Lifesaving Poems: Don Coles’s ‘Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper for March 13, 1910’

Isn’t Twitter a marvellous thing? Following a link on a tweet of Jeanne Duperreault last week I came across the Canadian Poetry Online site. It is a wonderful treasure trove of a site,complete with listings of books, awards and biographical notes, as well as poems. It is also a storehouse of statements by each poet on their poetics, process and craft. You can find these by clicking on the Writing Philosophy link for each poet.

Don Coles’s magisterial piece is here.

I’ll admit, finding these statements made me almost as excited as discovering the site in the first place. Here is what Don Coles has to say about what and why he writes poems:

Philip Larkin writes somewhere of the sort of person who “will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious.” I think there are many such persons; and I find this hunger (so often suppressed or unacknowledged by oneself, or mocked by others) very moving, as moving as anything I can think of. I believe also that for me at any rate this “hunger to be serious” fulfills itself with great difficulty, and seldom or not at all in the daily circs of life (one is either too rushed, or, as some unprogrammed encounter with seriousness looms, too inhibited, too embarrassed); but I know that writing allows me to draw close to it. For this I am grateful to writing, grateful that forms and traditions (for example, lyric poetry) exist within which I can stalk seriousness without needing to justify what I am doing.

I love this. I love its self-knowledge, its awareness of the fleeting nature of approaching one’s core self (or selves) in order to begin to shape and capture what really matters.  I love that ‘daily circs of life’, so offhand and yet filled with a sense of dread, a shorthand description of the enormous tide of information that would sweep us away at any moment, given a chance.

All of this, Coles’s notes, the poems on the site, plus his ‘statement’, reconfirmed what I already knew, that Don Coles is a great poet and should be a household name. I have one book of his, the UK publication by the heroic Arc Publications of his 1994 New and Selected Poems: Someone Has Stayed in Stockholm. If you do not know it, it is a completely transformative book, taking the reader into new and uncharted imaginative territories, and I urge you to buy it.

There are poems here in the voice of Kafka in love, taken from his letters and journals; a long sequence of poems about Edvard Munch ‘and his (largely untranslated diaries)’; found poetry using the Michelin Guide; and some startling meditations on mortality and aging, particularly the sequence of poems ‘Landslides (Visits to the Gericare Centre)’. As some of these titles and themes suggest, the book feels very European, not North American, in its sensibility.

(I only ever read one UK review of it, by the great Martin Stannard, and would be grateful to see more…)

I seem to remember Martin Stannard saying about ‘Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper For March 13, 1910’ something along the lines that it takes a corny, old hat idea, ‘writing from a postcard’, and transforms it into something altogether more rich and strange than the material has any right to offer.

The poem achieves this by containing very little actual description or reporting on the visual material; it is much more of a meditation, in a recursive and speculative way, about how humans choose ‘to last’. The poem is aware of ‘complexities’ of each individual in the photograph, but does not attempt to extricate these or spell them out. In making the reader aware of this awareness the poem seems to enter into a zone of calm yet tense reflexivity which gives us only minor hints of what is going on: ‘they stand in a blur’; ‘the darksuited father’s hand/ rests on his small son’s shoulder’; there is ‘weak sunlight’.

These details are sketchy, deliberately it seems to me, but they are enough, because the miraculous closing lines, which ask us to credit evidence of the miraculous in meagre ‘daily circs’, come across not as assertion, but rather a blossoming of the idea of the possibility of  ‘lasting’ at all.

Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper For March 13, 1910

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.

To be moved by these people must seem sentimental.

We’re here years too late

to hope their blurred faces will unpack

into features we can side with

or against, or expect these bodies

will continue into those next shapes

on which we’ll base a plot.

But that’s it: not here they are, but

there they were.  Safe now from even

their own complexities -what luck

not to be asked their names!- and proof

against our most intricate pursuit,

they stand in a blur that seems

no error of focus but an inspired rendering

of how they chose to last,

admitting nothing except that once

they were.  That hand rested

on that shoulder.  The four of them stood there.

There was a little sunlight.

We shall never learn more.  They seem

miraculous.  They persuade me

all will be well.

Don Coles

from Someone has Stayed in Stockholm: New and Selected Poems (Arc, 1994)

Lifesaving Poems

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