Don Coles’ latest collection consists of thirteen shorter poems followed by a longer narrative poem, “A Serious Call.” The opening unpunctuated “poem,” a minimalist whisper, collapses time between mother and son: “I was waiting to see if / it could be long ago.” Most of the poems in this volume involve a conversation between family members, between the poet’s past and present, or between poet and other literary figures. Bookending “poem” is “Untitled,” which is “A free translation of Goethe’s / best-known (untitled) poem”:
Over all the hills
The forest fills
with it. In the immense
quiet only a few
resting birds flutter
briefly. Only wait — soon you
will rest too.
In his wistful look at life, Coles captures sounds and movements of time and space, from vastness to nesting.
Parentheses, dashes, hyphenations and pauses to pulsate words call attention to Coles’ swerving syntax. Subliminally, to-and-fro tennis rhythms make their way into his precise verse. This is palpable in “Two-Hander,” a narrative poem dedicated to the poet’s newborn grandson. The title refers to a two-handed saw that the poet’s grandfather used to cut wood, but it also refers to a two-character drama, a mode that Coles favours in A Serious Call. The multi-generational time span lends an aura to the ordinary, as phrases radiate through sound or association:
It was shaped like a harp. This is
Seventy years later, a long while for
A simile’s slow glow to be mounting
Towards a page’s, this one’s, surface ….
The simile’s the stronger for the wait.
Three-score-and-ten hiatus, Aeolian harp, spots of time and a quest for lost dreams end in “The two of us in a wood together, as we will never be.” Presence and absence, past and future and ambidextrous writing underscore “the imbalance between us that / Words wouldn’t fix.”
Coles’ photographic memories and time lapses are the subject of several poems. “Yearbook” features a photo of a student forgotten over the course of forty years. “People I Knew for One Year” reviews various teachers and concludes with a class picture: “I’m the one sitting incorrectly with a leg / sticking out.” Coles stands out with his self-deprecating wit and irony. “Two Men” further exemplifies the two-hander in and through photography.
“Moonlight” alludes to Caspar David Friedrich, whose painting, Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819-20), serves as the cover for A Serious Call. Friedrich’s canvas is another two-hander, with drama unfolding between the painter and his assistant who observe the moonlight penumbra, while tree branches reach out to extend the dialogue.
A compendium of quotable lines from Tolstoy to Cyril Connolly, “A Serious Call” portrays 1950s London: “Grattan’s bookshop had a clamorous metallic pull-down” instead of a front door. The poet exploits the sound of that frame that separates the inner world of letters from the outer noise of “a seldom-go slum.” His setting for quiet conversation is a reading table: “So, amid the quiet and the smoke — flap of a turned page. / Discreet flare of a match. Realignment of a boot or two.” This smoky atmosphere and realignment of rhythm, syntax, and prosody further frame Coles’ long-distance call. Straddling the Atlantic, such quotations suggest Coles remains in good company at the top of his game.
Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes (McGill-Queens).