An Appreciation: on Lucas Bernhardt’s “Infidelities of Coal” in THERMOS 3

What do we like in what we choose? Every so often, we’ll publish a short appreciation by one of THERMOS’s editors of a poem from the current issue. Here’s Jay on a poem in issue 3 (available online in its entirety soon!), with the poem following:

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove,” said American poetry’s saddest-eyed Yankee backwoodsman, “the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Robert Frost meant, I think, the way a poem slips ahead. O’Hara’s “Vaguely I hear the purple roar of the torn-down Third Avenue El” sliding forward to “the captured time of our being”; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The moon in the bureau mirror” to “and you love me.” This effortlessness is easy to love: I don’t notice how close the poem is to its own extinction, until—fft!—the lifespan of its thought is vaporously, unavoidably up.

I recognize this slide, maybe, from my day-to-day moments’ thoughts, the dumb predestiny I sense in my own attention: purple sign neon recalling a dream I had about a truck with amethyst mudflaps; a man scraping snow off his windshield outside the café, then inside dabbing whipped cream off his baby daughter’s nose. Whole before my reason could sort, done seemingly as soon as I fully see. The poem’s lifespan is likewise dictated (cube volume, burner heat, strength of toss) like a law of physics.

It’s this elegance of gesture—rhetoric, form, and frame—that I can’t get enough of in Lucas Bernhardt’s “Infidelities of Coal,” a forty-four-line, single-sentence heroic loser of a poem from the new issue of Thermos.

The poem’s formal body is restless, but its imagery slides in a few tight circles. Regret glints in the eye like a diamond, the self smolders into coal ash, coal whose diamond finality outsmarts the earth it hid in, the diamond the self ends up as tiny on a fiancé’s finger. The heart of the argument is “words outsmart us.” The last word of the poem is “proscribed.” Is coal faithless for being anonymous (untraceable back to its origin) or for shifting form (into diamonds)? The labor the poem clearly required feels light in reading—what a blessing! It also radiates the warmth of a joke. Then it’s done. Fft!

Here’s Lucas’s poem.

Infidelities of Coal
by Lucas Bernhardt

The difference between
saying What’s funny
about having
a reputation
for doing things you
regret at parties is

and thinking first
of confidantes
beneath leaves, napping
like gnats in the
afternoon, swarming
toward dusk, then of
the smoldering, always
approximating self,
more hooked than
awhirl, a thread
of ash looking back
at the crawling
coal, and finally
of regret itself
resting with its wings
tucked across
its back like a
closed pair of scissors,
housed in the eye,
glinting in the facets
of the eye, is
that our words
outsmart us the way
a diamond out-
smarts a seam,
a miner outsmarts
a diamond, a boss
outsmarts a miner,
etc., and even
if the diamond-cutter
does sometimes
grimace, there we are
atop the fiance’s
finger wondering
why, if our lives
are so important,
they should be
so proscribed.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by eachsmallthing on January 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Well said, Jay. Thanks.


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