Thursday, December 3, 2015

Don Coles' A Serious Call

Don Coles has often etched his poems on a membrane separating enchantment from mundanity. To his great credit, the cell has rarely broken, and his fascinating recollections, sprinkled liberally with cleverly shaped bursts of spontaneous wonder, add to the stock of that all-too-rare breed of poetry: elevated thought and feeling, fragile, ensorcelling, imprinted, and sensitively adjusted. But Coles’ latest offering, this year’s A Serious Call, is a collection of staggering missteps. Gone are the close relationships between narrator Coles and his subjects, to be replaced by long-distance, rambling reminiscences. Here’s a cut from “People I Knew for One Year”:

“Frank Elsom who won a blue sleeveless sweater
with ‘Bolo-Bat Champion’ on it for hitting
the Bolo-ball on its elastic string more times
than anybody.”

The standard objection to this type of quoting is that it’s cherry-picking for weak spots. But this is a representative example. It’s not just the tediousness of the thoughts that dismays, but the dead tone one naturally evinces to give them voice. Robert Lowell, in his otherwise seminal Life Studies, isn’t a stranger, either, to the biographical doldrums, banging out a pedestrian observation of, “Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms/to be a two minute walk from the station,/half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.” At other times, though, Lowell hauls his diurnal drudgery up from its roots by language alone. Coles’ talents, however, don’t lend themselves to virtuosic rescue of this sort.

There’s also the problem throughout of ground covered like the front row of a three-day outdoor international congress with the Pope. “Moonlight” – actually one of the poems that shows Coles here at close to his best manner of offhand-raconteur-turns-spellbinding (“a kind of be-cloaked Caspar David Friedrich walk-on/gibbering under the moon to a nodding-off fellow-cloakee/while on a remote hilltop his tiny wife lies with her white legs/in the air either side of his happy teenage apprentice”) – descends into, “I’ve so often wished I had asked him much more/about all that, and right now there’s a blurred couple of seconds which could be my chance,/but in the moonlight and the remembered quiet /I let it go.”

The greatest travesty, though, arrives with the titular effort. To mangle Delmore Schwartz: “with many pages begin responsibilities”. “A Serious Call” occupies the final nineteen pages of the book. After the first half, a little trepidation naturally crept in. But that was eased by the first page. After a blackly humorous epigraph on Pushkin’s response, while on his deathbed, to the question of whether or not he wanted to say goodbye to his friends, (“He looked around at his books/and said, ‘Goodbye, friends’.”), and the opening setting wherein Coles mixes a mysterious stew of geography, fitting allusion, hints of danger, an as-yet-unrevealed bookstore gig, and art-to-commerce enjambments in cutting yet even-toned revelation, (“Nowadays the area’s rampant with wine bars/patronized by rich youths who got that way/shifting currencies in nearby highrises”), the poem quickly falls apart when and after a clumsily rendered depiction of first-person narrator Coles and the bookstore owner ... well, put their feet up, smoke roll ‘ems, and read whatever they want. This dull recording then passes into a Colesian standard: the many-angled consideration of epiphany, here in its literary manifestation. In previous volumes, Coles was a master, in this vein, at creating moods at once unnerving and welcoming, but in this poem the transference is borrowed from the deathless, and splashed with a ramped-up, laudatory mystification. The reader (the current reviewer, not Coles) is treated to particularly contorted, long-winded, and multiple asides, and the clauses are interwoven so thickly within the core statements that rereading this section, immediately, and more than once, is necessary just to parse the hesitant declarations, which owe more to enthusiasm than to transferred experience. Here’s an example:

“I can even remember what the first lines, the first
of so many lines to be read aloud by one of those two
(one of us two, sure, but we’re so almost out-of-sight
way back there among the years that from where I am now
we look to be a those) and listened to by the other one
(roles undecided, who would do what, who would read
and who listen – usually this depended on who was the first
to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster to know
that there was no way he was going to move past this cluster,
its unexpectedness, without getting some backup)”

But let’s move on. Once settled in, stationary, feet up on the table, Coles then continues with a statement of poetics before launching into scattershot omnibus review-bites covering canonical favourites from the past three centuries. The poem’s set-up, then, disappears. We are now entirely inside Coles’ head, and the bookstore, any people who may have ventured into it, his boss, and the relationship between this outlet and the surrounding community, have dropped away. This criticism is entirely justified since Coles laid down these elements in the initial stages. And yes, I know that interior concentration is the point – the epigraph is a reminder – but structurally, the poem is a mess. But let’s talk about what’s there for the remaining pages. Coles’ valedictory penchant moves to the fore. It’s always been a strength, and in snippets from – and commentary on – writers from Flaubert to Hardy, George Eliot to Camus, the author warms his heart (and occasionally mine) by turning over a mini-highlight reel of verse and prose passage. There is nothing particularly illuminating here, though. The great writers speak for themselves. Coles simply admires for the most part, though he also reviews a Hardy passage by remarking on, “ ‘starlit’ locked into its perfection-slot [ugh!] in that last line”, and George Eliot is rightfully belaurelled (or whatever the equivalent word is for novelists) for a specific passage in Middlemarch, after which Coles remarks that Eliot “allows you to bring to mind, possibly from very far off, someone you know or, just as possibly, love”. Even here, though, the emotion, deep, devotional, can be, should be, readily evident from the source quotation, never mind the novel itself. Here’s the late Ralph Gustafson, Coles’ friend and neighbour, from his similarly considered winter poem-memoir, Configurations at Midnight:

“North, where I live, the crocus blooms
For about four weeks, less,
Perhaps, I haven’t counted, being
Too busy with coming peonies,
Then eating garden green peas,
Then August Indian corn
(Eight minutes is about all you need
For that, the water already boiling,
That is), far quicker than reading
Remembrance of Things Past. George
Eliot’s Middlemarch matches
Eating corn though and Chopin’s
“Barcarolle,” peas ...

Sadness to know there is no time.”

The latter passage is from a poem with complications. Coles’ enthusiasms are not much more than book blurbs.

Outside of the act of arranging these words, the sentiments herein give me zero pleasure. On this site, I’ve plugged all of Coles’ books – four? five? – that I’ve read. I just hope this volume isn’t indicative of the last offerings of some of our other gifted senior poets – Daryl Hine jumps immediately to mind – and that it’s just one bad note in a continuing, mesmerizing sonata. The second option is retirement. The other choice doesn’t bear dwelling on.

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