All the poets under discussion tangle with effortlessness. The poets set the virtue of effortlessness before the work and what we get is the manifest expressive interpretation. Two things are noteworthy: the choice of the pursuit; and secondly, the age in which this pursuit is carried through. Short Talks is Anne Carson’s first book from 1992; A Serious Call presents Don Coles, writing late in his career at considerable vintage; Dog Ear is Jim Johnstone, a younger poet—but one now established in his craft—writing about what is for him a well-hewn process to effortlessness. As these titles suggest all three poets are concerned with what means to have the calling and to be a serious poet. Anne Carson and Coles will undercut the convention and myth, Johnstone will run with it.
Johnstone takes us on a “Drive” at a frenetic pace. The lyrics are smart, funny, original but the poetry is sometimes unnatural, overcopped with anxiety, fillings,
. . . Tell me you’re good. Tell me we’ll
lend our touch to the nearest MG, drive south on a
sucker bet until we run dry in the desert. There are
others who’ve come uninvited, who’ve come to free
themselves from their skin, lose their grip
and trace in a mess of coins. Here’s my loss—fist
lodged in the maw of the first guest to speak, our
honour run aground. To stay we’ll need to slap down
the pin that adorns your jacket, bet against a snail being
able to survive the edge of a straight razor. I’ve been
told that nothing can live to know such a lean blade.
When we drive land rises and we rise with it.
Undoubtedly, there are verbal hijinks aplenty but every third word stops me up short. The smoothness—the very thing Johnstone is talking about—is compromised because the very words themselves are heavy. Tonally there are many colours, but no baseline (hopefully light) to anchor the music. It sounds, it sounds–is it anxiety or attentive receptiveness?—while humble and dignified in aesthetic.
A young Anne Carson is at the opposite extreme. As if foreshadowing nothing—nothing but a desire to write and observe, Carson skirts mastery. Do many of her “talks” fail? Yes, but the experiment as a whole is always kept afloat. In a “Short Talk On My Task” we read “My task is to carry secret burdens for the / world. . . . I also carry untimely ideas and sins / in general or any faulty action that has been lowered together with you into this hour.” It is hard not to notice the adventurousness of syntax.
I find her work bold, sexy, interesting. It leaves me curious, “When I look at the city of Paris I long to wrap my / legs around it.” (“Short Talk on Hedonism”). Some of my favorite “poems” are family portraits, “Short Talk on Reading,” “Short Talk On Sunday Dinner with Father,” “Short Talk On Walking Backwards,” etc. There are also apologetic or unapologetic marvels as “Short Talk on Where to Travel,” and “Short Talk on Housing.” But any clues for the sleuth as to why she became a poet are absent. Influences as diverse as Kafka and Dickinson are in the foreground but the charm and novel discipline is what shines through,
Some fathers hate to read but love to take
the family on trips. Some children hate trips
but love to read. Funny how often these find
themselves passengers in the same auto-
mobile. I glimpsed the stupendous clear-
cut shoulders of the Rockies from between
paragraphs of Madame Bovary. Cloud shad-
ows rowed languidly across here huge rock
throat, traced her fir flanks. Since those days
I do not look at hair on female flesh without
A Serious Call is the most accomplished and assured collection I have read by Don Coles. Coles’ subject matter and style have always been something of anomaly, especially to poetry audiences in Canada, and Coles seemed always to be self-conscious of this. In A Serious Call, the book and poems are remarkably pared down, yet the voice is very full and rich, very varied; and the music is quite good. The long poem “A Serious Call” is readable, thrilling and very much Don Coles—unabashedly full of foreign references. One of the best poems is about John A. McDonald, “A Tender Tale”:
. . . Years later a second wife will find in the attic
what she describes to the by-then Sir John as
‘A box of odd wooden objects’ and asks, ‘What might these be?’
The knight’s eyes fill with tears as he explains that they are
‘John A’s toys’. ‘John A’ was the agreed-upon manner
in which he and his first wife had always spoken of a son who
lived for just a year, one August to the next, but for whom
these ‘odd wooden objects’ were meant to be toys.
In my mind I pick them up, these objects which can hardly
have been played with but which have been in this attic
a very long while, and turn them about for not long at all
in my cautious, undeserving hands. A tear or two
habitually arrives/arrive; a private matter. Is there
more to say? There is, possibly, this—young John A
returns in a September his life never reached, saying,
‘These were my toys. I watched them from my crib.’
Obligatory, yes, for a Canadian, but a true test of a poet should be their facility at writing a good Canadian poem. Coles’ powers are very much at their summit in this book. I am in awe of this book. I cannot recommend it enough, un-selfconscious and very endearing.