By Brooke Clark
1. Really, What Else Are You Doing?
Summer is coming to an end, and as we enter fall—what Cyril Connolly called “the hard crown of the year”—it’s time to put aside frivolous things, take a break from “prestige TV” and tackle a book that tackles the serious issues. You’re ready for it.
2. It’s a Culminating Achievement
If you’re going to read a single Don Coles collection, make it this one, which has the mark of maturity all over it. That isn’t a slight against Coles’ earlier books, which are excellent. But his themes—love, death, friendship, the passage of time, the transitory nature of life—come together here with a sharpness and clarity that gives this volume the feel of a culmination.
3. It’s a Corrective to the Prevailing Poetic Style
Contemporary poetry is overrun with obscurity. Every other day I come across poems that want to gull me into an “I don’t understand it but I guess it must be good” reaction. Murky metaphors, perplexing references, broken syntax, jarring language—these are tell-tale signs of a style with nothing to say. Coles is not that type of poet. Instead of writing poems that you have to fight your way through, or that actively discourage engagement, his lines open themselves up to you as you read, and then remain in your mind, enriching your perception of your own relationships and experiences.
4. It Shows a Subtle Command of Form
This is “Untitled,” a “free translation” of Goethe’s famous “Wanderer’s Night Song II”:
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 only eight lines the poem performs an elegant dance with the reader’s expectations. The first four lines follow a fairly standard ABAB quatrain rhyme scheme, although the variation in the length of the lines keeps us slightly off-balance and prevents the rhyme from becoming predictable. The second quatrain sets up a similar pattern, with ABA, but then, unexpectedly, rhymes the fourth line with the third rather than the second, giving ABAA.
Again, line length is used masterfully to provide variation, but it is that word “flutter,” left unrhymed, that strikes me. Something that could be seen as an imperfection becomes, in the hands of Coles, precisely the feature that lends the poem its quiet power, as the perceived “incompleteness” echoes the theme of the poem—the death we are all moving towards but haven’t reached yet, the completion that is dreaded more than desired.
5. It’s Only About 50 Pages Long
That’s not to say it’s light reading (you’ll want to take the poems at a slow, thoughtful pace) but it’s not like you’re trying to get through The Brothers Karamazov. Make the time, and you’ll find that it’s a short book with, to borrow a phrase, “long resonances.”
6. It Contains “Yearbook”
I’m not interested in picking the “best” poem in the collection, but “Yearbook” is a characteristically excellent one:
‘So brilliant has been her career
we shall doubtless hear of her again’,
reads the rubric under a forty-year-ago
school photo showing her standing before
a respectful circle of her peers.
She is a solitary figure with a small smile
and a confident gaze.
She has done so well!
Yet as she watches us from the photo
her gaze is an arrow, it vibrates
somewhere near our hearts.
What is she thinking? Inside the photo,
freshly foreseeing a perhaps-unusual life,
does she wonder at the easy prediction.
Which is not yet a lie, but will become one—
we know this because forty years
have passed and we’ve forgotten her name.
‘Doubtless’ was overly optimistic.
Though it was not her word and
it is not her fault, she is only standing
where she was told to stand.
What was it like, instead?
Not really a poem that needs in-depth explication. But note how it builds towards, and then turns on the fulcrum of, that one line, “Which is not yet a lie, but will become one.” Throughout the language is simple and direct—one might say “plain”—and the poem creates its impact effortlessly, without the histrionic straining for effect typical of much contemporary poetry.
7. It Has Wisdom to Impart (So Radical!)
Regret is the keynote emotion that runs through this collection. Almost all the poems are, in one way or another, about something that has passed by or been lost—childhood (“poem”), a ring (“Flying”), love (“Aschenbach in Toronto”). But A Serious Call is not just a litany of lost moments. Take this stanza from the poem “People I Knew for One Year”:
Mr. MacDonald who besides being principal
taught the top grade, VI, for one year,
when I was in it. He said interesting things
every day and I finally, but years too slowly,
drove to what used to be his house
to tell him so.
The regret is there, certainly, but Coles also points us to something larger: the way regret can engender a particular kind of wisdom. In this poem, as in so many others, it is through a lost opportunity that we come to understand the importance of communicating when we have the chance. The idea that we often decide to act “years too slowly” finds its fullest expression in the long title poem that concludes the collection.
8. It Works at the Level of the Poem, Not the Line
If you read a lot of poetry reviews—and really, why would you?—you might notice that reviewers quote sparingly from the poems under review. This stems from the fact that many contemporary poets compose at the level of the line; their poems contain one or two striking lines, and then a lot of pedestrian writing that exists only to provide a context against which those moments can stand out.
This is not that sort of collection. There’s nothing wrong with Coles’ lines, but they’re not the point. Rather, every line serves the larger purpose and helps build the cumulative power of the poem.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t standout lines. “What was it like, instead?” from “Yearbook” (quoted above) is one that has stayed with me. But that line isn’t remarkable for what it contains on its own; it’s significant as the conclusion of that particular poem, and the force it carries is generated by what led up to it.
9. It Will Repay Your Attention
Okay, maybe you’re hesitating. Maybe you’ve tried a couple of poetry books in the last few years and decided poetry just isn’t for you. I sympathize.
But A Serious Call really does offer rewards to what Virginia Woolf might have called (without a hint of denigration) “common readers.” The clarity and directness of the style, the simple beauty of the language, the complexity of emotion, the hard-earned understanding at the core of each poem and the thematic unity that binds this collection together—all these elements make the experience of reading this book more like what you might associate with an excellent novella than a standard poetry collection, where the author’s goal seems to be to send you stumbling from one bewilderment to the next.
10. It Contains a Masterful Long Poem
A Serious Call falls into two sections, the first half a collection of shorter poems, and the last half a single long poem, “A Serious Call.”
Long poems aren’t easy, but Coles pulls this one off. “A Serious Call” is a discursive, (presumably) autobiographical verse-essay about the time he spent working in a London bookshop, the other clerk he befriended, and the books they read together. It is a powerful portrait of a friendship forged through literature and, just as the book feels like a culmination of Coles’ earlier work, so “A Serious Call” draws together the elements of the earlier poems in this volume and becomes a capstone to his career.
11. You Can Have Fun Spotting Literary References
This may or may not be your kind of thing, but I enjoy it. Coles sometimes identifies the books he’s talking about and sometimes refers to them more obliquely, but it’s fun to identify them, and then to see how many you’ve read. (I’ve discovered I have some reading to do.)
12. You Get to Watch a Particular Kind of Literary Friendship Unfold
One of the most affecting aspects of the poem “A Serious Call” is the growing friendship between the speaker and John, the other clerk in the Southwark bookstore where they work. They start out slightly suspicious of each other, but quickly enter into a tacit conspiracy where, since the shop is rarely busy, they spend their time sitting in the back reading.
Then the friendship goes a step further: Coles describes a growing sense, as they sit together reading separate books, that the experience is somehow incomplete. What completes it, finally, is the reading of favourite passages out loud to one another, and this sharing of literature deepens the friendship into a lifelong bond.
13. It May Spark Your Interest in Cyril Connolly
One of the books Coles touches on is Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. Originally published in 1944, as a “word cycle” and attributed to “Palinurus,” The Unquiet Grave is a collection of Connolly’s musings on various quotations. No doubt there are many ways to think of the book, but to me, it has always seemed an insistence on, and an attempt to preserve, a truly European literary tradition in the face of the destruction wrought by World War Two.
“A Serious Call” is a sort of poetic heir to The Unquiet Grave in that it, too, is a gathering of references and quotations through which Coles constructs his own personal literary tradition, one that includes Tolstoy, Flaubert, George Eliot, Proust, and Camus, among others.
14. You Get To Come Up with Your Own Interpretations of the Title
So what exactly is “A Serious Call” a serious call to? It’s a complex work, and there are several possible answers even within the poem itself. Near the beginning Coles tells us he took the title from a 1728 book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but the poem is not really calling us to that. By the end of the poem, a “call”—serious or otherwise—becomes a way of thinking about or reaching out to a friend, returning us again to the book’s controlling concern: that communication in the present is the only way of constructing a bulwark against the losses brought about by time. But you can come up with your own interpretation, and perhaps what you take from it says as much about you as it does about the poem. These lines, from a passage about reading Thomas Hardy’s poem “Channel Firing,” suggest another way of understanding the title:
…Whereas most people don’t,
or not half as securely, know those stanzas within which
Thomas Hardy has invoked the long resonances of those
great grey stones out there somewhere between
the ocean and history.
Well, it’s so, most people don’t. Though now’s
In constructing his own vision of a European tradition, Coles is issuing a call—or maybe a challenge—to us to read literature seriously and deeply, and by implication, making an argument that literature matters. He is pointing out the works that he thinks form the backbone of a Western literary tradition, and if we don’t know them, now’s our chance.
And, in that spirit…
15. It Might Even Get You Started Reading Proust…or Tolstoy…or Camus…or…
You’ve been meaning to, right?
BROOKE CLARK edits an epigrams website (assesofparnassus.tumblr.com) and writes about references to Canada in books by non-Canadians (wowcanada.wordpress.com). His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Queen's Quarterly, Literary Imagination, and Partisan.