Dec 15 2023
Poetry review – DEAD LETTERS: Rosie Johnston admires a collection of elegant and generous poems by Carole Coates
Dead Letters is Carole Coates’s eighth book of poetry, seven published by Shoestring between 2005 and the present, with Crazy Days published by Wayleave Press in 2014. Her poems appear regularly in the literary press and have been praised by Carol Ann Duffy in her Daily Mirror poetry column. Shoestring say they like to publish ‘established but unfashionable poets’; if Coates qualifies as unfashionable, it’s time for that to change.
In her Guardian obituary of her late husband John Coates, Carole described him as ‘a real scholar’ though he started life as son of a sheet metal worker and a woman who helped in her father’s fruit and veg business. John won an exhibition from grammar school to Jesus, Cambridge before his PhD at Exeter University where he met Carole, also studying for a PhD. Over their fifty years of marriage, both went on to be lecturers and highly respected writers. John died suddenly of heart disease in lockdown year, 2020.
Carole’s grief became When the Swimming Pool Fell in the Sea (Shoestring, 2021), a powerful collection that combines her anger with sheer dismay at the loneliness and silence of widowhood. In a deceptively simple style, she continues the daily conversations beyond the grave. In When the Swimming Pool Fell in the Sea, for example, the first poem closes:
And I remember when you were so ill so horribly ill the past leaned into us an old reality trapped in your head. That was the thing itself returned and how it burned us. How it sent us mad.
John was diagnosed was Jacob Creutzfeld Disease – ‘those jagged unkind syllables’ – and he became ‘a six foot child looking for sweets’. In what Coates calls ‘our circular numb life’, this happens:
Now the chasm is closing and you come upstairs with a tray of tea and creep into bed with me and we prop ourselves on elbows and look at each other and sometimes we talk about love.
In her latest poems, Coates picks up a baton she left for herself in When the Swimming Pool Fell in the Sea: ‘we put the dead in the earth then write to them’.
Dead Letters retains that plain-speaking, flowing style but the poems are more structured. Each of the twenty-five pages contains one letter addressed to ‘J’ (John) consisting of three ten-line stanzas, each ending with a postscript of a single line (except the last). The three stanzas rise in a crescendo of emotion and density, with stunning couplets (‘Sometimes I wonder now if you’ve escaped from a prison/ or stepped into one’) and powerful closing lines. In poem (iii) where Coates tackles the job of sifting John’s academic books, each one personally significant, she finishes:
So persistent this myth of the dead king’s return in so many cultures. Why is it we can’t bear to think the dead are gone for good?
Number (ix) poises here in its middle stanza:
In the first months of aftermath solitude was required. After all, nobody was you.
In (xx), the poet says of ‘Dear J’, ‘you used to say there were carpet slippers in your soul and you were proud of it’. A burst of sensual memory is captured near the closing lines of (x):
And sometimes suddenly your whole being flashes upon me with great sweetness, better than a memory an instantaneous, unanswerable impression, a gift more painful than the honeysuckle.
In her final poem of Dead Letters, Coates achieves a beautiful combination of distance and intimacy, encapsulating that so much in our lives is unfinished:
Three years exactly since you went, so quietly, away. Since then I’ve built a room in air where I can speak to you. A room of words which you can airily inhabit or so I tell myself. You’re finishing the book you left on the pillow, half-read.
That first poem in When the Swimming Pool Fell in the Sea is entitled “We were talking about the painter who destroyed his work because it did not ‘trap reality’ but merely illustrated it”. Both When the Swimming Pool Fell in the Sea and Dead Letters invite us to ask whether Coates has successfully ‘trapped’ the reality of widowhood and her grief. If that means whether she has successfully invited us to accompany her and feel with her, and to appreciate the lovely man she shared so many years with, then undoubtedly for me she has. To mourn a long marriage in poetry may not be fashionable but the ability to sustain such profound devotion for another person over half a century is arguably one of our greatest human achievements. I hope many readers find comfort in the elegant skills of Coates’ poetry, and in her generous heart.
Rosie Johnston’s four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019, with a fifth Safe Ground accepted for publication by Mica Press. Her poems have appeared in Snakeskin, The Phare, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman and Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog. Her writing is anthologised by Live Canon and Arlen House, in One World’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She reads her poetry widely, most recently at In-words in Greenwich and at Faversham and Gloucester Poetry Festivals. www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com