Kumquats and Eclipses
Soft Power, Stewart Cole. Goose Lane Editions, 2019.
In such trying times, when the apocalypse appears more like a formality than an event, getting the mail seems a mini-miracle. All the way from the hinterlands of Fredericton to my tiny town in the BC interior, Stewart Cole’s new collection, Soft Power, made it’s arduous journey, braving the elements and labour disruptions, into my waiting hands.
But desire turned to dread when I read the back of the book. There are the requisite blurbs (from Ken Babstock and Nyla Matuk), the pithy bio, and a brief summary of the poetry to be found therein. It was in reading this last part that my desires waned. The summary starts with, “Lyrical yet shot through with experiment and political veins.” There was the rub. Political veins.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with writing political poetry per se, but doing so during this particular political moment seems morally superior at best and cloyingly ironic at worst. In such a polemical environment, there is the ever-present fear of being misunderstood or misappropriated, and depth of prosody is quickly surrendered in favour of clarity of argument. Oftentimes, political poetry isn’t political in the sense that it engages with the construction of societal affairs but rather functions as an artistic shorthand for the poet to signal which political group they stand with, a signalling that is empty of any suspense because, I mean, they’re poets and we can all take a guess. In this sense, “political poetry” would often more aptly be called “political speech written without grammar.”
I tossed the black and white book onto my desk. “Political veins.” This was going to be heavy, lugubrious, blunt. What’s worse, we’re all going to have to pretend to like it.
But here’s the thing: Soft Power accomplishes what I thought was no longer possible. It is political without being prescriptive; it is clear without being simplistic, it is sure of itself without being sure of its conclusions.
The collection (written entirely in capitalized single-line stanzas like an Anne Carson poem sans the ancient Greek erudition) is political in the sense that it rarely discusses politics. Cole doesn’t need to because every subject has already acquired political overtones. Every action, no matter how small, wrestles with the its own insinuations, whether it is gazing at an eclipse (“Where I can still receive the sky’s regard / With bare eyes and a little hint of fear”) or viewing old houses (“Apartmented mansion of Old Louisville / Ghosted by segregationist river barons / Crumble annually into beauty / As only the horseshoed among us do”). In Soft Power, not even a kumquat escapes implication:
That elongated moment when I came to taste
Like Augustine his God
The liquor of your truth
. . .
I didn’t even weigh the cost
Of the gallons of fuel burned over thousands of miles
To bring you from the San Joaquin Valley
To my remembering mouth
At this point, “Kumquat” seems to be lapsing into the dismissive or sardonic. The problems of our world loom so large that we can’t even eat citrus in peace. But Cole’s poetry gains such potency from his refusal to fall in the nihilism of irony. The poem’s final lines reaffirm the speaker’s earnestness:
I shelled out without a second thought
Avid to partake of that small purchase
Your zero-shaped hold
On one thing
I always seem to be missing
Soft Power’s speaker captures the cognitive dissonance of our era: of wanting a better world but knowing it is very far away, much farther than your desires before you in the produce aisle.
When the poems do verge into the more obviously political they do not become any more obvious. “Tarmac” (for my money, the best piece in the collection), makes mention of a visit from the Vice-President. But instead of focussing on the sumptuous death drive that we’re all already obsessed with (American politics), Cole takes the time to ruminate on the reasons we create, and then surrender to, power:
Does this lend a retroactive significance
To this paved expanse
Is this the paradise
That makes a purgatory of our boredom
This proximity to temporal power
Ennobling it to an ordeal
Or even odyssey
We create greatness so our lives become great by adjacency, the poem argues. But in doing so, we must demote ourselves, and give way to those of such manufactured importance, acquiescing to be forever “Delayed on the existential tarmac.”
It is at this juncture that I believe Cole’s greatest gift as a poet resides: to neither negate nor dwell on dejection but to acknowledge that despair is never as simple as it seems. This, I think, is what makes this current political moment so difficult to write about. It’s hard to live in a world built on lies, but it’s even harder when that world still has the liquors of truth — kumquats and eclipses — and when against all logic and evidence, we possess an irrepressible optimism that things may, at any moment, look up.
Grey in all directions
Knowing where our nearest exit is
Yet finding it barred
Permission coming from the tower
When those up there decree
— Richard Kelly Kemick
is the author of I Am Herod.