Interview with Don Coles
EJ: What you say about the ‘detailed admissions of memory’ is interesting. How does that follow through in a poem like, ‘Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper for March 13, 1910’?
DC: Good question, and one which brings home to me that it's a good thing I didn't claim that every one of my poems had any obvious relationship at all to memory – only the unavoidable, off-stage, unconfessed relationship that memory has to everything we do. (A few years ago my son met, for a few minutes in Saigon, an elderly guy whose usual address was the same small town in Western Ontario where a great-uncle of that son had spent his life; learning my son's surname this man told him that he had noticed his walk to be identical with that of the deceased uncle. Was that just bone-alignment? Or could it have been a case of much-younger son watching admired ex-athlete uncle move and building this into memory? Vem vet: svensk for 'who knows')?
Back to your question's bigger point. That poem's origin was, as it says, seeing a newspaper's archival photo of a working-class, probably, family standing in a courtyard in an early 1900s moment. There's no personal memory for me in that courtyard at all, it had taken me fifty years to even arrive in the same town, half the family dead by then and the courtyard probably obliterated. What it was was a feeling I can have at any time concerning a life that apparently lived itself out modestly, unnoticeably, all its motions and words gone tracelessly, a feeling that no doubt can misjudge much and be thought to romanticize shamelessly, but which just surges up in me pretty often and sometimes ends up where its subject never was and perhaps never wished to be, in print, put there as if it needed attention to be paid. Shades of Gray's plowman and Miller's salesman all in one sentence.
EJ: That feeling you describe, is it the same as the ‘felt presence of time’ you mentioned earlier? Can you define it a bit more? Is this inspiration, if you had to give it such a name?
DC: No, I don’t think it’s the same as the generic business of Time. It’s an unwillingness to go along with what can, when you step back from it and take a hard, fresh look at it, be seen as a brutal primaeval agreement (what sort of halfway-sensitive creature could have put, on behalf of all of us, his or her signature to this?) that this is the rhythm the world is going to move to: things will be seen and then will be lost to sight, words will be spoken but at once succumb to silence, beings will be born and die, light will grow and then fade, all these will go, they’re already gone, just now they were here but no more. Why should this be? Listing all these and trying not to flop into bathos, trying to keep a little freshness at the list’s edges, what’s in play here includes, well, everything, e.g. a sentence that some cared-about person spoke years ago that one should have paused longer at, one was just realizing the need for this when, look, it’s only just now that it was being said but nothing’s being done about it, and now, don’t even look, it’s gone forever. Or it could be something visual, a scene glimpsed in its waiting stillness, how perfect, how long had it been waiting, you’d had no preparation for this, and when you went back it was not the same. Or it’s a turn of a head, a glance that was offered and may have been huge with unrecoverable portent. Who can bear this? Everyone. Verweile doch, Du bist so schön. We cope with this as best we can. Cope via diaries and scrapbooks and toys in the attic. Making art.