Backdraft is the Best
By: Margot Douaihy
representation of possession by demonic forces,
not because it’s a movie about devils, per se.
It’s about the fresh hell of need, needing,
trying to fill the hole inside. The fire hose
convulses alone, fugue-like, sick, no hands
dare hold it. I think of that maudlin scene
as I wash the car, trying to make things right
around here, letting go for a hot second.
The heavy hose surges like solid liquid, the metallic buzz of a snake’s tongue.
No need to rewatch a ridiculous film to learn how elements ravage & sustain us—fire, air,
shame, hunger. No need to know the plot
twists that let me understand arson—
how love is like torching a building,
how love is like running into the flames, how living two lives at once
can be so terribly beautiful. Even fire can catch fire. So tell me:
what biblical flood, what braid of seas,
how much water does it take to drown
the heart that fights to stay lit?
Margot Douaihy, PhD, is the author of 'Scranton Lace' and the Lambda finalist 'Girls Like You' (Clemson University Press). Her work has been featured in PBS NewsHour, North American Review, Colorado Review, The Florida Review, The South Carolina Review, The Wisconsin Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Radius of Arab-American Writers and Creative Writing Studies Organization. Twitter: @MargotDouaihy
Behind the Scenes: “Backdraft is the Best,” Margot Douaihy
I’m fascinated by pop culture as a framework to explore queer phenomenology. Some of the questions that intrigue me are rooted in perception: How do we erect the structures of consciousness and self-awareness? How does art and media shape our (individual and collective) concepts of love, self-love, and morality? I am also obsessed with poetry that narrativizes vulnerability and rumination as an embodied, corporeal experience. My poem, “Backdraft is the Best,” reflects the convergence of those interests, as the reader meets a speaker who is actively washing an object, trying to “make things right,” but admittedly is still drawn to the flames.
My aim was to yoke internal combustion to a memory of watching the melodramatic chestnut “Backdraft,” a 1991 blockbuster about masculinity, betrayal, and deception. There’s a sequence that still resonates with me: the cloying but effective scene of a firehose spinning on its own in a burning chemical plant. It’s a lost cause, and the building is a goner. The hose moves as if it is possessed, like fire itself, a force too powerful for any human to handle it—a ventriloquist dummy that went rogue. The firehose scene is overwrought, and the soaring music during the arsonist’s confession dials up the Greek-tragedy intensity. But that word “best” in the poem’s title… does it intimate a wish to ignite? (I’ll leave that with readers.)
In my voice-driven narrative poetry, I like to plunge readers immediately into an action, idea, or emotion rather than winding up before the pitch. When you start at an 11, though, you have to carry through, so tonal consistency is essential. I chose to withhold vital details (“no need to know the plot / twists”) to allow for, paradoxically, a more intimate engagement with the speaker’s difficulty owning their own desires and negotiating past-as-present.
The foregrounding of temporality interests me as queer writer because, as Elizabeth Freeman argues in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke University Press, 2010), “chronological dissonance and sexual otherness are fundamentally intertwined.” There is time inside the closet and time outside of the closet; secrets or circumstances can warp the actual “sense” of time. I am endlessly fascinated by the variety of ways artists explore and play with the materiality of time—its mysteries, trickeries, and magics. The then-now temporality is regulated throughout “Backdraft is the Best,” but the rhetorical question of what “does it take” has no answer, and neither does the speaker who, at the end of the piece, lets go for a “hot second” but is still burning.