'Kurgan is the work of a poet who has mastered the full range of his voice,' commented [Trillium] English-language jurors Kim Echlin, Andrew Pyper and Michael Redhill. 'It is a collection that seems at times easily elegant in its language, but that at the same time plumbs the depths of human experience.'
About the author
Don Coles was born April 12, 1927, in the town of Woodstock, Ontario.
Coles entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1945. He did a four-year history degree, then a two-year M.A. in English, spending two undergraduate summers in Trois-Pistoles, Quebec, learning French, and one summer travelling in Europe. He had several courses with Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, whom he recalls as the best teachers of his life. In between the two M.A. years, he spent a year in London working in a bookstore, then enrolled at Cambridge from 1952 to 1954, and upon graduating was awarded a British Council grant to live in Florence for a year. It was in Stockholm that he met Heidi Golnitz of Lubeck, Germany, whom he eventually married; they lived in Copenhagen and Switzerland before coming to Canada with their daughter in 1965 -- supposedly for a visit, but they stayed.
It was only around 1967, in tandem with teaching, that Coles began writing poems. His first collection appeared in 1975 when he was forty-seven. It was followed quietly by several others, but he resisted becoming any kind of public poet-persona. He was sixty-five when Forests of the Medieval World won Canada's premier literary award. As a poet, Coles has always marched to his own drummer. He was never enamoured of the modernist poets, looking instead to what he has termed the 'Hardy-Larkin line', those who were able to move their art back towards accessibility and the general reader. Besides his ten poetry collections, Coles has, since retirement, published a novel and a collection of essays and reviews, and translated a late collection by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.
Coles resides in Toronto, but has lived close to twenty years in western Europe, with sojourns in Munich, Hamburg, and Zurich besides cities already mentioned. A deeply private man, he lists family first among his pleasures.
- Winner, Trillium Prize
Excerpt: Kurgan (by (author) Don Coles)
Kurgan No. 10
Here on this endless steppe the burial mounds seem
slow sails on a flat sea. Keep staring
and you'll know they're stalled. Almost all were
plundered, big surprise, long ago, passing Cossacks or
the local tomb-fanciers have had close on
two thousand years to disturb these peaces --
the only puzzle is how no. 10 escaped them.
But escape them it did, until now. They
must have been tipped off, warned off,
a thin and mephitic smoke wavering forth
from nos. 9 and 11 maybe, deaths of diggers,
a famous malediction. Whatever the reason,
she survived -- saving herself for the standard
bright immensities ahead, perhaps --
saving herself, I have improperly, basely,
surmised, for me. When we opened
the square pit of her precocious sleep
the gold about her head startled us. It was
a sort of diadem-cum-headdress, and
the gold-foil stags and birds and trees
rippled in that first air as though
not just stags and birds and trees were
shaking stillness off but she too was
testing her delicate bones -- as though
everything we had rudely uncovered here
knew that a long lull was ending.
She was Sarmatian, probably a princess,
and young. About twenty, the consensus was.
Her neck was encircled by a rigid collar
of chiselled gold, ornamented with a series
of unknown magical creatures --
dragons fighting against what seemed to be
monkeys wearing armour and holding clubs.
Towards the front of the collar was, in
the words of our historian/curator, 'one of those
works of art which, once seen, carry out a small
but irreversible coup in the mind' --
in less lapidary terms, a man, cross-legged
and golden-bearded, of serene aspect,
holding a cup in his two hands, certainly
interesting (and shortly thereafter the approved
subject of a doctoral thesis in Rostov and
a less-ambitious work by one of my own
students at the Institute) but 'not quite',
as our Director remarked while gazing
inexactly towards the historian/curator
over lunch, 'Rilke's archaic Apollo'. I'm sure
they'll work it out. As for that coup, I disagreed
only in the detail. That tableau so unsparingly
vivant as she lies down, again and again, involuntarily,
on her back, is a loop running incessantly
over my pages, running now as I write this,
lights and shadows over the text, and I have
not the smallest idea how to stop it. I have
walked this plain a hundred times, a thousand,
since I was named to this post, tending
my inconsequential thoughts and staring
at the stalled fleet, the paused convoy --
and all the while 'the poor princess', as they
have begun to call her, was waiting. Waiting
to give me her treasure, waiting to give me
the enigma of her life and especially of her
death (a darkness I may spend the rest
of my own life in close engagement with),
and at the end, when there was nothing else,
waiting to give me what was left of
her twenty-year-old body. What to do
with such Sehnsucht? I may have become
There was a mention
of delicate bones. Not quite all her bones
were there. Some of the very most delicate
fingertip bones, called phalanges, were missing.
Archaeologists are divided on this: some believe
that the phalanges are commonly gnawed off
and removed by mice not long after the burial,
this is the problem, they say, with chambered
graves without coffins. Others maintain
that the fingertips were ritually severed
immediately after death, the purpose of this
being to ensure that the living will not have to
fear the touch of the dead.
It's this last one I would choose.
I couldn't bear the idea of the mice.
I can think of few things better than a comfortable chair, several free hours, and a new collection of Don Coles' poetry. The expectation and ultimate fulfillment, the challenges, demands, delights and rewards, are, for me, both different and more satisfying than those provided by the work of any other poet now writing in Canada. And having lived for months now with Kurgan, his first collection since the GG-winning Forests of the Medieval World (1993) (though he has, since then, published a new Selected in Britain in 1994 and a collection of Tomas Transtromer translations in 1996), I can only say that the hours in the chair with this new book have given me even more than I expected, and have expanded into scores.
In her cover blurb for 'Someone Has Stayed In Stockholm', the U.K. Selected (and there's something to consider in itself), Margaret Atwood, in a rare endorsement, these days, of a contemporary poet, goes sharply to the point: 'Don Coles makes poems which are attentive, tender, flexible, offhand but exact -- intricate journeys, which are a joy to follow.' Actually, I'd like to add to the adjectives, but it's 'the intricate journeys' which matters most, touching, as it certainly does, on Don Coles' distinctiveness, based on an unusually broad range of content, often triggered by literature, photographs, art, newspaper stories, European and Canadian culture and geography, relationships and family, the teasings of time and memory, all of which have dovetailed, through his career, with a highly developed poetic craft, encompassing, without seeming to strain at all, short lyric, sequences, full-book long poems, and what appear to be his current favourite form -- the two-to-four page lyric meditation.
We notice immediately in this poetry real and productive tensions between a pseudo-casual and laconic chat to the reader (highly crafted, this) and the weight and urgency of content; between the (often) removed held-in voice and the confessional urge; between the marvellously disguised ordinariness (try a Zamboni in an urban hockey rink) and the extraordinary need to confront it with the workings of time, with shapes of important meaning not quite submerged, dangerously close to the surface and to some personal far-from-frozen fury of feeling. I'd like to think that every Canadian poet, sooner or later, must come to terms with the multi-layered, but accessible, complexities of Coles' voice, poetic tact, and the breadth of reference he brings to his art.
Kurgan is a bit of an oddity. There are 54 pages of new poetry, followed by 16 previously published (pre-1993) poems, now out of print, which have been revised (not heavily, lovers of the originals will be glad to hear), thus giving us a sort of hybrid between a new collection and a New and Selected. This may seem unlikely, but, I think, combined with the physical beauty we have come to expect from this publisher, the book will not displease Coles' habitual readers at all, whilst providing a strong introduction to his work for new ones. (A study of the revisions is instructive, but I can't do that here.)
Back to Atwood's 'intricate journeys.' Coles' trademark, and greatest technical strength, is his deft and powerful manipulation of the sentence. His poems make you remember, in our dot.com age, how graceful, persuasive, dramatic, beautiful, and linguistically generous the English sentence can be, especially when, and this is at the heart of what he does as a poet, the highly sophisticated sentences collide with a poem's line endings, rhyme (oh yes, Coles will occasionally rhyme -- is that weird in Canada or not?) and space between paragraph or stanza. From this tension come the wonderful hesitancies, fluencies, elevated image-patterns, reticence, deep feeling, all themselves shaped and mingled by the manipulation of syntax and poetic form, helping the poet to move restlessly, and, for the reader, startlingly, between the observant and the confessional, so that, although we know what Coles values, we are never clogged down by the sort of muddying autobiographical details which sit so heavily on many poets' work.
For example, Coles has one sentence which winds its intricacies through 44 lines of an increasingly disturbing poem (about the institutionalized poet Ivor Gurney), by which device he is to embody loss of control, instability, growing emotional involvement, until the sentence, the poem, becomes both its own subject and also the means of shaping the graph of feeling.
Look at -- and you just can't give quick sound-bites from this poet -- the sentences, the power of accumulation, the swings of tone and feeling, in these lines from Coles' poem on Keats and Fanny Brawne:
He, almost as young as she, and still
in fairish health, writes during these days
only of 'flowers and their budded charms',
instead of grosser matters, instead of
other buds, instead of arms. OK by me. God
knows he owes no image-debt to Time,
this boy, so let him, if he wants, keep all
discreet, refuse our well-meant, maybe, wish
to know them happy for a night before that quick
coming, sweating death -- and nothing's eased
except that wish if we now imagine the words,
the words, the words gone hushed that night,
the arriving sound of pipes and hooves about them,
he nestling back towards sleep or herall damp and pleased.
Easy to do? Absolutely not. This graceful writing, quite distinctive, incorporating amusement, pity, compassion, tenderness, drama, self-mockery, is often, very often, astoundingly moving -- a word Coles comes at himself, implying both a poetic and an attitude, in one of the best poems here:
. . . . . . the thought
that you can only smile at it and then
get on with your life, is, I'm coming to believe,
just about the most moving thing.
Don Coles seems to me to be at the height of his considerable powers. In Kurgan there a several poems which engage us at a very deep level, which have a weight of significance we can only submit to, learn from, wonder at, and be grateful for, even as we're enjoying, and often smiling at, the supremely confident audacity of craft, voice, image, syntax and reference.
Not everything here pleases me totally. The title, I confess, has never grown on me (sounds like some terrorist villain in a bad thriller, though the poem 'Kurgan No. 10' is magnificent); the long 'The Islands of Art' and 'Hector Alone' seem, respectively, a bit over-literary, over-intellectualized, and thus too removed from me. 'Collecting Pictures' relies a bit too much on its flurry of artistic reference (though its best lines are stunning.) But the other poems -- and I'd be utterly at fault not to single out 'These Photos of the Children,' 'Kingdom,' 'Marie Kemp,' 'Rhyme from the Nursing Home,' 'William, Etc.,' and 'There Are No Words to Remember ...', and I'd like to add more to this list -- grow richer each time I enter them. The good poem, Frost said, 'begins in delight and ends in wisdom,' and even if we can't tell where each one of these ingredients begins and ends, so intricately connected are they in Coles' work, I say to that, in Philip Larkin's words, 'an enormous yes.'
'As if in answer to those who have found his kind of craftsmanship un-Canadian, Coles opens with a celebration of a particularly homespun kind of artist. Here is the poet as a regular guy walking home and checking on the rink, discovering a boy out there alone driving the Zamboni:
... I like it best when the Zamboni's
out there doing its ignored choreography,
blue lights glittering and the kid's dark head
turning to neither one side or the other, just
intent on getting it right. Around one end and
up the middle and peel off, down the side
and up the pure broadening middle again,
lights glittering, kid's silhouette watching ahead.
'Like that of his Zamboni driver, Coles' art is all deftness and understatement, never trying too hard, no flourishes till the end (''the perfect thing's just about ready again'') and our final glance up to see what the title was, the title that says it all: Kingdom.'
Globe & Mail