Stewart Cole’s debut volume, Questions in Bed, is well-titled, as many of Cole’s pieces reveal that he values the importance of quiet, nurturing reflection in the gestation of poetry, or, indeed, in any creative work—those times spent reading and writing peacefully in bed. Cole’s poems also call to mind the often-anxious hours of darkness when all of us, poets or not, lie awake, wondering, fearing, regretting. One gets the impression that a number of poems in this volume have been with Cole for a while, not revealed until properly matured. The reader benefits from this patient labour in works that are polished, varied, and often as anxious as the last moments in bed one might spend before embarking on a day of the unknown.
Themes and motifs that weave themselves through the volume include the processes of conception and birth (found in poems such as “Spermatozoom,” “Generation,” and “Ovum”); those of the natural world and its fertility; and a fusing and morphing of past and future, of myth and so-called reality? (“Merman,” “Metamorphs”). Cole draws our attention to the distance we insist on maintaining between the natural and biological realities from which we spring and the hectic created world in which we wander. At least since the literary Romanticism of the 19th century, we’ve been told that this distance, this insistence on isolating ourselves from nature in particular, comes at an emotional and spiritual cost; Cole, however, acknowledges that it also protects us. “Weed ’Em and Reap” narrates an urban autumn walk on which he “refuse[s] to miss / the country, golden and oblivious / and hunkered out there harvesting our needs.” He is suspicious of pastoral nostalgia, sure that “[i]ts appeal resides in how / it makes a lack of shelter gleam like home.” That suspicion is everywhere, perhaps the natural child of that imposed distance, and the cost of modernity.
“Chase Sequence,” a complete cycle within the volume, contains a poem entitled “The Answer of Travel,” in which the final lines read, “there’s cruelty too in the coziness of home: / it tricks us into thinking life is long.” Perhaps we can simply no longer sustain the sort of continuity that connectedness requires—in “On Sitting Through The Rite of Spring,” Cole reflects how “[w]e’ve gotten used to / not disappointment, but the sudden spikes / and dives of endless brief arousals.” We can only seek to distract ourselves from the beginnings and definite, non-negotiable endings of our mortal life (“I don’t always want what I chase,” he notes in “Ahistoric Man,” also part of “Chase Sequence”); we don’t really have other tools to cope.
How could we possibly situate ourselves in the world any more comfortably, one wonders, when many of Cole’s treasured words, in their very fabric, contain such distances—when siren can mean such absurdly, violently different things? Three separate poems are entitled “Questions in
Bed,” as though the volume, too, has its cycles of days and nights. In the final “Questions” iteration, near the end of the volume, Cole’s talent for a gorgeous turn of phrase intersects with that fear of deceit and trickery that crops up throughout the book: “What of the assassin wind / drawing its incomparably long blade across / the hollow of the moon’s throat? How long / have I mistook this lunacide for peace?” There is little peace in these poems, but much sharp-edged, knowing loveliness. Read it in bed; see what your dreams will dare to do with it.
Kel Pero is an actor, writer, editor, and recovering egghead. She lives in Stratford, Ontario.
This review also appears in Arc 71. See our print issue for further reviews of great books, along with scintillating poetry, thought-provoking essays and more.