“Love Letters from an Arsonist” by David van den Berg

In his compelling, imaginative collection of poetry, Love Letters from an Arsonist (2023), David van den Berg treads through a grand old Southern literary campground of gothic, beauty and brutalism, religiosity, and nature—all in the same works. These are intense poems that cry out to be read and reread and absorbed, verses that will not sit calmly in the mind, and yet should captivate readers with their strange rhythms, vibrant imagery, troubled themes, and underlying mystery. The poems are really rather glorious, and they are anything but timid or tame.

The collection is divided into three parts called “Epistles,” each with its own prevailing theme. Epistle I, “Salt River Blues,” reads much as a tribute to the classic Southern Gothic and an exploration of a few things we might not always want to study but probably should. From the opening verse, “Salt River Blues,” the imagery is deftly phrased and powerful. Consider these lines: “cattails rattle on slick grass banks” and “a man made of mud can’t fly too high before / the sun dries him out and he shatters like clay.”

Ghosts and haints wander through Epistle I. The prose poem, “first the ghost sits on your chest,” tells a harrowing story only to offer up this: “Don’t / worry! The water only hurts at first but soon it’s like the womb.” But van den Berg creates far more than regular ghosts in this gothic section of the collection. Here we also find such original specters as the woman who will “drown a cat for a dollar” in the poem “cryptids of the southern waste.” She’s not the only female phantom in the collection. The “portrait of the woman at the bottom of the well” describes a menacing vision of a creature “old as glass / cloudy-eyed / long charcoal hair hangs loose in curls / lips taste of nightshade.” Yet this woman in the well consoles us: “the earth don’t’ make mistakes so we’re beauty to the bone.”

In the poem that gives the collection its title, “love letter from an arsonist,” the dark vision continues with images like “daddy was a wildfire burned himself inside out,” and who “drank gasoline from momma’s breast.”

Epistle II, “The Midnight Gospel,” contains well-crafted poems in which the narrator argues with God, or the gods, or himself. Some of these poems express anger, others puzzlement, but all are captivating. In “the book of lamentations,” the poet observes that “though it’s a long way to heaven it’s six feet down to forever.” In the “ghost of all things,” God would “love us more but / he loved the first of us too much.” Concluding that poem, the narrator observes, “I don’t look / kindly on the…one who’ll use our wings to teach us how to drown.”

Anger is obvious in many poems, and especially well stated in a poem probably reflecting Florida’s shameful history of Dozier’s School for Boys, “on finding another mass grave at a residential school.” In this short yet potent poem, “outrage comes easy like a bull on red.”

Despite the darkness and anger in some poems, there is also remarkable beauty in many. For example, in “like the last few drops of rain,” van den Berg writes:

tell me why the mockingbird sings

in the witching hour

when the owls are on the hunt?


did they hear what is to come

when the beyond is far behind?


In Epistle III, “Pinecone Son,” the poems feel more personal and a few offer a clear story arc. In “woodman and coldwater,” the poem tells of a troubled woman the narrator picks up when “she fell into me with her life bundled in two / hefty-brand trashbags.” While taking “the 101 west / past strip malls and…the million little ghosts that live in wreckage we leave behind,” the driver sees “the setting sun filled her lungs with glass so / her breaths came raw and ragged.” It’s a heartbreaking story, but ends with this admonition:

be gentle to each other.

the world is too small for our hearts and

there are too many notes left



These poems are rich with emotions and a certain wild rawness, and not just a little weirdness. Much of their sheer power lies in van den Berg’s skillful use of the five senses to evoke a scene and put the reader smack in the middle of a poem’s universe. Readers can sniff the “rusted shotguns that still smell / of saltpeter” in the poem “now that my arms have become spades.” They can hear the sounds of “his bones click clacking like chimes when the north wind blows” in the poem “cryptids of the southern wastes” and see in “the valley of small shadows / my teeth   bloom like wild roses” in the poem “rise, Lazarus.” One can feel the chill and heat in “gethsemane” with lines like “thankful for the cold ‘cause i’m grateful for the sunlight.” Taste is not forgotten either, with lines like “so my fingers taste of / burnt marshmallow and turpentine” from the poem “migrating patterns of the lonely heart.”

The book is also illustrated with impishly charming and imaginative drawings by Mary Leigh Liear, who also did the cover drawings. One such drawing is shown here with permission from the publisher.

All in all, while these poems can be dark and brooding, even brutal, there is no denying the creativity, originality, and sheer talent in their well-crafted lines. These are beautiful, original works. Along with the eeriness that drives the gothic aspects, in these poems often we see and feel humanity seeking some kind of balance or peace: “[B]e gentle to each other.”

David van den Berg is from Florida and as reflected in some of his poetry, he says grew up “getting chased by wild boar in orange groves and hunting alligators at midnight.” He is the founder of Prometheus Dreaming Literary Journal. His poetry has appeared domestically and internationally in a variety of journals, including recent publications in the Cola Literary Review, Saw Palm, The American Journal of Poetry, Poetry South, South85, the Ilanot Review, and others. His poem “the ghost of all things” was nominated for the 2021 Best of the Net prize, and “Love Letters from an Arsonist” was a finalist in the 2020 Kallisto Gaia Press Contemporary Chapbook Prize. He is also a lawyer with a J.D. and Master of Laws in Taxation.

like the last few drops of rain 

(This poem appears in its entirety and is used with permission of the poet and his publisher).


birds weren’t made to fly

but learned anyway and now

no one imagines otherwise.


(so too your bones,


‘neath fevered skin

weren’t made to carry those things

the world would not let you

leave behind.)


tell me why the mockingbird sings

in the witching hour

when the owls are on the hunt?


did they hear what is to come

when the beyond is far behind?


does the curtain shut to wild cheers or

do the lights just






the one perched by the window sings that it is as the end of a storm the last few drops of rain

then cometh the calm.


(there is no birdsong full enough

to quiet the empty echoes

in those places you last laughed.


but know

the one-eyed mockingbird you loved

still waits on the red gum tree

and when he sees me

whistles the tune you taught.)


  1. Joyce Compton Brown says

    The Southern Gothic tradition never dies!

Leave a Reply