IN K in Love, Don Coles had Kafka compare his feelings for his correspondent/ lover with his feelings for the quoted line "Forests reign over the past"; Kafka found both equally beautiful and sad. That equation of beauty and sorrow, of the lover and all allusions of the "forests" phrase, has haunted much of Coles's poetry and is the formative principle in his latest collection, Forests of the Medieval World. The poems are both complaint and celebration of the belief, expressed in the last tine of the closing poem, that "an hour's immortal even if a life isn't."
I happen to believe this too, and I also admire the poet's intelligent facility, but too many of the narrator's immortal hours did not speak to me. Some of Coles's studies of innocence (a concept frequently referred to in his writing), particularly those that examine his own recalled or reconstructed innocence, are universal and evocative:
to go back to where I could see myself
as I might have been
before things showed themselves to me,
and then say
this has not happened,
or this, or this. Back to where
I could heal all the air
I ever spoke through, and have
nobody thinking about me, ever.
("The Artist's Brother")
In this poem and in the lovely "My Son at the Seashore, Age Two" the integrity of innocence is respected. But in other poems, such as "Puberty" and "Driving in the Car with Her," innocence and a troublesomely romantic concept of the female are murkily linked and "those guileless uncoverings" worshipped, resulting in endings like this, in which the female passenger's legs speak to the male driver:
... 0 Love,
The flawless creatures said,
Only we two can move your mind
To its ghost-marks, always,
And keep you from life's weariness.
There is burnout here of course. But burnout in a quasi-confessional poem, with the narrator as the butt, is an armour that deflects both self-questioning and encounter with the reader. It is especially frustrating to find oneself disengaged from such a fine and serious work as "Self-Portrait at 3.15 a.m." This last poem in the book, the closing poem in Coles's series on Edvard Munch, begins with the wrenchingly immediate lines:
A skinny old party in a too-big suit
has just turned the lights on
at a quarter past three. What
does he do now? Where is everybody?
He is just realizing nobody has told him
how to be as old as this
But then the poem gives us "shadowy damp breasts" that "remind him of something," "swaying close over his eyes ... like moons." "The Edvard Munch Poems," as a series, does not have the convincing vitality of voice that K in Love had, but it contains two long poems, "The Artist's Brother" and "What They Didn't Like," that examine courageously "the framelessness of / everything" and what happens when "the rims of our lives go imageless." All of the poems in Forests of the Medieval World are accomplished; several of the longer ones in particular are memorable. These two are Don Coles at his best: wonderful poems, loose-limbed, articulate, and extremely moving.