Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Reviewed by Lee McKenzie, Department of English, Weber State University
The One Right Touch: Poems by Katharine Coles. Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 1992, 53 pp., $4.95 (paper).
An earlier, shorter version of this book was entitled Sentimental, and Other Poems, yet few books are less sentimental than this. In both versions Coles deals with subjects in which exaggerated feelings are hard to avoid-love for parents, childhood memories, the suicide of friends-but the emotions these poems convey are always genuine, redeemed through a strong web of concrete images and through juxtaposing the commonplace with the brutal and sensational.
Images of light weave through the book, a light unique to each place. In Mexico, it "snakes" down "the pyramid's stone steps"; in the 1950s Midwest, the sun glints "pale and dangerous/off the Chevy's dusty fins"; in Utah it "wavers" across the valley, and we see "cities' lights from the air/unwinding like pinwheels." Southern light is "deep"; in the 1950s an American poet leans against the "old, Italian light."
In the poem "Sentimental" it is light which tells the story of nuclear testing in Nevada. Here, where the land "glitters" and is "so brilliant we return as if /to our lives," a woman walks out on her porch at sunset and watches the distant test, "brilliance/taking the whole sky," while the poem's speaker remembers being in the classroom studying "light, its weight/and substance, the particular waves/it travels by." Light, whose everyday activities schoolchildren must study, shows us how our ordinary world has been changed by grown men applying these same laws of Physics in artificial ways.
But as the book's title indicates, touch is the dominant, elemental sense. "Bonehead /Astronomy" is "Physics/for the simple, who understand/what they touch." The saint in "Donna Julia's First Letter after Juan's Departure for Cadiz" tells us that in her cell she "will reach out to the stones' caress" and "press her body against them"-and under her habit "her nipples will grow tender then raw/with passion." It is only what we touch that we can keep safe: the hands of lovers in "Before Parting" "hesitate/ as they never have, as if we considered /for the first time what might happen/to anything that leaves our fingers."
Coles' most memorable poems force together emotions and experiences disconnected in ordinary life. The touch of a lover, which should be tender, turns cruel. A lovestroke becomes "the caress of one/who loves her too much/to let her escape." The hostess in "Provisions" recalls how she kept contact with her absent father by handling his Kenyon curios carved from ivory, how she would arrange them, "drop/to sleep among them, /small and dangerous/and afraid in the tall grasses." But as she talks, "her finger tracks the cuts and grooves," and we are reminded that the creation of these charming works of art endangers the most noble of species.
Most often the violent touch which should be loving is that of men against women. In "Kudzu" the greatest sexual joy to be hoped for is the absence of pain: the women step inside their houses and "their husbands come in laughing, and tonight/ will touch them in ways that won't hurt." In "Sex as a Trope" the victim of a beating looks at her bruises and wonders "how much longer/every touch would hurt." The writer in "Letter from a Friend on Her Anniversary" tells how she waits for the hand of her abusive husband "to coax a blush, a bruise, blood/where the skin gives." She tells her friend "it's all the same/in love."
So pervasive and inescapable is the violence that women collude in it. The wife of the abuser in "Letter from a Friend" writes that "for him, for the one right touch,/ I will lie to you." In "Declension" when a man uses those perennial sexual symbols, an apple and a knife, to teach the speaker how to juggle, she says later that "I sway into him/and press the blade to the fruit, /one bright surface giving to the other,/ the skin a clean spiral falling away."
Throughout the book, the speaker's defense against such a world is the traditional one of the artist, to create history, rather than succumbing to the one she finds before her. When her mother does not talk about her past, the speaker says, "I invented her life." She makes a new history for her father, imagining him in "hat and tails and white gloves" in a casino where "women unlike my mother" turn "their heads bright as birds/whose plumage warns of bitter/or dangerous flesh." In the process, she changes her own past. Rejecting the commonplace swingset he gave her for Christmas, she conceives for him an exotic past which she shares with lovers, who "turned their faces / on my pillow and touched my hair, / their eyes moist with love/for the father I'd made, created.. .." She imagines we all do the same, for the past is undependable. The guide in "Touring the Yucatan" "goes ahead, for us/ inventing history." Life becomes a text to be read and interpreted, a text to be written-and rewritten-by oneself.
In this rich collection of poems, poems firmly in the mainstream of the strongest contemporary poetry, Katharine Coles explores the many facets of love as she seeks "the one right touch." She is a poet to read-and to watch.