A Study in Coats

I enjoyed the program, my aging
father tells me, but these TV actors
all put their coats on in the same
ridiculous way. They must learn
from one book. You didn’t notice?

I didn’t.

Well, they swing their coat
like a cape and it goes flying around
over the shoulder. Were it you or me
we would break things.
We’d never get our arms in.

He waits on the phone. I hear him breathing.

I try to recall scenes of coats
worn with humility, picturing instead
my father leaving for work in the dark
each morning, a calligraphy of threads
hanging from his jacket lining.

I want to say, suspension of disbelief.
But maybe there comes a point
where you need to see
the struggle. The stiff movements
and the fight with zip and buttons.

And did you ever notice, I finally ask back,
how someone being chased
runs straight ahead till what’s behind
mows them down, when all
they had to do was step aside?

Of course, he replies.
They stole that from our dreams.


Nina Berkhout’s most recent publications include Elseworlds and Why Birds Sing. She lives in Ottawa.

Questions and Answers


As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?

Don’t wait for inspiration. Have a set schedule and stick to it. You won’t make a living off your poetry, so you will need to write before or after work, and you will need to give up distractions. Make poetry your priority, show up every day, and eventually the magic will happen.

It’s impossible to read all of the contemporary poets out there today. There are too many. If your time is limited, focus on discovering poetry from the past, from all cultures, in every form and style. This will enrich your own writing.


How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?

When an idea comes I jot it down right away. Once it’s there in my mind, I take more notes over the next few weeks, before I begin writing. When I write my first draft, I don’t edit myself or overthink it. After I get the idea down I focus on imagery, language, rhythm, tone, and the line. For every poem I have written, there are twenty or thirty pages beneath it containing notes, questions, lists of words, and earlier drafts. It’s also important to leave the poem a while, let it breathe, and work on something else. When you return to the version you thought was your final draft, everything will have changed. Likely you’ll rewrite entire parts again, and do some more fine-tuning. You will laugh and ask yourself, “How did I not see that before?!”. It’s always a good idea to live alone with your poem for six months to a year, resisting the urge to share it before it’s ready. Be patient.

This poem “A Study in Coats” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 135-136.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.