Steven Lovatt reviews Dead Letters by Carole Coates (Shoestring, 2023)
That death marks the end of each biological life is for poets the least interesting thing about it. Until our gift of mortality is robbed by cyborg upgrade the world still spins on its axioms – and there’s nothing to add to an axiom. But we are social animals and so death is also a social event, happening everywhere and continually all around us, ‘in the midst of life’. And since our lives pass among material things, the psychic crisis brought on by the death of someone we love leaves also material wreckage and concrete residue, whether this be a Grecian urn or a Tupperware box of Lego. This is necessary grist for poets, who would otherwise struggle to catch proper hold of a subject fraught with abstract nouns: loss, absence, sorrow …
Carole Coates’ Dead Letters understands the way in which material places and physical things – “a turquoise coat, / bright as a swimming pool” – mediate relations between the living that persist after death. The writer of the letters – twenty-five, thirty-line poems in epistolary form – who we presume to be Coates – and their addressee – who we presume to be her partner, now three years deceased – remain intimately linked by shared experiences. These are prompted in turn by photographs and books the poet lingers over as she clears out his study, keeping some but consigning most to the charity shops:
[…] We’d read all the same books
and these are the books I’m getting rid of now.
Our library is breaking up, fluttering, dispersed,
sent out to find new readers.
The scene is expectedly (we might, without disrespect, say ordinarily) poignant, but it takes on heightened significance as we learn that for Coates and her partner, not only books individually, but the culture of books was what brought them together and sustained them, as individuals and as a couple, throughout their lives together. They are “people who loved books, talked about them for money, / didn’t realise how lucky we were”, and Dead Letters is full of references to writers whose words and aesthetic values they shared – or aspired to:
And Pater and Wilde, Max Beerbohm
and Vernon Lee. Fashionable then, not now in these captious
days, but their aim was serious. Was it also ours –
to save our souls through art?
Pater & co. are indeed rich food, and it’s part of the collection’s interest for me that Coates should be so upfront about its importance to her. Some readers may feel uncomfortable about the implied (sometimes more than implied) elitism of the high-culture references and attitudes; others, sharing Coates’ opinion about the ‘captious’ times, might sympathise and even feel a little illicit frisson at a rarely expressed kickback against the levelling effects of cultural relativism. Whatever the case, the collection gains breadth and force from its linking of individual loss with cultural decline, as when Coates updates the addressee, ‘J’ about one of their favourite old haunts:
[…] Our favourite town walk was to The John of Gaunt via Waterstones –
but that shop’s gone and the pub’s not what it was.
Old friends are departing, too, adding to the sense of the speaker’s alienation from the nourishment of former society:
Everyone vanishing. And there’s something more
I have to tell you. Now my brother’s done it too. He caught
the trick of it and disappeared last month, quite quickly
but not as swift as you.
Declensionism is everywhere in these poems but, just as it’s possible to be paranoid yet still have people out to get you, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that, declensionist or not, intelligent culture really might be going down the pan.
The voice of Dead Letters is much more varied than my excerpts have so far suggested, and is one of many sources of pleasure. The tonal variation – from falsely breezy to ironic, from wistful to critically reappraising – ensures that both individual poems and the whole collection remain unpredictable and engaging. There are subtle shifts in register, too, with the long lines – adapted alexandrines, more or less, with an unstressed final syllable favouring conversational flow between them – allowing for informal narrative digressions that would be hard to carry off if they were shorter and more obviously accented. The upshot is a highly plausible illusion of unguided thought, apparently quite innocent of metre. Rhyme, too, is used so subtly that when it is noticed, as it were by chance, it seems simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Rhymes are suddenly just there, like snow in the morning.
The tonal variation – from falsely breezy to ironic, from wistful to critically reappraising – ensures that both individual poems and the whole collection remain unpredictable and engaging
For all the author’s sometime ‘wittering’ (her word, not to be taken at face value) and incorporation of seeming trivia, the highest achievement of Dead Letters is to reassert in an original yet universally resonant way that grief must perforce show through all attempts to deny, hedge or overpaint it. Three years may have passed since J’s death, enough time for Coates to be able to speak to him playfully, and even to imagine him as someone else – “you would have made a good / Victorian country parson” – but the most moving aspect of the collection is the picture it gradually suggests of a life deranged by the loss of the partner with and in whom that life was co-constructed and made meaningful. Coates confesses in one poem that her mind is “full of memory and worry”; in another,
Everything suddenly became the past
when you went, leaving me in a blank space,
a silence of stopped clocks.
Coates paints a bleak self-portrait of “an old woman in a wet town, cursing / this long littleness”.
Yet our lives (and our poems) are such that we never have control, even over the way they end. Dead Letters highlights this by recording, besides the numbness of grief, those unforeseen, startling moments when body and mind are overtaken – inappropriately, absurdly – by a joy that seems to sing through them:
And sometimes suddenly your whole being flashes
upon me with great sweetness
Ambushed, I was made to remember the sweetness
of the body, which had decided to be happy
Before modernity we knew better how to recognise and welcome grace, and to live with the unpredictability it depends on. The Greeks projected it onto their gods, this being their way of asserting human participation in something vast, unknowable and sublime. Confrontation with death can shake our faith in anything and everything, but it can also reveal true worth by purging narcissism and other emotional luxuries as, in one poem, Coates recognises by way of a wonderfully sardonic line-break:
We wanted art and beauty. […] Was it all just
shopping? Oxford and Venice merely tourist traps? Did we ever
feast with panthers, burn with hard gemlike flames? Probably
But this ironic self-interrogation is not cynicism and Coates has not been disarmed in her defiance of the ‘long littleness’ she abhors. Against it she thrusts first, as epigraph, these lines from Marilynne Robinson:
In eternity, this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has
passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they
sing in the streets.
The sentiment of these lines echoes through many of the Dead Letters poems, most tellingly when Coates, reflecting on the passing of the generation before her, writes of
The grown-ups –
that fabulous frieze under which we played
our small Homeric lives –
Thus are the Olympians (and / or the high priests of Art) desacralized and rendered as workaday mortals: the teachers, caretakers and dinner-ladies of the poet’s (and the reader’s) youth. But their value, though transformed in kind from the divine to the human, is by no means thereby repudiated. Though our modern, secular lives and our behaviour be ‘small’, Dead Letters suggests that they are nevertheless ‘Homeric’ – and that the living and the dead can be reunited, if we choose so to see it, in a single ‘fabulous frieze’. If that isn’t epic, I don’t know what is. Not the least fascinating aspect of this beautifully worked book is its hint that, after all, the redemption and ennobling of individual lives through culture might yet be something to believe in.
Steven Lovatt is an editor and tutor living in Swansea. He is a member of the International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and the UK National Writing Centre, and his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize.