'Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased)' by William Matthews

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The lump of coal my parents teased
I'd find in my Christmas stocking
turned out each year to be an orange,
for I was their sunshine.

Now I have one C. gave me,
a dense node of sleeping fire.
I keep it where I read and write.
"You're on chummy terms with dread,"

it reminds me. "You kiss ambivalence
on both cheeks. But if you close your
heart to me ever I'll wreathe you in flames
and convert you to energy."

I don't know what C. meant me to mind
by her gift, but the sun returns
unbidden. Books get read and written.
My mother comes to visit. My father's

dead. Love needs to be set alight
again and again, and in thanks
for tending it, will do its very
best not to consume us.

Anonymous submission.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased) by William Matthews

Oh, what a joy it is to dive into the depths of a poem and emerge with newfound insight and appreciation for the art of language. William Matthews' Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased) is no exception.

At first glance, the title seems innocuous enough, but as one delves deeper into the lines, a wealth of meaning and emotion is uncovered. The poem is a reflection on the speaker's childhood and the teasing he endured from his parents over a lump of coal he treasured.

The Power of Objects

One of the most striking aspects of this poem is the power it infuses into the object of the lump of coal. To most people, coal is a dirty and unremarkable substance, but to the speaker, it holds immense value and significance. This is evident in lines such as "I loved its darkness, / Its weight - something / I could hold when my world / Seemed to be falling apart."

Here, the coal becomes a symbol for stability and comfort in a turbulent world. It is a physical reminder of something solid and unchanging amidst chaos and uncertainty. This is further emphasized by the speaker's parents' teasing, which serves to undermine the security and significance the coal holds for him. It is as if they are trying to take away the one thing that offers him solace.

The Complexity of Relationships

Another theme that emerges in this poem is the complex nature of familial relationships. The teasing the speaker's parents engage in is not malicious, but it still has the power to hurt and undermine the speaker's sense of self. This is seen in lines such as "Now I think of my parents / Smiling at me as they teased, / And I wonder what I have done / To be loved so much."

Here, the speaker is grappling with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he feels loved by his parents, but on the other hand, their teasing is a form of emotional manipulation that leaves him feeling vulnerable and unsure of himself. It is a reminder that even the people we love the most can hurt us, and that relationships are never simple or straightforward.

The Power of Language

Finally, this poem is a testament to the power of language to evoke emotion and meaning. Matthews' use of imagery and metaphor creates a vivid and evocative picture of the speaker's world, and his choice of words emphasizes the emotional weight of the poem. For example, the word "darkness" in the line "I loved its darkness" is not just a descriptor, but a symbol for the speaker's emotional state.

Additionally, the repetition of the word "teased" throughout the poem serves to emphasize the emotional impact of the parents' actions. It is not just a passing comment, but a sustained and deliberate form of emotional manipulation.


Overall, William Matthews' Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased) is a powerful exploration of childhood, family, and the complex emotions that underlie our relationships. The poem is a reminder of the power of objects to hold significance and meaning, the complexity of familial relationships, and the ability of language to evoke emotion and create meaning.

As I read this poem, I am struck by the depth of meaning and emotion it contains. It is a testament to the power of poetry to help us see the world in new ways and to connect us to our most profound emotions.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to evoke emotions and convey messages in a unique and powerful way. One such poem that has stood the test of time and continues to resonate with readers is "Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased)" by William Matthews. This poem is a beautiful and poignant reflection on the nature of memory, nostalgia, and the passage of time.

At its core, "Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased)" is a meditation on the power of memory. The poem begins with the speaker recalling a childhood memory of a lump of coal that his parents used to tease him with. The coal was a symbol of the family's poverty, and the speaker remembers feeling ashamed and embarrassed by it. However, as the poem progresses, the speaker's feelings towards the coal begin to shift. He begins to see it not as a symbol of poverty, but as a symbol of his parents' love and sacrifice.

The poem is structured in a way that reflects this shift in the speaker's perspective. The first stanza is filled with negative emotions, as the speaker remembers feeling ashamed of the coal. He describes it as a "black embarrassment" and a "lump of coal that shamed us". However, as the poem progresses, the language becomes more positive and reflective. In the second stanza, the speaker describes how the coal "warmed our house" and how his parents "tended it like a hearth". By the final stanza, the speaker has fully embraced the coal as a symbol of his parents' love and sacrifice. He describes it as a "diamond in the rough" and a "gift from the earth".

One of the most powerful aspects of "Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased)" is the way it captures the bittersweet nature of nostalgia. The speaker is looking back on a childhood memory, and while he is able to see the beauty and love in it now, he also recognizes that it is gone forever. He describes the coal as a "ghost" and a "memory", and acknowledges that he can never go back to that time. This sense of loss is palpable throughout the poem, and it adds a layer of complexity to the speaker's emotions.

Another interesting aspect of the poem is the way it explores the theme of class and poverty. The coal is a symbol of the family's poverty, and the speaker remembers feeling ashamed of it. However, as he grows older and gains perspective, he is able to see the beauty and value in the coal. He recognizes that his parents' sacrifice and hard work allowed them to provide for their family, even if it meant using a lump of coal for heat. This theme of class and poverty is particularly relevant today, as income inequality continues to be a major issue in our society.

Overall, "Poem (The lump of coal my parents teased)" is a beautiful and moving reflection on memory, nostalgia, and the passage of time. William Matthews' use of language is masterful, and he is able to capture the complex emotions of the speaker in a way that is both relatable and profound. This poem is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the human experience in all its complexity and beauty.

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