How We All Swiftly: The First Six Books |
by Don Coles
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|The Hurrying Steps
by David O'Meara
How We All Swiftly collects the best of Don Coles's first six books, from Sometimes All Over (publishing in 1975), to Little Bird (published in 1991). This is the first time a number of these poems have been reprinted since Landslides (1986), his previousłand now out of printłselected poems. A newer generation of readers might thus be unfamiliar with Coles' early output, making this current volume a much-needed correction to a Canadian publishing gap.
Almost all of the poems published in those six books are reproduced in How We All Swiftly, though there are omissions, mainly from Coles's debut collectionłomissions one assumes the author has made himself, believing the poems to be either weak or repetitive. I don't know why poems like "Sometimes All Over" or "Full of Years and Honours" were omitted. Still, I was happy to see excellent poems like "Lead Soldiers" and "To An Older Brother Born Dead" (not included in his 1986 Selected) reinstated here. Coles, as W. J. Keith points out in his introduction, is a habitual rewriter, and barely a handful of poems included in this new volume have escaped some alteration. Sometimes it's only a title or word here or there that are changed ("lightening" has become "undarkening" in the opening poem), and often it's just line breaks that are reshuffled. Most substantially, the book-length "Little Bird" has been reduced to 274 stanzas from its original 296.
While reading through How We All Swiftly I tried to imagine that I was seeing the poems for the first time. In my early twenties, I hesitate to admit, they didn't strike me as particularly captivating. It must have been their understated tone. A young reader wants noisy writing, full of smart-aleck quips, suicides, booze-ups and swear words. The quieter, more subtle route of a Coles poem might not immediately appeal to the impatient mind of one in the early throes of word-lust. But after a decade of reading him, I'd like to address why Coles's poetry endures beyond the caprice of the casual reader.
Most reviewers call attention to Coles's exemplary "craft". The term is a slippery one for any poet, and with respect to Coles, even more so. The reason is that a good part of Coles's poetry-making is spent trying to hide that craft from the reader's view. Never one to strong-arm us with ornamental verbiage or strained images, Coles tunes his language to a low frequency. Its reserve is graciously self-deprecating, yet it is often deeply serious and intimate, and this contradiction accounts for the tension in what's being said. Take the beginning of "Photo", for example:
Here I am at fourteen with
my arm in a sling, grinning out
at a world I can remember
looked almost entirely opaque
but not letting on. By the way
this hasn't really changed.
I had fallen off my bike,
that loose gravel at the corner
of George and Wellingtonł
the arm healed fine. That my eyes
are so intimidatingly clear is what
causes this poem. Into them
have since passed a billion or so
images, not all of which have
ever made it out againą
The tone puts you at ease with a few asides ("By the way . . .") and supplementary details ("the arm healed fine"). But behind this seemingly casual description is an uneasy awareness of the power of time to bring about change, which is explored further in the poem. One of the great strengths of Coles's poetry is this tone: anecdotal, almost apologetic, but masking profound grief. As unfashionable as it sounds, his poems often simply speak directly to the reader about something that concerns him. It's no coincidence then that many of them are written as letters ("Little Bird", "The Prinzhorn Collection", "K. In Love") or sound as if they were. The speaker engages us in thoughtful entre-nous. Coles's poems are correspondences also in the wider sense of the word. They suggest shared intimacy, conspiratorial longing, and troubled interogatives.
As much as anything, however, Coles's craft has a great deal to do with pacing, which of course cannot be separated from diction and tone. Pacing is not a technique that is often lauded in a poet, but the more I try to pin down the remarkable success of these poems, the more Coles's skill comes to mind. Here are the opening stanzas of "Little Bird", his verse-letter to his father:
You will not meet
nor Aeneas'; nor greet
others from that host
straight up the tower
of their own lives
and, still shining, died
then. (Enviably, to us belowł
or else poets, needing them, lied
to make them seem so.)
Who cares? Not you,
I think, who
took little pleasure in such
These short quatrains are an illustration of the poet's mastered conversational register, buoyed along by the characteristic phrasal dashes and line-breaking feints of Coles's pacing. The third and fourth stanzas contain a bracketed aside, a dash, an impatient question, and seven commas in six lines, all in the service of approximating real speech. Often he will continue through a dozen lines without a period, and follow it with a few short phrases, all broken by questions, interloping quotes and blunt realizations, before picking up the argument again. The length, rhythm, and speed of the line continually change and vary according to what seems like the speaker's whim. He avoids monotony by carefully (hence the craft of it) thwarting our expectations of how each phrase will continue or rest. The art is in how throwaway it looks, and how immediate and candid it remains with each subsequent reading. Look through many of the poems collected here, or other brilliant poems like "I Walk By This Shore", "Forests of the Medieval World", or "Kurgan No. 10" from his most recent collections, and you'll find Coles's voice is more immediate and human than much of the poetry written nowadays, communicating experience and thought with the least amount of fanfare.
Mostly though, it is Coles's restive re-engagement with his particular themes that continually resurface, like a distant storm that generates groundswells. In Coles's one novel, Doctor Bloom's Story, published in 2004, the protagonist notes that "the passage of time is by far the deepest thing I know about life, and, in an inverse way, about art." I would argue that Coles's poetic output is also a response to this notion. His poetry recognizes the truth that we are essentially our memories. A good many of the poems muse and ponder "irreversible opaque time" and what it will "annihilate by forgetting." Though this theme could be susceptible to sentiment, Coles deftly avoids sentimentality at all turns. His poems don't wallow in visions of an ideal pastłthough he is not afraid to praisełand they never rush hastily towards a ready consolation, but often end with uncertainty. When lingering on images from memory, the unfolding lines are accompanied with uneasiness or self-reproach at some unfulfilled promise. About "Lead Cowboys", he "wonders, lifting them from their attic box, how/ will he justify his time away,/ him with his funny runs after a life. . . " In nostalgic writing the past is admired from an irreversible selective distance, like a dear curio in a hermetic glass case. This is not, pardon the pun, the case with Coles's work. Coles's view of the past is not seen through a telescope (or with blinders), but is panoptic and continually engaged with the three tenses. I'm reminded of this passage from Tomas Transtromer's prose poem, "Answers to Letters" (translated by Robert Fulton), where he writes:
"Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it's more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side."
Coles's porous attitude toward time and memory corresponds with this notion. In such poems as "Driving at an Easy Sixty", "Busy at Night at Some Adult Thing", "Sunken Ships", "Somewhere Far From This Comfort", or the ubi sunt ingathering of "I Long for People through Whom the Past", and "Collecting Pictures", the past is recalled but is never static; it is continually being reinterpreted. There is nothing quaint or pat in Coles's recollections, and the equidistance between past and future connects and constantly redefines the shifting continuum of the self ("all the dozens/ of deep imprints // I've ever had of you . . . are in flux. They've/ movedłno, they are moving, they're still mobile . . . " he writes to his dead father in "Little Bird"). Likewise, his cast of charactersłthe "Codger", the Army Corporal killed in the Boer War, "Mrs. Colliston", "The Victorian Family in Photographs," Tolstoy's brother, the "Old Sunken Ships" or Soderman's lost musicłall are defined not only by the realities they inhabited, but also by the potential existences they did not fulfill. This obsession with unentered and unresolved alternate courses appears as a doppelganger theme in such poems like "The House", "If a Man Goes Past The Great Joys Which Life Prepares For Him. . . " or later poems, notably "Someone Has Stayed in Stockholm" from Forests of the Medieval World.
Another one of Coles's great subjects is the inner life. His various meditations on the past, family, love, history, childhood and old age testify to the iceberg effect of surface versus depth. We move through our lives in relative silence compared to the furious bustle of our unspoken thoughts and feelings, what Coles calls "those blue-tinted, almost pure/ submarine glimpsings/ of the secret, drifting self . . . " The poetry collected here bears witness to the knowledge that much of what we have thought and felt will necessarily remain private and unshareable. Here is a sample from as the poem-series of "K. In Love":
I was with a few people the other night
And made some lighthearted remarks
About you. Anybody would think
I cared about you only
To the usual degree. But
Every time I mentioned your name
I was holding onto the table.
Another example is "Landslides", where he addresses his ailing mother, "who, when you go, will/ guard that whole winter I/ never left my bedroom or/ the snow my window-ledge, kept/ home from school// an endless, unachieving winter . . . " And it is also what the reminiscences of the "Codger" attest to: that beneath the surface details of a reserved, uneventful life, what the mind retains is momentous.
This Signal Editions volume is well-organized, though a few typos are evident ("a Russian winter's stary retreat"), and I wonder if the cover design has done a disservice to Coles with its overly-sentimental card-in-spokes image. W. J. Keith, in his introduction, has written an admirable discussion of Coles's unique position in Canadian poetry, his subtle technique and major themes. He also discusses the difficulty of navigating the numerous rewrites that poems have undergone, many new to this volume. As Keith writes, "this is Coles' privilege," and for the most part, when comparing texts, the newest versions seem improvements, at least to my ear. Many of these are line break decisions, rather than hard text changes, and in the latter case, we could argue endlessly over whether the original "lousy" was better than "crappy" in stanza 10 of "Little Bird", though the answer ultimately lies in a version's fidelity to the writer's voice. As mentioned, there has been substantial line shifting in that book-length poem, notably in the middle movements of the text. Personally, I think this new version is an improvement. It seems condensed without losing the breeziness of an intimate confession. Any altered rhythms or added text (compare p. 61 of the original with p. 239 of the present volume: those "slow-descending flares"), sparingly inserted, seem like efforts to tighten and clarify, and the result is usually more memorable. My one regret with How We All Swiftly is the decision to print several of the short sections of "K. In Love" on the same page, rather than relegating them to their original separated format. No doubt it was a space consideration, but these poems are enhanced by their accompanying silences, and crowding them together diminishes this effect. (I encourage any reader to get some file cards and hide the adjacent stanzas while reading any one of these sections, then go for a long walk before moving on to the next.)
Mostly I encourage the reader to own this book, and read it often and slowly. Coles's poems probe us even as they offer us the pleasure of a well-formed phrase. The best poets have the gift of creating poetry that retains its immediacy, resonance and surprise on numerous returns. I can think of only a handful of poetry collections that I've reread as many times as Forests of the Medieval World or Kurgan, or the ones collected here. Their many moments surprise and challenge me still. For the rest of my life, I suspect, his poems will be, as Coles would say, "a thought I'll keep." ņ
David O'Meara's most recent collection is The Vicinity (Brick, 2003). He lives in Ottawa.