I have two reasons for writing again about new work by Don Coles – the first, my enormous liking for the spare, compressed poem which opens A Serious Call and the long title piece which concludes it. My second reason stems from Coles’ editor Carmine Starnino’s recent description of Coles as “world-class,” an odd remark given Starnino’s historic opposition to this term and others like it. But after reflecting, I think he might be right; as a category, “world-class” will admit many more members than, say, “the best poet of his generation,” so why not Coles?
This is important because of the danger we run of allowing reputation to lull us into complacency about a poet’s work. If I stop short of liking Coles’ work in its entirety, it is because I continue to see his successes as intermittent, his poems too often marred by faults that trail after him, e.g. unconvincing conceits (“My Death as the Wren Library”), tonal miscues (“Too Tall Jones”), and Coles’ Oxbridge sensibility – that dry understatement and avuncular, donnish persona out of which so many of his poems emerge.
My other objections are filtered through personal biases towards compression, lines rich in personality and driven by strong purpose. Declaring these, my difficulties with Coles’ poetry should be immediately apparent in an otherwise lovely poem about the poet’s relationship with his young daughter. In “Flying,” she sings “Some day I will fly away. Like Peter. Like Peter.” To which Coles responds:
allowed the call to enter me in a way
she had surely
not intended, which was no particular
way at all, really,
it was just a child’s voice en route to
and the call was nobody’s fault, not
not mine either, at the most it may
a kind of intimation from the flown-free
Any other poet would be hammered for subordinating the drive of his poem through phrases like “which was no particular way,” “not hers and not mine either,” or “a kind of intimation.” His eminence grise lovingly shielded by a cohort of otherwise sensible critics, Coles’ persistent hesitancies and digressions are normally interpreted – and not without some justification – as the natural charm of the human voice. Robyn Sarah describes his hesitations more precisely as an enactment of “a conversational intimacy while guarding a personal privacy.” The problem: this constant recasting of Coles’ thoughts, the structural looseness and never-wanting-to-make-too-big-a-deal-about things, disperses the general force of a poem. The reader may be kept at a safe distance, as Sarah suggests, but the poet’s ability to win a deeper connection and more lasting allegiance through directness and purpose is lost. Nor would it help to argue that the endless backtracking and other vagaries of his style serve a larger, thematic purpose, i.e., his cosmological stance on the lost human soul unaccountably suspended in time.
Often, Coles reserves his strongest effects for the end of a prose or narrative poem, genres where our “expectancies,” as I.A. Richards once observed, are “more indeterminate” than they are of verse: readers are held in check until prose at last spills its magic. Coles’ narratives unfold in precisely this manner. Too often, though, a strong, richly detailed poem drifts off the bottom of the page rather than coming to a strong and satisfying close. “Moonlight,” for example, starts out chock-full of colour and purpose: “A garrulous old cuckold…gibbering under the moon, … his tiny wife … with her legs on either side of his happy teenage apprentice … a young Canadian lieutenant in 1917 “studying the latest configurations of barbed wire from his lookout post.” Surely the Second Coming is at hand. Well, not exactly:
I’ve so often wished I had asked him
about all that, and right now there’s a
couple of seconds which could be my
but in the moonlight and the
I let it go.
As does the reader; whatever power originally animated the poem trails off into nostalgia and resignation, suggesting that the only adequate posture towards life is to be underwhelmed by it. Is the Yeats comparison unfair? Perhaps. Coles’ interests centre on images and narrowly conceived existential ideas, not modernist symbols normally loaded as Clive Scott noted, “with dimensions enough to repossess all the ideas which, as the occasion of the poem, it engendered.” Coles’ images and ideas hardly ever coalesce into anything more than the gentlest of imagistic denouements.
Again, other critics see method in Coles’ mildness. But more revealing than what they have to say about Coles’ poetry is what they imagine the rest of us might say if they weren’t around to correct us. Though you or I might consider Coles’ poetry to be “loose, drifting, undisciplined,” we would be wrong says W.J. Keith. See those “basic words” he says of one poem. See how Coles “skillfully juxtaposes” them to emphasize “a space in time.” Notice how, despite this most overworked of defenses, it never occurs to Keith that our original judgements might actually be pretty apt descriptions of Coles’ poetry.
A more fundamental unhappiness: whatever response Coles might wish to evoke – sadness, disgust, illumination – the reader will recognize its representation, but not feel its reality. Not so in the first poem in A Serious Call. “poem” is of an entirely different order than Coles’ other poems, blending in a way he rarely does both feeling and perspective.
my mother said
last night you came
into my room
quiet face when
you were small
and she said
I was not asleep
I was waiting to see if
it could be long ago
This simple little poem is one of the best Coles has written. The lines are beautifully weighted, the effects impeccably distributed. Nothing is wasted, but neither is everything revealed; Coles gets all that he can ask of a poem without giving too much of himself away. But the best part is that we gain the full emotional impact that the encounter with the otherwise absent parent has on the child, and of the child as a vehicle of memory into the absent parent’s own childhood.
The same can be said, though for different reasons, of “A Serious Call,” the long narrative poem about Coles’ experience looking for work in London, England. Like Coles’ best poems, this one unfolds organically, relying less on the mechanical constraints of formal verse than on irreducible human experience – total, immediate, intuitive. Nowhere can the reader point and say here is where the key to the poem lies. Coles tills his soil with light observations or descriptions, e.g., the Southwark district of London:
Nowadays the area’s rampant with
patronized by rich youths who got that
shifting currencies in nearby highrises…
and then nourishes the ground with a rich admixture of literary allusion and anecdote, e.g. his new job at Grattan’s bookstore and the pleasant discovery that he and his new friend/manager John Rolf (JR) get to spend most of their time reading books at the back of the shop.
And – we were reading only books
that we wanted to read.
If Grattan’s didn’t have a desired title
it did thanks to the Everymen), we’d
mention that title
to the ‘travellers’ who regularly called
on us from
almost every one of Britain’s major
The travelers knew perfectly well that
our Southwark clientele
wouldn’t be queuing up for these
privately picked titles,
but they also knew that the titles
looked just as significant
in their order books as those exotic
That works for me. Why? Well first of all, it’s wickedly funny. But Coles also reins in his signature interruptions and keeps his narrative relatively clean, his subordinate clauses performing their traditional functions of modifying principal thoughts and adding details which pique and sustain our interest. See Coles and JR, cigarettes at their lips, “lounging, books in hand…
chairs in a small room at the rear of the
for warmth on wintry days, a spool-
shaped electric heater
on a low, round, wooden table between
Also regularly seen on that table: four
So, amid the quiet and the smoke – flap
of a turned page.
Discreet flare of a match. Realignment
of a boot or two
On a low, round table.
Smoke wavering up from a beer-slogan
a stray gust
arrived from a doorless front-of-shop.
Starnino has said a reader must be alive to the “shades of meaning” which occur from line to line in Coles’ poetry. There are many kinds of “meaning,” of course, but I think he’s mostly right. But I also think when Coles later acknowledges “there were/great books which we failed to find among our Everymen” that he is after bigger game – and none bigger than Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Natasha, the two nights,
grand St. Petersburg ball and follow-up
wolf-hunt, are wand-touched,
are inhabited by adoring glances and
moonlit whispers, by
sights and sounds we want to believe
will charm and protect her
forever, but – Tolstoy spares us nothing
here – life chooses
for her instead a heartless near
seduction, a confused first love,
and eventually an unremarkable life
Never mind world-class. “Sparing us nothing,” Tolstoy enters that much smaller arena reserved for exclusive masters of the genre. Following close on his heels: George Eliot, summing up in the death of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch the fruits of an unspoken, generational legacy.
…for the growing good of the world
is partly dependent on unhistoric acts;
and that things are
are not so ill with you and me as they
might have been,
is half owing to the number who have
lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.
“A Serious Call” is a poem for readers of both fiction and poetry. Part of its appeal for me is the time I spent working through Tolstoy and Eliot, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Hardy’s poetry, and Camus’ essays. I’d like to think others will take the same journey if they haven’t done so already, perhaps filtering Coles’ poem through their experience of those books. Failing this, our avatars remain the two young men in Grattan’s discovering that more is actually needed than great books or even very good readers.
When the sentences
keep arriving and the realizations go on
the half-guesses that something, which
just might be joy,
might possibly be waiting at the end of
them, and might even
last a decently long time – there’s this
Or some one else.
Yes? We began to circle yes.
Beyond the consumption of great writing is the need to share it aloud, Coles suggests, in lines “listened to by the other one,” depending “on who was the first / to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster.” All this is beautifully unpacked by more of Coles’ own lines: “…to know / that there is no way he was going to move past this cluster / its unexpectedness, without getting some backup …” It’s not just our “expectancies” that drive narrative, but also, as Coles clearly intimates, our desire, by poem’s end, for the unexpected, for the surprising.
My surprise is what I had not expected from Coles: that he should reflect back on a human relationship and that for once I should really care. “A Serious Call” works because, as the product of human relationships and endeavours, it is harnessed by competing forces – one force joyfully skittering along the surface of Coles’ reverence for great books, underpinned by a deeper, more unifying force within the lifelong relationship of two men.
The poem ends, as all deep friendships so often must end, in elegy – but not before Coles remarks on a note he received from his friend asking him “to explain, a few minutes’ calm and untroubled / thought at the start of each day directed towards / one or another of a small number of friends, among them / me.”
That note ended with him
expressing the hope that one day
someone might find
a name for what this non-praying,
Coles’ and JR’s shared delight in great books and our experience of their growing mutuality quietly coalesce into something more special than even books: the knowledge that the greatness of books, the reputation of poets or novelists, are secondary to what readers share. Nor is the object to say who among us have “outgrown” their readers or been unfairly denied the world’s attention, but to expand on George Eliot’s remarks and ask if the “unhistorical acts” upon which “the growing good of the world” depends might include our grand, unheralded poetries.