Explain the poem "Nighttime Fires" by Regina Barreca, emphazing the father and his fascination with fires.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What an interesting but heartbreaking poem for the narrator!  “Nighttime Fires” by Regina Barrera uses the first person unnamed narrator to recall a part of her life that as an adult she tries to understand. 

This narrative poem is written in free verse.  It is divided into two stanzas.  The first stanza describes the family following the sound of the sirens and the smoke to find a fire.  The second stanza details the narrator’s memory of the fires and her father’s reaction to them. 

Several literary devices add to the imagery of the scene:

Metaphor—“the wolf whine of the siren”—a comparison between the howl of the wolf and the fire siren

Simile—the fire engines are described as moving “snaked like dragons.” In the Chinese parades, when the people dress up like a dragon and the body moves from side to side…this is the impression that the child received as she watched the confusion of the scene.

Imagery… The scene to the family was a festive.  The description is too happy for such a devastating event when some family loses their home.

The description of the father reminds the reader of the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small.  When the narrator’s father sees all of the destruction of some rich person’s house, he smiles from a “secret, brittle heart.”’

Stanza 1-

The father would find a fire that he wanted to observe.  He would have the mother get all seven of the children up in their pajamas even if they were sick, put them in the car and drive fast toward the fire. 

Here is the key to the father’s reaction:

 “It was after my father lost his job…

No information is given about the circumstances.

The father likes to do crossword puzzles with a pencil.  His anger would raise its ugly head when he snaps the pencil in two.   

The children enjoy the smell of the fire and watching the flames.  Yet, they are children and do not realize the consequences.

2nd Stanza

If there were a fancy car in the driveway, the father especially enjoyed the show. The child saw that her father looked as though something was being set right.  Again, the father shows his bitterness toward the rich.

The narrator remembers bending her head back to watch the sparks. 

“My father who never held us

Would take my hand to point to falling cinders…"

Showing his children, these fiery, destructive scenes make the otherwise, unemotional father take the hands of his children and show them excitedly the cinders covering the ground like snow.  How does this impact the children in their future?

The mother knows that this is not a good thing.  She watches the father, not the fire.  When the time, comes for the family to get back in the car and return home… she is happy. 

The mother sleeps on the way home.  The speaker remembers seeing her father’s face in the mirror. She was awe-struck that his father’s eyes reminded her of the hallways in the houses that were filled with smoke.

The poem describes a man who is lost in his anger and does not think about the impressions that these scenes would make on his children. In addition, it is hard to understand why the mother would tolerate the children being taken out in the night with runny noses.  She must be afraid of him.  She watches him and not the scene.  His anger makes the entire family suffer for his adult problem that only he can fix.