the innards of this house...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Edison Jennings

Feeding the Fire

Down the chute the coal chunks come, black and brittle
from time’s press, packed with essence of dim forests,
funk of flora, fungiforms, relics of the Paleozoic
destined for my furnace, fire-bellied Baal that warms
the innards of this house.
                                        I toss the flame a shovel load
and feel the blaze of opaque past transfigured into infrared,
then kick shut the furnace door and wipe the smudge
of pitch-black dust that seams the lifeline of my palm.

             – published in The Kenyon Review and Poetry Daily


“Feeding the Fire” is a compressed force of lyrical beauty – the music, an expected tool in Edison Jennings’ poetry, is integral to every line. Alliteration gives life to the imagery in such a pleasing way. This is a poem that springs from a rich tradition: Dickinson, Frost, Robert Lowell. The brevity of the piece forces the reader into a clear, exact view of a scene that is transformed. A simple, small act of shoveling coal into a furnace in winter takes on characteristics of ritual or myth, somehow becoming a larger exploit of individual action and emotion.

At no time, however, does the poem lose its accessibility, and that, no doubt, is because of Jennings’ painterly approach to imagery. The language is rich, without question, but he approaches the poem with a painter’s hand in giving the piece its detail: the black and brittle coal, the smudge on the palm, the fire and heat in “the innards of this house”. This aspect of his craft is evident in many poems – “Apple Economics,” “Thermodynamics,” and “Chiaroscuro” … to name three. The visual features of “Feeding the Fire” are quite specific: the chute, the coal chunks, dim forests, fungiforms, the furnace of the house. As the poem closes, the act of kicking shut the furnace door, then wiping coal dust from the hands – though mundane and very physical – startle the reader into a changed state. Something is happening. Something universal. The dust that seams the lifeline, that part of the universe we lay claim to – history, architecture, the arts, relationships, spirituality, the physical and sensual world – becomes our lives. This is the fire we feed, and continue to do so. It sustains us.

Jennings’ music in the lines is pleasing to the ear:

and feel the blaze of opaque past transfigured into infrared,
then kick shut the furnace door and wipe the smudge
of pitch-black dust…

The physical presence in the poem is so familiar to me. This is a poetry that appeals to the tongue – funk of flora and my furnace, fire-belied Baal – yet never loses its importance to the page. I’ve read the work many times, and each reading is fresh because the fires change as I change. That gives the poem a certain transcendence and, in my view, a touch of greatness.

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