Ralph Gustafson, in the Foreword to his poetry memoir Configurations at Midnight, asserts “I had no wish to proceed by unrolling the epiphanies of a soul from prelude to revelation”. Bravo. One would hope that the only epiphanies which matter in a poem are ultimately those the reader discovers. In the twilight (hopefully not midnight) of his career, Don Coles uses a similar approach in his poetry memoir. By retracing the treacherous and fascinating routes of event and memory, biographical and autobiographical image and error, Coles’ stance is less certain than Gustafson’s, but similarly wise and forceful in its concern with building bridges from experience to thought to transmission. Coles’ obsession with time past isn‘t the result, as it is with so many other grey- , white- , or no-hairs, of coming to terms with a poetic career or of adding a notch to the canonical libraries of loss and expiration -- he’s been mining the same shaft since the 70s. If that seems a bit forbidding to a first-time reader of Coles, a lighter (or greedier) angle to follow is that there’s a lot more of that past to work with.
Where We Might Have Been (2010) uses the backward glance as negative or optional definer (“Places”), identity through others (“Too Tall Jones”), and present day self-identifier through fate, both wry and subtly scary (“A Lucian Freud Moment”; “The Young Women”).
Coles is certainly more relaxed here than in any of three previous volumes of his I’ve read. This is good and bad: the off-hand comments can stop the narrative flow without apology as if to note how the aside is part of memory’s diversionary charm and mischievousness, with the no-less-truthful contradiction that many connections have their own rationale (“when I was less untidy than I am now and was/wearing a watch, which I no longer seem to need, so/I soon had an answer for her”, from “Places”); but some of the colloquialisms are either amusing or irritating, depending on how the reader responds to these off-the-cuff, reflex phrases. I reacted with the latter energy to “You see?” (“Memory, Camus, Beaches”), “some of which I feel/entitled to, some of which not so much” (“Ruined House”), and “but the thing is/daylight was so close” (“I Have Gazed Upon the Face of Agamemnon”).
These quick shifts serve a larger fabric. Unlike David Donnell, whose spontaneous ramblings are phony and self-congratulatory, Coles’ apparent spontaneities are structured , and -- at their best -- create a powerfully hypnotic memory-weave of doubt and universal revelation. C. K. Williams’ profound philosophical coda to “Combat” comes to mind: “What I really know, of course, I’ll never know again./Beautiful memory, most precious and most treacherous sister.” There’s also more than a hint of W. G. Sebald here and elsewhere in Coles’ output -- memory as maze or vapour -- and it’s intriguing that Sebald’s English translator, Michael Hulse, is thanked (with others) in the back-page Author’s Note. Whereas Williams and Sebald wax lugubrious on the impossibility of accurate recollection, Coles at times revels in a fuller prism: “how wonderful it is//to be just now, in imagination, tasting it again!” (“Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them)”). The relevant word here is “imagination”, and Coles is more accepting of the differences between “truth” and personal colouring, without (Coleridge) succumbing to a conflation of “fancy” with gifted image. The endearing wrap-up to “Proust and My Grandfather”, though, dares to imprint its loving re-imaginings on the air, anyway:
“And I may think, also, about Proust’s friend
Emmanuel, whose cry
to the cabman has also lasted far longer than the few seconds
he or his listening friends thought it would last. And
I will think about my grandfather who handed me
the yellow pear to eat and then to forget about. As he
forgot about it and is forgotten.”
Resignation or challenge?
This tension between seemingly frivolous recounting (or assessing) and necessary commemoration is enacted in the remarkable “True Words”, where “There’s no shortage/of words all of which are trying to/shout themselves down into the earth after/a tumbling child.”. Words and flesh pass. But a further transubstantiation -- a third -- points to the deathless imaginative impulse.