Craig Santos Perez: Rings of fire, 2016


            honolulu, hawaii


We host a small family party to celebrate

my daughter’s second birthday. This year


is the hottest in history, breaking the record

set when she was born. Still, I grill meat


over charcoal and watch smoke crawl

through air like the spirits of sacrificial


animals. Still, I crave a cigarette, even after

quitting five years ago, even after my clothes


no longer smell like my grandpa’s tobacco

breath (his oxygen tank still scratches the tiled


floor of memory and denial). My dad joins me

outside and says: “Son, when I die, scatter


my ashes to the ocean, far from this heat.”

Inside, my mom is cooking rice and steaming


vegetables. They’ve traveled from California,

where millions of trees have become tinder


after years of drought, fueling catastrophe.

When my daughter’s body first hosted fever,


the doctor said, “it’s a sign she’s fighting

infection.” Volcanoes erupt along fault lines


and disrupt flight patterns, while massive

flames force thousands to evacuate tar sands


oil country. When we can’t control fire,

we name it “wild” and pray to gods for rain;


when we can’t control gods, we name it “war”

and pray to votives for peace. “If her fever


doesn’t break,” the doctor said, “take her

to emergency.” Violence rises with the temper-


ature, which knows no borders; airstrikes

detonate hospitals in countries whose names



are burnt fossils: Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan,

South Sudan, Iraq… When she crowned,”


my wife said, “it felt like rings of fire.”

Garment factories in Bangladesh char and


collapse; refugees self-immolate at a detention

center on Nauru; forests across Indonesia


are razed for palm oil plantations, their plumes,

like the ashen ghosts of birds, flock to our distant


rib cages. When my daughter can’t breathe,

we give her an asthma inhaler. But tonight,


we sing happy birthday and blow out

the candles together. The smoke


trembles, as if we all exhaled

the same, flammable wish.




This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Fall 2017.
Craig Santos Perez is an indigenous Chamorro poet from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is the author of four collections of poetry and the co-editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, Manoa, where he teaches creative writing and eco-poetry.
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