between the lines: paper and wood are the same 

paper and wood are the same

by Justin Tabbett 

 

You taught me that burning books was okay.

Not the ones you buy, the ones filled with hours of labour from countless hands,

No,

Just the ones we write.

 

Those books are a feast for the mind, a thing to toil over and chew through,

Whereas the books with our stories are food for flames.

There’s just, something about the way our

hurt combusts, 

The way the smoke is cathartic as we inhale,

The way each word is perishable. 

 

Yet, when I found you in this act, you told me not to tell 

Him.

It makes me wish that, when I had the chance,
I had burned my book too,

My letter.

 

That which I had poured myself 

into, onto, page or pages.

I can’t remember the ink from my tears,

Nor my story from kindling,

But I do remember hiding my small twigs and dry leaves under my bed,

And I remember finding them later,

Not in my hiding place, 

But on your bed.

My hurt, pried, taken, misplaced,

Exposed.

 

I remember knowing that you had read them,

And seen them,

And I remember that

we didn’t talk about it.

 

So, when you ask me what is wrong, and I say I’m fine,
And stare at you with eyes of cooled coals,

Know that it is this moment, and dozens more that

Scream at me.

The voice of my broken trust enveloped in silence,

And my desire to feed myself to fire.

Know that whilst I had written the letter to you, 

It wasn’t a letter for you.

Even now I wonder, what would your reply have been?

 

Burning books is okay, 

and keeping secrets too?

Analysis by Ellie Rowe

I have never been one for owning up to my feelings. It can be hard, and awkward and ugly, and in this poem, Justin Tabblett perfectly explores the painful juxtaposition between the cathartic experience of pouring your heart out and the humiliating experience of having that vulnerability exposed. 

 

Filled with the beautiful, evocative imagery of book pages engulfed in flames, the poem begins with an emphatic affirmation of the ‘freeing’ sensation of writing, of sharing and then burning these words, burning these feelings. ‘There’s just, something about the way our hurt combusts’, the speaker remarks, ‘the way each word is perishable’. The emphasis is not only on sharing feelings, but on the shared experience; the narrator emphasizes that burning things is a communal act – ‘whereas the books with our stories are food for flames’. However, despite this emphasis on the benefits of sharing, the poem is also characterized by its emphasis on the need for hiding things from one another. The speaker notes that the addressee, when caught in the act of burning something, asks the speaker ‘not to tell / Him’. The ‘him’ that this refers to is never revealed, a small secret-within-a-secret in itself. Later, the speaker recalls their own act of concealing ‘small twigs and dry leaves’ under their bed. At this point, the narrative of the poem becomes about what happens when what one was hiding comes to light, by reading a letter they were not meant to read – the one letter that hasn’t been burnt. 

 

It is comforting to think that whatever you write does not have to have a permanence, that it does not have to change things, but, as the speaker comes to find out, it sometimes does. The speaker’s letter is not meant to be read (‘whilst I had written the letter to you/ It wasn’t a letter for you’), it is only meant to be destroyed, and yet it is read, and the narrator is ultimately humiliated. What was meant to be secret has been ‘taken, misplaced/ Exposed), destroying the speaker’s vulnerability in very different way to the fire, leaving words that should have been left unspoken hanging permanently in the air. 

 

Thus, at the core of this poem is the fundamental fear of the truth being discovered, of saying exactly what you feel, to the person who produces those feelings, and having to endure their reaction. When this does happen, there is no cathartic ‘burning’ or resolution – the narrator remarks that ‘I remember knowing that you had read them/ And seen them / And I remember that/ we didn’t talk about it’ – which only exacerbates the need to hide or conceal, because revelation does not produce the desired results.  Following the betrayal of their confidence, the speaker is upset and enraged. Although they look at the addressee with ‘eyes of cooled coals’, a great fire rages within them, and they express their desire to feed themselves to it, to put themselves through the cathartic process. However, despite the speaker’s anguish, they cannot help themselves wondering what the reply might have been. 

 

Ultimately, Justin’s poem is a powerful and melancholy exploration of things left unsaid, and things left unburnt. The poem ends on the haunting and thought-provoking question ‘burning books is okay/ and keeping secrets too?’. Although the poem offers no answer, my personal opinion is that burning books is okay, and so is keeping secrets too. 

helicon.magazine@gmail.com

© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol