Don Coles has been a steady writer and a much honoured one, but the garrulous memory poems in Where We Might Have Been will not enhance his reputation as a poet. The recollections are not extraordinary, and the tone is smug and whimsical (he decides not to tell a story, then tells it in a footnote, and then says, “See? Not worth your time”). The nudging asides and words in quotations marks become tiresome. His poems about Albert Camus, Art Buchwald, and Charles Ritchie are just exercises in name-dropping, excuses to bring in his own memories, to little effect. Two poems stand out: One, “Liebespaar vor Dresden,” is about a couple who posed for a painting in Dresden in 1928, and ends with the melancholy question: did they die in the firestorm created by Allied bombers in 1944? The other, “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them),” uses a passage from Proust to summon up memories of being offered a pear by the grandfather. The pear is a memory trigger like Proust’s famous madeleine. However, most of the poems in Where We Might Have Been show that not every morsel offered by memory is worth nibbling.
Bert Almon teaches a poetry masterclass with Derek Walcott at the University of Alberta. His most recent book is Waiting for the Gulf Stream (Hagios Press).