Thursday, February 16, 2012


Where We Might Have Been by Don Coles Montreal: Signal Editions, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-55065-294-9, 55 pp., $18.00 paper.

My look at Don Coles’ latest begins with his obvious strengths - his narrative structures and casual style – noting that what most readers find enjoyable about Coles' poetry is largely inseparable from matters of tone. The conversational tone or mode of address is the fulcrum from which Cole leverages whatever interest is found in the episodic narratives that represent the bulk of this book’s structure. In fact, many of the formal features that ordinarily support our enjoyment of poetry such as rhythm and imagery are overshadowed by our experience of Coles’ voice and tone.

Jack Myers’ remark* about what constitutes the conversational mode might be useful here. Conversation’s “aesthetic ideal”, Myers tells us, “is to create art while seeming somewhat artless, as the speaker of the poem shapes form, development, and content more from and toward character and sensibility and voice…” The observation is particularly fitting where Coles' book is concerned, insofar as casual conversation is one of the principle things making a claim upon our attention, and because sensibility – delicate, seemingly artless and unaffected – is what is being served up here:

“Because I had come to feel this way about him I invited
Charles Ritchie (this was over a decade ago, when Charles
was retired and living in Ottawa) to come to my university
and talk to my students – which he did, and, through
an inspired error, he arrived two hours early and so was forced
to spend those hours in conversation with me in my office.
This must have worked out all right because a few days
afterwards I had a letter from him inviting me to come
to Ottawa for a weekend `to extend and embroider’,
as his letter put it, our conversation. Of course I should have
cancelled whatever it was that seemed to pre-empt this but
I didn’t, and the next thing I knew (the italics are in Charles’s
honour, he enjoyed drawing attention to the role cliché plays
in our off-duty thought processes) he was dead.” (34)

(from “The Heat of the Day”)

A bit of background. Coles was an inveterate traveller when young, thirsty for interesting people and conversation. What he discovered from the people he met at Cambridge and during his “wander years” in continental Europe in the 50s and 60s found its way into his poetry, much of it ruminations on European art and marked by a strong inclination towards European manners, life and language. “Sidelined” as Robin Sarah puts it from the strong nationalist agenda going on in Canada when he returned in 1965, Coles simultaneously “eschewed flashiness of any sort” and “rejected “innovation for its own sake,” all of which I take Sarah to mean that whatever preoccupied most Canadian poets at the time did not particularly interest Coles.

What emerges from this has remained largely intact years later as evinced by the passage above: a poetry that is relaxed, fluid and variable in the way that good prose is fluid and variable, a casualness that is indispensable to good conversation and absolutely central to that peculiarly Oxbridgean sensibility that unfolds from Coles’ longer episodic narratives. Chatty, charming, “offhand” as Margaret Atwood and others ardent fans have put it, Coles poems are not so much pressured from beneath by the urgency of what must be said as preempted by the impulse to charm and subtly provoke his readers. More often than not it is the anglophile we are most aware of wanting to win us over, with a casualness reminiscent of Philip Larkin (a Coles favourite) who in turn emulated Thomas Hardy (also a favourite of Coles). An observation about Hardy and Larkin by Bruce K. Martin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography might just as easily be applied to Coles, "that his own life, with its often casual discoveries, could become poems, and that he could legitimately share such experience with his readers. From this lesson the belief that a poem is better based on something from 'unsorted' experience than on another poem or other art."

That casualness, the “unsortedness” of experience are obvious features of the first poem cited above, where serendipity (Coles’ first encounter with diplomat Charles Ritchie) quickly morphs into a fatal turn of events (Ritchie’s death) and where other occurrences underpin a sense of life as random and open ended. Consistent with this lack of closure are the poem’s thematic digressions to which the poet returns but never entirely resolves, for example, his repeated references to his mother’s effort to secure her son’s possession of a book by Elizabeth Bowen.

"And since my mother
would have noticed that borrowed books don’t always
come back, either not soon or not ever, and since
she would want my books to be safely in place when
I came back, inscribing my name would be a way of
improving the odds in this regard.” (my italics, 35)

It is not underestimating Cole’s capacity for strict poetic form to say that his casualness in Where We Might Have Been is achieved principally through technical means supplied by prose, notably the subordinate or dependent clause and the parenthetical aside. But what’s more important to understand is that these and other aspects of his poetry are as much functions of sensibility as they are technical strategies or tools. Classical syntactic balance and dry understatement (see my italics in the line just cited) don’t just round out the perfection of his casual style, they communicate a sense of ease and impartial intelligence of a kind we imagine emanating from a Cambridge study hall. It is enormously pleasant to read. We feel safe in his hands in the way that we feel safe reading Jane Austen or George Eliot. Coles’ Anglicisms, his affection for displaced English women living alone or for the slightly daft English theatre critic become easily accepted as the touchstones for a peculiarly English perspective on life that Coles own family laid claim to in its efforts to survive the highly competitive department store business of southwestern Ontario; witness the poem “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eatons, Got Rot Them”).

A danger emerges when the poet becomes too casual, as appears to have been the case with Coles’ startling suggestion at the end of the first passage quoted above that his “off-duty thought processes” constitute his poetry making as much as it does his ordinary conversation. Casualness may also lead to inattention to the syntactical tools we commonly use to achieve our effects and how their overuse blinds us to other possibilities. Coles’ handling of emotion in his poem about his daughter “A Walk in the Woods”, for example, is weakened by his use of subordination, particularly in the first two lines of the poem, a potentially interesting and tautly written metaphysical treatment of paternal love hobbled by missed rhythmic opportunities at the front end and predictable rhythms at the back end.

“Suddenly frightened because, having
walked ahead of me around a bend
in the path, she found the sumac all at once
nodding its garish heads too close to her,
she called out, Daddy, Daddy, and
with no warning or permission
the call covenanted itself
with all the pending years of my life.
What a long time it’s been
to be the only one who heard it,
who will ever hear it,
even she wasn’t listening.” (13)

The exclamation “Daddy, Daddy” is perfectly pitched and seems to fall just where it should in the poem; the problem is with everything that happens, or fails to happen, leading up to that moment to, i.e. to build to the moment rhythmically and in such a way as to reenact the young girl’s terror and capture what we can only imagine to have been a highly personal and potentially galvanizing moment for the poet. Instead, Coles’ treatment remains merely descriptive, distant, abstract. The poem’s last three lines, meantime, fail to carve out any new ground in the way that a poem such as this might crystallize for us, through rhythm, the emotion that Coles is attempting to capture; instead he settles for a series of line endings we’re all familiar with when a poet is anxious to let us know his poem is nearing its end, the approaching denouement signaled by the caesurae or pauses dutifully punching the end of each line. What’s the final effect in the reader? Only that Coles appears to have felt sadness, but that this sadness – or any other feeling for that matter – is not aroused in the reader. We might have felt something, it seems to me, but for a lack of freshness or variety in the lyric or the rhythm and the poet’s over reliance upon his winning theme to gain our attention, i.e. time stealing away a life enriched by the presence of children.

If there’s a bigger failure it’s that Coles is unwilling to test his linguistic choices against reality, to ironize, for example, that tone of dry understatement we encounter so often in his poems and the gently avuncular, donnish persona from which its emerges. The failure to do this – or at the very least to seem to be aware of what you are doing - can result in some jarring effects, as when the poem “Too Tall Jones” imputes, inappropriately it seems to me, the same dry tone to a 15-year old southwestern Ontario boy stigmatized by his unusual 6’2” frame:

“Pardon the rant. Point is, though,
on a compared-to-me basis, people,
with too few exceptions, looked short,
Asked, back then, for a ruling
on this, I’d probably have said
that almost everybody might better have
continued on a bit.” (my italics, 42)

Well, no, for my money he probably wouldn’t have said that. The wry, understated tone seems out of character for a boy of 15 and more representative of the poet at a later stage in life; the tone is also inconsistent with the feelings of youthful mortification the boy feels elsewhere, as when his mother measures him against the dining room door and “announces in disbelief – “6’2”

“15-year-old me protesting
`No I’m not.’

I was though, And
two implacable inches
still to come.

Ok, but if that’s all
the tape-measure had to contribute –
so? (Asking this, by now, privately,
having fled that room for one where I could
brood alone).” (41)

Balanced against my reservations are those things which others find authentic and relevant in Coles’ poetry. Kenneth Sherman and Jacob McArthur Mooney are not alone in pointing to Coles’ thematic and stylistic preoccupations with time and memory, especially Coles’ use of memory to reflect, as Mooney says “on the structure of memory story telling.” Larger claims centre again on Coles “casual talk” as the inevitable product of those things that define our mortality, proffered by Shelley through Alberto Manguel as “chance, and death, and mutability.” In his foreword to Coles’ memoir A Dropped Glove in Regent Street Manguel is plainly on the trail of some pretty big game on Coles’ behalf: “The nonchalant tone and breeziness of his observations make it easy for us to forget their originality and keen intelligence.” My own view is that qualities like originality and intelligence are ever-present in a work of art if they’re present at all and hardly depend upon my memory to secure them; but Manguel is not done with his notions of memory or Coles' special treatment of the subject.

“To note that `memory’s great gift’ consists in persuading us that the faces of those we’ve lost `haven’t gone,’ and then to observe, as an afterthought, that `they may even add up to the phenomena of love,’ has the carelessness of true wisdom.”

Not really. So pedestrian a beginning and tepid a conclusion are hardly the stuff of deep and abiding wisdom. And I prefer my philosophizing served straight up, not as a chaser. Manguel’s musings form a rather thin foundation upon which to base a reputation for acute philosophical understanding or observation, the latter torpedoed by Coles himself in Manguel’s very next paragraph: “I’m riding solely on my imagination,” Coles tells us, to make up “for the absence of personally-observed detail.”

More interesting to me are those occasional moments when Coles reaches beyond the structural constraints of narrative to challenge our understanding and expectations of what poetry can be. Coles is observational, but with a personal engagement with the world so slight as to appear negligible. My interest perks up, however, when he signals a larger interest in dislocating and undercutting our expectations of poetry and effectively straddles two poetic traditions: the poetry of continuity which stresses the systematic and sustained development of ideas or thought readily found in narrative and what Stephen Burt describes as “elliptical poetry”, poetry that resists the presumptuousness of narrative and its attempts at certainty, centredness and closure. Coles is at his best when he no longer privileges continuous uninterrupted narrative and chooses experiments in fracture and discontinuity over the inflated self-regard inherent in confessional narrative poetry. “My Lucian Freud Moment,” for example, is a better poem than the others in the book because of Coles' effort to challenge his readers’ conventional desires for total absorption, for being “swept away” by what they are reading and imagining, i.e. “A naked body spied under a lifted sheet in the early morning – mine…”

“That the body’s wearing nothing but a sheet (no big
surprise, this bareness, keeping in mind our poem-title)
is because this is the way it’s gone to bed ever since
age fifteen or so, when my mother asked me if I liked
showing it off. Not asking this because she’d glimpsed it,
nothing weird’s going on here. Asking it due to the persistent
absence of pajamas in the laundry basket, I’ll belatedly guess.
Not worth pursuing this line of thought, trust me.” (11)

In very much the way that the German playwright Brecht breaks the “fourth wall” separating the actors from the audience to keep them awake to his argument, so Coles shatters the illusions he creates by directly referencing them as parts of a poem, as artifice. “Keep in mind our poem’s title,” Coles tells us. “Nothing weird’s going on here,” he assures us about his poem. The absence of pajamas in the laundry basket is “not worth pursuing, trust me.” These authorial interventions have the effect of pulling readers out of the poem to remind them that far from truly seeing or comprehending “the naked body spied under a sheet” they are after all only reading a poem, a construct conjured up imperfectly from memory and by implication a mere approximation of the body’s reality. Similarly, Coles frustrates any expectations readers may have around a clearly apprehended identity or their feelings of identification with a central “I” in the poem. All that’s available is the image of body and this unreal, unreliable, capricious:

“An image that’s mostly, in spite of all this, obedient to my daily
needs, but is nevertheless as unknown to me as Quetzalcoatl.

It’s never heard of Quetzalcoatl. Long words like that…forget
them, it would say, if it cared.

Pretty soon, it says to itself, adjusting a leg outwards under
the shadowing sheet, it’ll be rise-and-shine time.

Shrugs the shoulder it’s not lying on.” (12)

It’s this unsettled and unsettling aspect of Coles’ work that succeeds best and is the most interesting it seems to me. Is it “blown away interesting” as Coles describes memory and its loss in “Memory, Camus, Beaches”? Perhaps not. For that, we’d require of Coles a mind more deliberately, perhaps even programmatically invested in questions of contemporary poetic form. His evasiveness makes this impossible. And if his thematic preoccupations are occasionally anachronistic and tainted by a slight air of entitlement, if many of his poems lack human warmth or vitality, Coles himself remains an interesting man who often writes poetry that is tantalizing subversive. It is this that is most worth taking note about in his poetry.
* (Thomson-Wadsworth, The Portable Poetry Workshop, 2003)


Harold Rhenisch said...

It's worth remembering that Brecht was breaking the fourth wall to break society and institute a new social order in its place. So, not exactly the same thing, as Coles appears to be trying to reinforce conservative society instead. The difference is important, and would make an interesting discussion -- the journey of the bourgeoisie, etc., through a long century, etc. etc.

David Godkin said...

True. Brecht had broader social concerns, but breaking the fourth wall was first and foremost a technical solution to a very particular problem associated with bourgeois European theatre, i.e. the tendency for theatre goers to respond cathartically to what's happening on stage rather than to think. Too many people treated plays as a good night out and not as a way to learn about the world and how to change it. How to break through that complacency became a dramaturgical problem, supporting an ideological one. I think Coles is very much aware of a similar complacency among poetry readers.

Cornelia Hoogland said...

David,this is a splendid review. Congratulations. Yours is the best criticism that I have seen of Cole's work - work, that, I feel, walks that very fine line between a conversational voice and banality. When it works, it really works, but when it doesn't -- well, you deal with that.

Again, Congratulations. A full length, in-depth look at this mature poet.

Cornelia Hoogland


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