FOR THE COURSE that he teaches in the humanities division of York University, Don Coles shows a film about the life of Edvard Munch. He also asks his students to read Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, who suffered brutally under Stalin. What do the lives of these artists have to do with Coles? Or those of Tolstoy, Kafka, and Rilke, writers about whom he has written or been influenced by? After all, Coles neither leads an ascetic and solitary existence like Rilke's, nor suffers ill health as did Kafka, nor is being persecuted by the state, as was Mandelstam; he has a distinguished profession, a marriage, two children.
Coles has made a point of not claiming any special "talent-kinship" with these artists he is drawn to, but like them he has shown over the years a quiet dedication to his art. Unlike some of the poets of his generation, he has not become a performer or a public character, nor has he waved the banners of liberation or Canadian nationalism to win our attention. Instead, he has simply written his poems and published them without fanfare.
These influences, and years of living in Europe, have made Coles more cosmopolitan than many of his peers, and less influenced by trends in North American poetry. He winces at the mention of Walt Whitman; Coles, for one, is no celebrant of the self "I'm not interested in the huge spate of confessional poems that we've been inundated with," he says. "What I want poetry to be about has to do with the kinds of things that Henry James and Flaubert talk about - the need for
As an example of what he calls a "classical" approach, Coles cites a new poem that has recently been published in the London Review of Books, called "Forests of the Medieval World!' "It represents something closer to what I'd like my poetry to be," he says. "In a way, it's a love poem, but only 20 of the 80 or so lines ever acknowledge the existence of the two lovers. Otherwise the poem is about what the title says: it lists some of the vanished forests of medieval Europe. These forests represent deep-rooted time and stillness as opposed to our frantic scurryings about on the surface of the earth. That's a more likely way of connecting the reader to matters that are lasting."
But what, then, are we to make of Coles's new book, Little Bird, just published by Vehicule Press? Subtitled "Last Letter to My Father," it is a highly personal work, a long poem in which Coles attempts to come to terms with the memory of his father, who died in 1986.
"Little Bird," he muses, "goes against what I have most begun to feel that I want my poetry to be about."
COLES WAS NOT an early starter. His first book of poetry, Sometimes All Over, was published by Macmillan in 1975, when he was 47 years old. His next two collections, Anniversaries (1979) and The Prinzhorn Collection (1982), were also issued by Macmillan; Coles was the last poet they published. Sometimes All Over contains what is probably Coles's best known poem, one often reprinted in anthologies: "Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper for March 13, 1910," which already shows the gentle obsession that runs through Coles's work. This is how it begins:
Here is a family so little famous
their names were not recorded. They stand,
indistinct as though they know it's right
in this slum courtyard
in weak sunlight. The darksuited father's hand
rests on his small son's shoulder,
mother and daughter are on either side
of the open door. It is a Sunday
or we may suppose they would not be
together like this, motionless
for the photographer's early art.
The theme of mutability, of the sadness of the disappearing past, is there from the beginning. Photographs appear often in Coles's poems, as do other artefacts of the past; the poet's job is to meditate upon them, and to mould the results of this meditation into art. "To be moved by these people must seem sentimental," the poet writes, even as he is unafraid of the emotion he presents to us.
Don Coles lives not in Rilke's medieval tower, but in a handsome and spare house in North Toronto. He is a tall and willowy man, almost gaunt now at 63. "At the beginning I didn't realize the extent to which this theme of mutability was a concern," he says. "I think it's still very central. I'm comforted to read the way in which people like Hardy and Yeats said that most poets have only two or three central concerns, or even a central image."
He crosses his long legs. "I do have to restrain myself from allowing too many photographs into my poems. Philip Larkin says that the instinct to preserve lies at the root of all art. I think that's pretty close to the truth. And he also says that when he's writing about a given episode he feels a degree of responsibility to the thought or image that moves him. To preserve it, to not let it leave the world. And that responsibility is not central to himself or to some other individual, but to the experience itself"
Although he is not a confessional poet, Coles has used his own life, or rather the lives around him, as subjects. "Landslides," the sequence used as the title for his selected poems (McClelland & Stewart, 1986), describes Coles's mother suffering from an Alzheimer's-like disease at the end of her life. But the poem moves on to moments in her past that the son imagines and almost lives over, "concentrated moments, / Like landslides, blocking forgetfulness."
"My mother was the central person in the family, as is so often the case," Coles says, wrapping his hands around a mug of coffee. "She was a very literary person, she was the one who introduced books into the house. She taught for a year at Mount Allison University after graduating from the University of Toronto, and her professors wanted her to study at Oxford. But she wanted to get married to this fellow from Woodstock [Ontario]."
Coles, who grew up in Woodstock, also attended the University of Toronto, where he wrote a column for the student newspaper, The Varsity, and edited the literary journal Acta Victoriana, for which he reported on existentialism in Paris cafes after his first summer trip to Europe in 1948. Coles married a fellow student and headed for Cambridge, beginning what would be 12 years of wanderings abroad. In England he tried his hand at writing plays, among them a long verse drama in the then fashionable style of Christopher Fry. Then a British Council grant allowed Coles and his wife to go to Italy, though it was later revoked when the Council discovered they were living in Florence rather than the university town of Pavia. But by then Coles had written a novel.
At the Ryerson Press in Toronto, John Robert Colombo liked the book, even though it was not accepted for publication. In the meantime, Coles returned to England, where he and his wife eventually separated. He worked in a bookstore across from London Bridge, where he read poetry with his feet propped up before an electric heater. An offer from an old university friend to go to Sweden (the friend had discovered uranium in Northern Ontario and become a millionaire) took Coles to Stockholm, a city he found so hospitable that he stayed on for a year and a half, working as a translator, first from French and then later from Swedish as well. He met Heidi Golnitz, the German-born woman who would become his second wife, and wrote another novel.
"I had about 35 addresses in that time," Coles says. "I also lived in Zurich, Hamburg, Munich, and Copenhagen. I was having a very good time and wasn't at all concerned with long-term plans. As for my writing, any rational look would have shown that the novel wasn't the genre for me. The only decent things in the ones I wrote are some set pieces. Anybody with sense might have thought that whatever I was good at might relate to a much smaller format."
PERHAPS THE NOVEL was not the right form for Coles, but he does have the novelist's passion for imagining lives. Take the title poem of The Prinzhorn Collection. Cast in the form of a letter from a museum curator in Munich, it describes an exhibition of 19th-century artworks that have been created by the inmates of a mental institution. The curator, though bombastic, has sympathy for the lives of these patients, especially one named Joseph Grebing. Grebing wrote countless letters to his father explaining and justifying himself, and also created a kind of illuminated scroll -artefacts that, like a photograph, both let us into the past and retain the mystery of another's life. On this scroll Grebing has written for his father (and us) a message:
Four words long, the four words
Repeated over and over along that
Tendril's curlicued length, ending
Where they begin and beginning where
They end, and so elegant and near
Runic in design as to mislead the eye
Into believing them for
The designs own sake. This at-length
Deciphered rune reads: Du hast
Keine Idee Du hast keine Idee Du
Hast keine Idee.
Du hast keine Idee
You have no idea.
The curator tells us that Grebing's letters to his father were never mailed.
WILLIAM KILBOURN ACCEPTED a chapter of Coles's second novel for a 1964 issue of the Tamarack Review. Not long after, Coles, his wife, and their new daughter returned to Canada, where he began a desultory search for a job. Kilbourn, the first chair of the humanities division at York, asked Coles if he would like to teach. To his Surprise, Coles discovered that he enjoyed the work, became for a time the head of the creative-writing program at York, and has been teaching there ever since. During the summer he is also the poetry editor of the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts.
Coles writes almost all his poetry while on sabbatical, and during one non-teaching year he completed the manuscript of K. in Love. Published in 1987 by Vehicule, this is an exquisite and touching series of poems in the form of love letters:
It's so lonely here
Without you. 1 try
to write cheerfully and
Every word on the page
Bursts into tears.
The poems contain no overt references to Kafka's life, to Prague, or to any of his writing. "When I began writing K. in Love I had no thought of Kafka at all," Coles says. "The postnote in the book is really a simplification. What happened was that for some years I thought it would be lovely to write a book that was nothing but brief love lyrics. I make notes when I'm not writing poetry, and from them I produced about 25 brief lyrics. I was aiming to get about 60, and at that point I began reading Kafka's letters to Milena and Felice for the first time in years. The voice of my lyrics then became more direct and simple, as if I was becoming less patient with any kind of artifice. And then I took some direct borrowings from Kafka, an image or a suggestion. The very humble voice in the poems, that expects nothing, that's the voice of Kafka more than anything else,"
A reader who knows something of Kafka's life will remember the difficulties that the shy writer had with women; he was far more comfortable making love by mail. K. in Love is not the depiction of an affair but a meditation on love, devotion, and art, one in which the writing of the letters largely displaces the need to actually see the loved one. "It reminds me of Rilke's letters to some of his women," Coles says, "where he often says, 'I adore you and I'm enormously grateful to you but please leave me alone. You would disturb my communion with my poem.' So this may be what I'm most moved by, the solitary moment in which I am alone and writing to you."
IF THE FIGURE of K. allowed Coles to address the subject of love in an - apparently - impersonal manner, his new book allows for no Such distance. Little Bird is a long poem of 296 quatrains about Coles's relationship with his father. The elder Coles took little pleasure:
in language, either,
never using two
words when one would do,
and sat in spreading
silence when I, a schoolboy then,
swarmed among syllables for
the sheer joy
& hell of it...
This battle between the loquacious son and the taciturn father usually resulted in the son being banished from the table. The poem also recounts Coles's early rambles through Europe, his pretensions as a young writer, and even some of his present thoughts on the current (deplorable) state of poetry. But in the end it is an act of reconciliation, an attempt to "build some kind / of bridge towards you."
Whatever emotional distance Coles does manage to achieve is secured through the form of the poem, tightly rhymed to begin with, becoming more casual as it goes on, but always elegant and amusing. At one point the poet admits that Coles senior would have already given up reading it. "My father was a man of few words," Coles remembers. "For him you didn't embroider a story. You told it as rapidly as possible to get it out of the way. He was the kind of person Rollo May describes as a 'gyroscopic' man. The man for whom stability means a great deal, the person who took his values from the public values of his time and who was all right as long as they were not called into question. My father didn't want to hear about uncertainties in life.
"There were those years when I was asked to leave the table," Coles continues. "I'd have a lot of clashes with him as a result of jabbering too much. The funny thing is I don't remember minding particularly, I didn't end up hating him. It's a curious poem. I started to write thinking it would be one of my typical page-and-a-half poems. But the quatrains and the rhyme became a kind of engine that drove it further than I thought it would go. Even though I've done a lot of reworking, I haven't allowed myself to stand back far enough to ask the kind of question you would bloody well think I would have done by now."
Little Bird is a renegade poem that its author can't quite account for. Nor wants to. Coles says gently, "My feeling now is it's written, to hell with it, leave it alone."
He is unsure how readers will react to the poem, or even how they will read it. He is interested to hear that I detect a note of bitterness beneath its easy surface, and shows surprise when I point out that this is a letter that cannot he received by its addressee (his father being dead) and that other undelivered "letters" can he found in his poems.
"I didn't notice that these letters won't be received by the person for whom they're ostensibly written," Coles muses. "That may be a condition of being able to write a poem like this - that the receiver is not accessible. Perhaps it relates to my need for stillness; the person to whom the letter is directed has almost achieved the status of art. I couldn't imagine writing Little Bird while my father was still alive."