In the opening paragraph of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729), from which Don Coles has drawn the title of his new poetry collection, William Law writes that “Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted to” … well, Law says God, but Coles, I think, means poetry.
Fully half of A Serious Call is taken up by the title poem, a long and rather shaggy personal reminiscence about a year that Coles spent working in a bookshop in Southwark, then a downtrodden part of London. He mostly spent his time with his feet up on a table, reading books with his manager, discovering texts like Eliot’s Middlemarch and Thomas Hardy’s poems and Cyril Connolly’s personal essays on literature. “A Serious Call” is set as a poem, but its poetics are loose in the extreme and it might just as well have been composed as a prose memoir. It is charming, but hard to hear as poetry.
The title poem is preceded by 13 shorter pieces, most of which also focus on the past and memory. The first few left me wondering whether either Coles or I had lost his/my ear somehow, so boringly conversational and lacking in poetry’s usual music do they sound.
But a poem called “Aschenbach in Toronto” changed my mind. This poem, in 18 four-line stanzas, contains only two sentences. It is full of beautiful counterpoint and its close following of a man’s observations as a woman comes to visit him for lovemaking, crowded up against their memories of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, is breathtaking. After a minute or two of catching up and literary talk, the couple is “undoing each other” in both senses of the word, “their mouths / pre-empted except for / slight and perfunctory // syllables.”
The remaining shorter poems in A Serious Call are less successful, although Coles’s translation of Goethe’s “Wanderers Nachtlied” is exceptionally fine. But “Aschenbach in Toronto,” the indisputible highlight of this short collection, demonstrates that at 88 years of age, Coles’s talent remains undiminished.