Where We Might Have Been

By Don Coles

On the subject of memory, and the poetry of Don Coles is rooted in memory, this is interesting (maybe even “blown-away interesting,” you decide):

Psychiatrists are currently saying that we take
near-permanent note of every sight and sound
our lives offer us, filing away not only casual
scenes and events (and lately, from abandoned
hangars and unsupervised outbuildings,
the shredded, corridor-strewn contents of
once-cloistered, now Googleable, libraries both
ancient and modern), but also fierce angers,
immense joys, summer TV re-runs and NFL
hi-lites, in short whatever’s now going or once went.
All this stacks up in our head-mass,
most of it seemingly lost in there but all,
apparently, retrievable if we can catch even fleeting
glimpses of it. Glimpses from which may come
limitless things.

One such limitless thing being the oceanic mind itself. This is your brain on Google, one’s “head mass” as a networked synaptic soup retrieving files by glimpses that may as well be clicks. Here they are again leading off another poem:

The body presses forward on its narrowing journey
but the mind, musing on loss, pauses, looks
back, among the queues of years glimpses, like campfires,
its secret scenes.

The glimpse isn’t just a metaphor for retrieving the past. It’s a kind of movement, a bit of mental indirection that doesn’t press grimly forward but strolls about like a flâneur, pauses, looks back, gets drawn off track, and constantly re-evaluates. The poems in Where We Might Have Been resist all sense of linear progress, tending to end up back where they started after wandering about through fields of memory. The lines are long, the language informal, the content anecdotal, the rhythm conversational and the voice direct (“Think about it!”, “You see?”). The tone is set in the first lines of the first poem:

I was eating my supper in a booth in the Copenhagen
Student Union’s café and reading Art Buchwald’s
column in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune when . . .

The moment is Coles’ version of a spot of time, a campfire that lights up with its specificity canyons of the past. He was eating supper, we soon learn, “fifty-plus years ago.” That indistinct quality time has – evoked throughout the book in phrases like “a few years ago,” “six or seven years,” “I think it was about eight years ago,” and “ca. seventy years” – plays off against the exactness of a remembered moment, which in turn expands into the poem. Of course Marcel and his biscuit is the great literary archetype here, and Proust even makes an appearance in a poem whose title exemplifies the book’s digressive nature: “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them).” In another poem that expands upon “a random but vivid memory” of a French author, “Memory, Camus, Beaches,” the same shuffling movement among glimpses is even more pronounced, the structure “a re-start and circling-back” that starts off with Camus, then inserts those thoughts on the head mass quoted earlier, then returns to Camus (“We left him a while ago but now we’re / back”), then slips into another pair of digressions (“Which reminds me . . .”), then comes back to something else about Camus (“just one more thing while we’re here . . .”), and finally concludes with an anecdote recalled when out “walking in my usual meaningless way.”

Though all of his poetry is of a piece, one never has the feeling that Coles is repeating himself. Memory, whatever its initial impulse, opens onto a limitless range. Certain techniques do recur, like the use of an aide-mémoire to make memory speak (“Here’s a WWII photo . . .”, “Here’s a green-jacketed hardback . . .”), or the worrying of individual words (“The word ‘plangency’ has tempted me / more than once but I’ve resisted it”, “I wanted to have ‘despairingly’ there, a deeper and / darker adverb for sure”, “Funny about that word ‘surprised’.”). But what ties everything together isn’t so much the voice, which is more expansive than usual, as the personality it reveals. Coles places his poetic line within the Hardy-Larkin tradition, but his tone is very different. Hardy and Larkin are bitter men, their grumpy reflections suggesting a disillusionment and even at times a disgust with life. Coles seems cheery and blessed in comparison.

Coles came to publishing poetry late, a fact that has probably contributed something to his abiding interest in the backward glimpse and his mining of “secret fastnesses” snagged from the “coasting-pass of time.” The result has been a body of poetry that is highly personal but that also keeps a distance from the self. Memory is a way of both preserving and observing one’s own life. And it is in fragments and glimpses, including those preserved in texts or files, that the past is contained and set free. As Coles has said elsewhere: “an hour’s immortal even if a life isn’t.”

Review first published online January 3, 2010.

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