urban neighborhood which left him with scars and trauma, and he cannot help but compare it to the childhood his daughter is living. These comparisons are frank without feeling cheap, because Evans has a real talent for making the mundane special. He excels at showing the reader how the smallest, seemingly insignificant things put an entire life into perspective. Right in the beginning of the book, his daughter’s frequent nosebleeds become a metaphor for the way his life has changed in just a few short decades. For his daughter, the blood is “perfectly natural,” but he does not “remember anything natural about (his) own blood.” In the same poem where he recalls physical punishment for his childhood disobedience, Evans thinks about how older generations would feel about his life now — they would think “we’re too soft.”
Evans clearly struggles with trauma from his past and survivor’s guilt about his present. After he “watched cemeteries grow fat on his friends,” how could he live his normal life with his wife and his daughter? His poems are haunted by the ghosts of people he lost in his childhood. He mourns their premature deaths, not by saying “they died still children” but instead “we put enough potential into / the ground to make a college of prayers.” Honest and poetic, Evans contemplates the effect his childhood has on his life now: “You know / the world wants to hollow you out because you / loved someone that was once your age and now / they no longer have an age.” He has countless ways to describe death like it is something completely new. Evans strips away all of the previous constructions around death and makes it raw again.
Despite the emphasis on death, Evans’s book does not deal solely with sadness — it is too full of hope for it to be just a sad book. His deep grief is counterbalanced by a profound wonder and love for his daughter. Where his childhood friends died young, his daughter flourishes with an innocence Evans never had. In a way, she is a channel for Evans to recreate a childhood filled with more joy and less fear than his own. Like any father, he sees himself in her: “she is already my mimic after all, / having taken my nose / and eyes and smile for her own.” In poems full of death and melancholy, his daughter punctures through with radiance and expectation.
Evans’s daughter is most often a motif that weaves throughout the poems in this collection, stringing them together, but sometimes she gets a poem all to herself, like “Clean.” This poem, and the others like it, reads like pure happiness distilled into a few stanzas. Evans’s love is so apparent he never even needs to use the word love; instead, he can call her “the atomic girl / who laughs at everything” or “a brand-new sun.” He trusts the reader to understand that his love is more than a word or a realization and is instead a culmination of many little moments. These poems remind the genre why it continues to write about love and death when those subjects have been discussed millions of times over — because people like Evans continue to make us feel them in new and different ways.
Even in a book defined by its skillful handling of emotions, Evans still manages to impress with his mastery of poetic form. He frequently varies his style, switching from long lines with no stanza breaks throughout an entire poem to curt, choppy lines split into small stanzas. The resulting effect is a poetry collection that keeps readers on their toes, never knowing what poetic voice Evans will seamlessly slip into next. He is also able to manipulate form to serve the emotional goal of a poem, from short lines of similar length to create a visual of conformity in “How to Assimilate” to strange caesuras and enjambments to create the scatter-brained visual of raising an infant in “Descendant.” Evans may tackle ambitious subjects, but his dexterous use of language and emotion makes his book stand out. He somehow manages to make anew the timeless topics of race and familial love in a way that deserves to be heard.