In her seventh collection, Wayward, Katharine Coles uses small poems to take on big questions, including love, aging, death, the permeable boundaries of self, and how we know what we know.
Wayward begins with a poem, “How We Sing,” that makes explicit reference to poetic making and also to time and temporality. These concerns thread through the book’s three sections, unfolding for the most part seasonally, from summer to summer, though also backing up and considering time’s passage more holistically and from a distance, as in the elegies, the poems about aging and mortality, and the infinity erasures that both mark and bridge the section breaks. The poems as a whole, and especially the erasures, acknowledge how our experience of time is flexible, as is time itself (there can be different sizes of infinity, for example, as explored in “New Year Cento on Infinity and Mortality”). Within the large, abstract questions the poems address play out the intimate details of everyday life and love—that of spouses, parents and children, friends, and animal companions both wild and domestic. As Wayward begins located in time, it ends with a gesture “away,” outside time, in a poem of that title and a final infinity erasure that brings the collection full circle by joining that last poem with the first.
Pleasure in the mouth, pleasure in the swiftness and accuracy of perception, pleasure in observing a mind divided against itself interrogate its every assumption, pleasure in following the tough-minded investigations of self and the world through the lenses of physics, neurobiology, natural and human history—all these singular pleasures coalesce into poems rich with lyric feeling and a passionately precise syntax. Her use of rhyme shows why virtuosity coupled with psychological insight can get you closer to the heart of things in ten lines than in a pages-long narrative full of intimate details. Coles is a rarity in her generation or any generation: her understanding that poetry is a quintessentially formal art has allowed her to create her own conventions and explode the usual dichotomies between politics and private life, between tradition and the programmatically avant-garde. She is a true original.—Tom Sleigh, author of House of Fact, House of Ruin and The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees