Where We Might Have Been is Don Coles’s 10th collection of poetry. It follows the 2000 collection Kurgan, which won the Trillium Book Award, and marks the climax of a singular reign as one of this country’s major lyricists. Billed as a sort of memoir in verse, the book is imbued with two characteristics typical of this veteran poet: a personal obsession with memory and aging, and a repertoire of poetic tricks and riffs that few Canadian poets have at their disposal.
The book’s primary thematic concern is memory. For Coles, memory is a mysterious system, not just an excuse for personal inventory: his inspiration is not only history but historiography, the structure and meaning of stories. This preoccupation is evident in the book’s repertoire of rhetorical backtracks and stutter-steps, such as those that frame the gangly final piece, “‘Too Tall’ Jones.” Observe, for example, this bit, made up almost entirely of rhetorical asides:
OK, but if that’s all
the tape-measure had to contribute –
so? (asking this, by now, privately,
having fled that room for one where I could
The poem’s source material (the author’s memories of being a precociously tall adolescent) is only an excuse to reflect on the structure of memory and storytelling. “‘Too Tall’ Jones” is an 11-page poem that could easily be reduced to 11 lines, but to call it redundant, overlong, or verbose is to miss the point completely.
In “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them),” Coles reverts to the central storytelling engine of his career: a poetic style that subordinates and then subsumes the content of his verses. The lyric recalls Coles’s 1991 book-length poem “Little Bird”: both open with a focus on the external, expand into an examination of the poet’s internal world, and return to meditate on their original sources (the bird in the earlier work, Proust in this one). Style trumps content, then becomes content.
The diversity of Coles’s repertoire allows him to assert his sonic expertise without lapsing into predictability. His core tactics in Where We Might Have Been are carried over from past books: a vocabulary of alliterations, half-rhymes, slant rhymes, and half-forgotten recurrences of sound. He knows all the tricks, and has incorporated them well enough to hide their trickiness. Witness the musical elements in this simple passage, which sees the poet making use of tools both obvious (word repetition, alliteration, assonance) and subtle (the floating slant rhymes of “in,” “on,” and “one,” for example):
My first school was the Princess Street School in
Woodstock, Ontario, which I attended from Grades One
to Six before, as we in knee-jerk fashion say nowadays,
Coles’s virtuosic vocabulary of poetic techniques does lend a certain faceless quality to Where We Might Have Been. His past efforts often relied on dramatic conceits (The Prinzhorn Collection) and/or formalist requirements (Little Bird). In these books, the poems were constrained by Coles’s self-imposed limitations. By contrast, Where We Might Have Been takes the author’s whole “modestly adventurous … life” as its subject. In places, the book suffers from that freedom, and may have benefited from a touch less diversity. While the song of Kurgan and the song of Prinzhorn were written in a specific key, the song of Coles is diasporic, atonal, and (ironically) impersonal.
Where We Might Have Been is a perfect title for this collection, and not because it disappoints. It doesn’t disappoint: it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s not the ephemera of Coles’s life that’s essential to the collection, but rather the ornate confusion of memory, and the management of memory offered by storytelling and the poet’s extensive grammar of sounds. Coles has been joined in Canadian lyric poetry by generations of practitioners who use poetry as an excuse to tell us about their lives. Witnessing an elder statesperson using his life as an excuse to tell us about poetry is a humbling and invigorating experience.