How We All Swiftly
Wow, is my first response to Don Coles weighty, How We All Swiftly, a book that engages all engines, motoring through much of the last half century, folding a good deal of detail and nostalgia into the work. The past few years have been good ones for Canadian poetry, and this edition, a collection of the author’s first six books, is certainly an impressive event. I had read Coles before, but not all at once, which certainly makes an impact. I was as surprised to find this text, as I was to find Bruce Whiteman’s The Invisible World is in Decline, and wonder why these books (and poets!) aren’t talked about more? Why do literary critics/cliques tend to hone in on one or two voices and raise them up out of the crowd?*
There is much to like about Coles. The work is accessible, personal, deeply nostalgic and smart. The earlier poems have a similar kind of innocence as the Nepveu text I talked about in a previous post, but that gets complicated as Coles progresses. Complicated in his own way, not in the way of Erin Moure, or George Bowering, or Fred Wah, or Robert Kroetsch, or Dionne Brand…but in his own way. Important to remember I think that what one might think of as complicating doesn’t mean the same thing for every poet. For instance, an early poem begins:
alone this morning here
in this cottage where you lived
the careful last summers of your contracting lives
rows of rain falling from the eaves,
the rain barrel irrelevantly filing
and the disabled wooden sawhorse
upended years now…
nothing new there, either in language, line-break or sentiment. For me the best moment is the leap from “contracting lives” to “rows of rain.” A fine poem, just not enough happening on other levels, aurally (so much of lyric poetry today gets by with having no lyric quality at all!? How is that?), linguistically, or even imaginatively. But this takes care of itself as the poet progresses:
There is a narrow endless place
where the earth has frozen. On this
they live at unbelievable speeds (155)
or from “Old Sunken Ships,”
The modesty of them! An hour’s flashy hubbub
and then such endless disavowal
such embracing of failure, only
ribbed sand in shadowy re-establishings and
little frills of water…
I sang. Bullshit. Not ‘sang’–
semaphored. And only when I was
in the mood… (203)
the last nugget from the final section, and this reader’s favorite of the book, titled, Little Bird. Here the poet composes at unbelievable speed, as if he’d just found a sheet of ice, vast and clear, and wholly untouched. Much energy! An energy we see throughout, but not with such vigor or focus, or perhaps unselfconsciousness–it goes! I was flipping back and forth, noting the break out of one kind of constraint (the emotional narrative waterfall, as I like to call it), and the invention of another, and wondering what precipitated it: Had Coles had a sense of this late career breakthrough? So I did a search to see if I could find reference, and there it was, thank you google. Here from an interview with Don Coles:
The choice of the form though, the quatrain, the rhyme scheme, was one of the things that in retrospect I feel drove the poem onward. There are obligations that one sets up for oneself just from the point of view of format, in terms of the ongoing rhythms which meant in this case not, I hope, that the thing just became more wordy or that I found it impossible to stop.
Indeed. The beauty of constraints is that they give a poet something to bump up against, even if one feels tethered. Life is so much self-discipline as it is: form frees, whatever its origins, classical or contemporary constraint based.
There are quiet and moving poems here, and when Coles gets at the kind of intense witnessing he can do–much illness, old age, pain–when he does this with equal attention to form, and to language, the result is very fine. Listen to the energy of these lines:
As you steadily–startled
into reverie only when
the spoon nearly misses (140)
His harrumphing and egadding.
His fez. His spats.
lashing (that innocent-abroad
face inside a frame,
those jejune poses,
but all the same (203)
I love a poet who grows over his or her lifetime. Why not? So much to learn. Though several times Coles has stated that he hasn’t learned much at all from Canadian poets…hm? He makes a lot of statements about “what he isn’t.” Maybe that’s part of the reason he “isn’t” as well-known as those who champion him think he should be. After all, isn’t poetry dialogue? If you aren’t talking to your peers you probably shouldn’t expect an answer.
*Brooklyn poet Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer (editor of Pleiades) have just published Dark Horses, a collection of poems and poets that don’t get the attention they deserve. CA Conrad has the neglectorino project, I just discovered Gil Ott, have to catch up with Ronald Johnson, still trying to get back to Barbara Guest…you can see that keeping abreast of poetry is impossible. All the more reason to resist the urge to focus on the one or two who make the most noise.
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