Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Katharine Coles’ “The Stranger I Become” is Poetry in Motion

A poet came to my door the other day, “as poets are wont to do,” quipped a friend on hearing of it. The poet who knocked, Katherine Indermauer, has published a fine chapbook, Facing the Mirror,  that I wanted after reading a vibrant review in 15 Bytes by Rebecca Pyle, a superb poet in her own right. Indermauer kindly delivered her book; currency changed hands; lively convo ensued.

I was at work on this review of Katharine Coles’ The Stranger I Become: On Walking, Looking, and Writing. Indermauer, who had attended a reading by Coles the previous evening, and eagerly purchased a copy of the collection I was perusing, was startled to see the same book on my desk; I, too, was awed by the synchronicity. I said I planned to write that, while author Lance Larsen describes Coles’ book beautifully, succinctly, even perfectly as, “a poetic of the vivid,” I had found the terminal chapter, about the “long passing away” of her beloved father, to be a sucker punch to the gut. Indermauer winced. “Probably because of unresolved issues I still have with my own father’s death,” I explained.

It was something I was trying to sort before writing further about the slim volume. Between the musings by Emily Dickinson — Coles scatters gems like “Death sets a Thing significant” throughout her book — and the description of the careless distribution of the Utah poet’s just-deceased father’s ‘Things’ by her mother — “What she didn’t take with her to her new condo she offered to her children. What we didn’t want, and a few things we did, she gave away or sold, more or less ruthlessly” — I had been jolted, disturbed.

The book begins with essays of a different mood entirely: delicious observations on the difficulty of getting out of one’s head when you are a genius (Coles never makes this claim but doesn’t need to) and about the usefulness of walking as a remedy for a driven spirit. “Of course, I prefer to walk outside, where it is harder to sink into myself,” she writes.

And walk she does, typically seven miles or more most days, through her own wild, forested, and creature-inhabited hood (mountain lions and coyotes and voles, oh my!) or on a treadmill with a laptop mounted on it (for her work as an English professor). When not home, she might  be strolling intently all about the world, including Antarctica (where she gamely walked a glacier daily), Frankfurt, Philadelphia, Montreal, Canberra, Paris. And London — where she spots “a scarlet-painted door I don’t remember noticing before though I have walked this Mayfair street a dozen times, each detail in its moment either committed to or lost to memory, often not for the first time.” She is a poet with the eye of a visual artist, or perhaps the reflections are similar.

Coles’ essays, not just about her travels, explore her myopia and the extreme difficulties her husband, Chris, has with his eyes; the pain of hair; the poetry of Dickinson, Anne  Carson and John Ashbery, among others; and the art of poetry in detail.

Katharine Coles’ poetry is a delight to me and the lyric essays in this volume resemble poetry more closely than prose. Her work can be a stretch and I can find myself lost in her eloquent use of language — but contentedly, dreamily so. But if you do the work, set aside the necessary time, a vision is guaranteed. I have longed to know more about her; have greedily read all there is and still don’t know enough. Here, she isn’t at all stingy, and these personal details guarantee a vision as well.  She doesn’t hold back on details about her husband’s pet macaw, Merlin, who has adopted her (“small and tufted as I am, looking more like him than any other human he knows”). And the placement of her “work” treadmill before a canyon-overlook window is crucial and sums up much about this volume: “When I do raise my eyes from the screen and cast my gaze beyond the glass, I move not only out of my room, familiar and disorganized for my sole convenience, but out of myself.”

The Stranger I Become: On Walking, Looking, And Writing
Katharine Coles
Turtle Point Press
2021
143 pp
$16

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  1. Katharine Coles is a national treasure who happens to live in Utah. Leave it to Ann Poore to give her the appreciation she so completely deserves, but might otherwise never receive in a nation too broken and distracted to appreciate Coles’ poetic gift to our one remaining shared possession: our language. I always bring home the books Coles reads from, but as we’re not getting out much, not much has come back lately. Thank you, Ann, for taking the place of Coles’ reading and calling my attention to another collection that can enrich us, one and all.

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