The Cave in the Coals

Would you enter this luminous centre? I had a friend
who wanted to put his face in the fire. And everyone gathers

around a woodstove in a kitchen. Such a penetrating
heat, they say. And the origin both of community

and contemplative solitude—the opportunity staring
through flame’s window, through that door of tempered glass

into that intensity, to speak without looking
around. To overhear

oneself. To muse aloud, obliquely
universal. This was the centre

for millennia until television. I thought then of my friend’s desire,
It is despair of being heard or known. Or a fiendish, sudden appetite

for rage and pain made manifest, explicit.
Or the profoundest hope of the handsome

for disfigurement. To face the world and others turned
away, a liberating roominess. Gazing

into fire’s old face today I see for the first time
an emberred hollow near the draught, incandescent space

on the underside of an alder log beckoning. Shelter,
it promises past the rim of flame. Like the promise

of a woman’s body. Depths of heat and pleasure
and then, as hearth in earth and heart in art end
and eschew their initial heroics, regain their cool, each

exhausted half-husk rolls
onto its side, a geode opened

earth egg on my study’s sill. After the puff of gas or dust or tiny gasp
of vacuum broken into the saw bisected stone

for its treasure of absence—cup
of encrusted immaculate shatter, crystalline, sparkling

firmament of puckered O past slippery
bright lip, past buff and bluff and buffeting
where anything one is might hold, where everything

one might be grows. Where we, oh human family, breathe
in, breathe out, keep company.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Cave in the Coals”?

I can’t say exactly. Or rather, the best articulation of what inspired the poem is the poem itself. There was an excited conjunction of all the elements in it: my friend’s terrible thought, in depression, of putting his face in the fire; the fire and chill of sex; the deep human history in caves and coals; the reflective mood associated with staring into domesticated fire; a geode on the windowsill of my study… and you know, possibly some pretty trivial and remote associations; for example, childhood sex jokes of the “can I put my flashlight in your cave?” variety… Anything and everything might contribute to a poem. Not even the poet knows exactly or completely what shapes a poem; if he did it wouldn’t be any fun to write, just a chore.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Cave in the Coals”?

Too many to enumerate and many I’m sure that are unconscious. But here’s a couple of examples. The tone is conversational, begins with a genuine concern/question to draw the reader in, foreshadowing the poem’s conclusion, that is a large one about the shared nature of human experience on our little earth in the immense universe. Secondly, I love wordplay, but only when it does real work, not just for its own sake. I think some of my best punning ever is in the lines: “and then, as hearth in earth, and heart in art, end / and eschew their initial heroics, regain their cool, each…” The words “hearth” and “heart” do end in “earth” and “art” just as a cooling hearth ends in earth and a struggling heart ends (at best) in art, their initial (first letter in the words: “h”, and first, most significant, attempts in a life) their “heroics,” attempts to glow, make something of life or love, are “eschewed” and cool, “regain their cool” if we want (as I do) to play upon sex’s sad aftermath, especially for the “he” in all these words, the fiery and then flaccid/evasive/distant/aging “cool” male.

But it’s never good to explain too much what one puts into a poem. Better to hope the reader trusts enough that there will be something beyond the obvious, something to dig for a little. As in life, poetry’s greatest rewards, hiding in the open, are there.

This poem “The Cave in the Coals” originally appeared in Black Writing in Canada. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 182 (Autumn 2004): 85-86.

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