The literature of exploration

This is the adapted text of the keynote talk by Katharine Coles, poet in residence at the Poetry on the Move festival at the University of Canberra, 2015.


Recently, I finished (after 15 years of work) a nonfiction book, Reckless, which is about my grandparents.  The book began with a desire to memorialize my grandmother, whom I knew better than I did my grandfather.  I began its exploration, then, by embarking into territory I believed I knew, though of course I didn’t, any more than I understood at the start how I was implicated in both her story and, more to my surprise, in his.  The book begins with a poem, of hers, which I here explore with my usual impulse to read as closely as possible.

This, then, is from the first chapter, 1923:

          And Miriam: what was she?   Seventy years later, I find among her papers a poem pencilled in a bluebook, returned ungraded because she was supposed to turn in an essay. In just this way, I troubled my college French professor by handing in translations of Beaudelaire rather than grammar exercises. I imagine her lying on her dorm-room bed, wondering what it would be like to bushwhack through jungles and gaze from mountaintops over wild landscapes.

          To plough the foaming waters of the boundless Spanish main,
          To plunge amid the swelter of a pelting tropic rain,
          To wade thigh-deep against the racing waters of a stream—
          All these would be fulfillment of my highest, golden dream.

          It’s formally predictable, of its time, but not bad, I think, for sixteen. Embodying desire, she spins through a Wisconsin blizzard on lamplight and white sheets, piloting her adventure. I follow her onto the water, our keel slicing the waves, moving us forward: 

          To hear the billows swishing as they’re riven by the bow,
          With their crests like smoke a-flying, lighting dark green depths below,
          To feel the rush and smother of a million airy bubbles—

          Here, at the end of the second stanza, comes the moment when the poem moves from its sustained provisional infinitive—to plow, to plunge, to feel—and into the present, where the journey becomes embodied, or so I expect, in her

          O, the dash and vigorous joy of life make a fellow lose his troubles!

          Did this line trouble her as it does me?  Sixteen year-old Miriam, pining for adventure, enters her dream—in a boy’s skin. She had to take some trouble to accomplish her split, shifting from me in the last line of the opening stanza to the third-person fellow in the last line of the second. Did it occur to her that this shift disturbs both the poem’s rhythm and its logic?  Did she even consider ‘the dash and vigorous joy of life make me lose my troubles’? If she were my student, I would tell her, look there, into the poem’s flaw, for its key. If she were myself, oh, I could have taken her in hand.
          Asail on that bed, plowing through the night, she can’t hear me. What more could any man desire?  Her spirit calls, but she can’t follow. In the final stanza, when her speaker separates from that fellow and they go their separate ways, she has to stay home.
          A square of window, whited out. I want to break away as did ‘Desmond’, dress as a man and fight my way. Movies and novels and her own poem notwithstanding, her will was weaker than her desire. She wouldn’t step into those britches she’d stitched from words and go. I have always thought of her life as romantic and, yes, adventurous. Now, I watch her begin it daunted, already divided from herself. She imagined herself in motion, imagined the vast unknown, imagined herself male, ‘adventuring.’  What she couldn’t imagine: herself
          Absolutely a man. An American of his time. She couldn’t become him.
          Instead, with her mother’s help, she would marry him.

It’s easy, when considering what I am provisionally calling the literature of exploration (or ‘poetry on the move’), to default to thinking of it as a literature that is ‘about’ something—a place, perhaps a process or action, an experiment (I mean this literally), a journey.  In its most pure form, the ‘explorer’ in question, always intrepid, usually male, voyages to the edge of the known world and reports: I saw, I did, I encountered and survived, all in the singular first person.  Think Shackleton (whom I love) and the heroic model, which has now been packaged for (shudder) boardroom training and executive retreats.

My own model for literary exploration is more one, as Mary Capello says in ‘Propositions; Provocations: Inventions’, which appeared in Bending Genre, a collection of essays on the lyric essay, that ‘approaches its subject as an enigma that it hopes to realise rather than to solve’ (65), the literature not of conquest but of consent, not of comprehension but of apprehension.  Capello is talking about literary nonfiction of the kind that thwarts and manipulates the conventions of genre (any genre), but while I too am interested in carrying these methods into my nonfiction I believe poetry is the original model for the use of literature as a perceptual instrument, for writing, as Capello says, not ‘about’ but ‘from’.  Or, she goes on, ‘nearby, toward, under, around, to, and so on’ (66).  Perhaps ‘against’.  In this sense, the literature of exploration might become less a form of reportage or instruction, both stabilising forces, and more a way of making the self provisional, something that threatens to vanish into the page  To reposition the literature of exploration in this way shifts its focus, away from the place and that first person within it and onto what she does from whatever position she finds herself in.

Emily Dickinson is among the most intrepid explorers in American literature, and she rarely left her room. We do generally forget that Amherst, when she lived there, was not a quaint New England town preserved for tourists, the geographical version of a prim white dress.  As poet Susan Howe discusses at length in her seminal and wildly exploratory investigation, My Emily Dickinson, it marked the American frontier; it gave way immediately to forest primeval, inhabited by dangerous and unknown others.  She might not have spent much time trekking into it, but Dickinson, physically and psychologically, lived cheek by jowl with wilderness—and, unlike her neighbor Thoreau, did not try to measure and contain it, to bring it down to size.  The more proper companion to Dickinson is Whitman, though he needed his body to carry his mind out into the woods and onto the battlefield—as a medic, not a soldier; whose sexuality placed beside Dickinson’s only reminds us that she was, herself, volcanic, though her sexuality existed almost entirely in the place where her exceptionally sensual mind met her equally sensual, however cloistered, body.  Whitman wanted to roll around on the grass, and he did; he wrote not about grass but from it.  I am guessing that Dickinson, given her white dress, rarely rolled in it, unless in her mind.  But then, she might not have cared about stains, beyond the fact that as a woman she would have understood that someone had to scrub them out. 

Let’s not forget about the many pockets she sewed into that dress, and the word bombs they contained, so tiny on the outside that their insides couldn’t help but open into fire, scribbled on scraps of paper that gave them shapes. 

There may be no more frightening and mysterious poem in American poetry than this little known one, which usually goes by #315:

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on —
He stuns you by degrees —
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard —
Then nearer — Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals — One — imperial — Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked Soul —
When Winds take Forests in their Paws —
The Universe — is still —


There is no first person present, here.

In spite of being one of the United States’ two universally-acknowledged great poets, Dickinson is not very thoroughly taught, which I find passing strange, so I am teaching her, which it turns out is difficult enough to explain at least in part why its rarely done.  I am teaching her as a way of bringing my students cheek-by-jowl with poetic risk.  I have also been exploring her poems using Poemage and Rhyme Design[1], computational close reading tools I have been developing with computer scientists Miriah Meyer and Nina McCurdy and poet Julie Gonnering Lein, which have caused me to think about the way in which Dickinson uses sound among other techniques to mess with and sharpen our perceptions, as so many good poets do, to warn us to pay attention, that things are not as they seem.  What the poems suggest Dickinson knew in her marrow, relentlessly, is that we are all in mortal danger every second of every day—that we are all, inherently, explorers together.  It’s not that she remembered to remember this, as we are all exhorted to do (Live every day as if it is your last! some commercial is always telling me), but that she couldn’t forget it.  If we were all like her, we would all lock ourselves in our rooms, too.  We would never go outside again.

Like Dickinson, I am concerned with risk and imagination, specifically as the latter word connects the perceptual faculty of sight with the inner faculty of envisioning the world.  I claim, in ‘At Pompeii’, to be ‘living on the skin of my eyes’ (Flight, 21)—partly wishful thinking.  I understand ‘the skin of my eyes’ as a membrane, a liminal space between the inside of my head and outside, as well as a lens that gives the inside access to what is beyond it.  Perception and imagination working together create human experience.  Questions of perception—how it works and how on Earth it can be expressed—are at the heart of Dickinson’s poem.  And perception, operating as it does in that liminal space where mind and world meet, provides a hinge, perhaps the hinge, between the arts and sciences, two fields to which exploration is central.

Both precision and experiment are at the heart of our perceiving and of our ways of understanding what and how we perceive.  For Dickinson, and in much literary work, true perception occurs in extremity, when we have opened ourselves to the wilderness that surrounds us even here; when we have approached as closely as we can to the not-yet-known, which can be experienced only in its unmediated presence.  ‘Emily Dickinson’s writing is a premeditated immersion in immediacy’ writes Susan Howe in The Birth-mark.  Notice that you can’t write ‘about’ immediacy, any more, as Howe’s book demonstrates, than you can number its pages.

One question we could ask about nearly any piece of writing: does it seek to close a fissure, or to open one?  To cure vertigo, or to court it?  So much of contemporary poetry seeks closure, an escape from immediacy.  My teacher Cynthia Macdonald talked of ‘the all-purpose ending.’  Dickinson’s poems don’t close so much as place us on the edge of an opening crevasse.  I am talking about form, but also about form as a way of getting to, of fusing with, a content that is startling and new.  A woman who ends a poem, ‘When Winds take Forests in the Paws —/The Universe — is still —’, doesn’t strive to settle comfortably into familiar space.

The forms of Dickinson’s poems, with their dashes and gaps, are even in the tamed versions that come to us so eccentric that we tend to focus on them almost exclusively, still often without knowing what to say about them to our students.  Dickinson is a poet whose forms give body and reality to content, which becomes formal residue and formal generator.  As signaled by the very devices we attend to, her form refuses to clarify itself, or even degrades over the course of the poem, as it works to discover and achieve not ‘aboutness’ but its gesture toward apprehension.  We know now, from works like Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s The Gorgeous Nothings, which show us Dickinson’s envelope poems in facsimile, that these versions are anything but the edited recreations we know, even the best ones.  Their gestures may look like indecision, but represent instead a refusal to come to rest, say, on one among several—two, three, six, ten—words.  It’s not that each word for Dickinson is equally possible or potentially ‘good’, but rather that each word is, in its unique and unequal way, true.  Her word lists, word stacks, word towers suspend themselves on the page, each creating its multiple resonances among the other chosen and not chosen words in the poem.  Think, if a poem has even two or three word stacks, how the number of poems in front of you increases exponentially.  All of them arise from Dickinson’s rampant perception.  She is like a fly; the skin of her eyes shows her a thousand tiny pictures.  She won’t give any of them up, not a single one.  She lives on the floating and faceted and calving iceberg of risk.  I can’t wait to figure out how to use the Poemage tool on these poems as she actually wrote them.[2] 

Speaking of icebergs, I have been invited to talk here about my own ways of working at the edge of the known and unknown, my own ways of undertaking movement and risk, and the most remarked journey I’ve taken so far was by small ship across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.  In a gale, though I didn’t arrange that on purpose. 


The problem is the voices

I can’t get out of my head.  On the bridge, the captain’s playing
‘Break On Through’; he’s been

Playing ‘Stormy Weather.’  Go ahead, Google World’s

Roughest Crossing.  Google
Shipwreck, and Lost at Sea.  Meanwhile, the ship

Is tearing itself

Apart, isn’t it, beam by steel beam; the ship is gnawing its own liver
And the sea is eating

Its heart out and wants me to sashay right on by and take

A look.  Lean over
The rail, little one, lean a little farther.  The problem is the voices.  Sea,

Sea, you’re all foam

Vanishing, cry of shearwater and albatross wing knitting you to sky; you are height

And depth and open
Mouth, and I am barely a morsel.  Sea, I can’t get out of my head, or is it you’re

What I can’t get

My poor head around, what I don’t know
How to measure—

A 20-foot sea, a 30-foot sea.  Not a falling so much as a

Career, a sinking
So much as a gulp.  Measure from where the surface would be

If I could find it, if

The idea of surface hadn’t become a moving target I plummet
Past into the trough and know

No better on the ride back up into yippee, though on the wave’s crest

Three days out
I would swear I can see South America.  This is the best

Thing ever, clinging

To the rail watching another wave crash all the way over the bow, over
The captain high

In his bridge, the captain who will carry us through with his instruments

And playlist and steel-hulled
Gut, though he says everyone has a threshold, even him.  Chris and Jenny,

Most of the passengers

Green in their berths along with half the crew.  And me, I am used
To the world appearing

To wish me well.  All those summer weeks spent reading in the Jeep

While Dad careened us down
The roughest roads he could find, Mom hanging from some near

Cliff face by

Rope rigging.  Isn’t a mountain a wave moving slow?  I am
Used to the best

Kind of luck and a stomach that can ride out anything, even

The swell
Of my own hubris.  All day I stand on deck with the birds

And spray, birds

That can sail across oceans without moving their wings.  Wherever
I look, infinity’s blue

And grey, and I say Okay already, give me all you’ve got.

(Earth, 29-31)

Physical exploration, which takes me out of myself, has been crucial to my work, though I hope I have made clear in my words about Dickinson that I am not making a pitch for adventure travel as central to all literary practice. Dickinson can be more in touch with the great out there in her bedroom than I am in Antarctica, or Indonesia, or muddling my way through a project in computer science (my most harrowing undertaking yet).  I seek her openness and would emulate her experiment and exploration.  But, I regret, I am not so finely made as she.  In order, apparently, to reach the borders of my inner wildernesses, I have to find it out there

You may gather that I was born to a family tradition of adventure. Childhood trips tended to center around whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, poisonous snakes and scorpions (you here in Australia know all about this), dangers that could be encountered inexpensively and close to home.  As a student, I knocked alone around the Greek Islands with a backpack, and I have since traveled solo to many places, including to Indonesia, where my grandparents lived early in their catastrophic marriage, when he was beginning a career as a geologist and explorer that would lead him to become Chief Geologist and head of exploration for Standard Oil and she was solidifying her career as a wayward flapper.

About half my friends and my entire husband were bent on convincing me I was nuts to make a trip like this, much less by myself.  But though I had their letters, I needed to experience some small piece of what they had.  Mostly, what I learned was that I was a tragically small and ill-formed fruit fallen off from the family branch.

You’ve heard from my grandmother, whose marriage would take her around the world, though her adventures were mostly centered in the capital cities, and involved diplomats and a famous Dutch pilot who taught her in 1934 to fly.

By contrast, imagine my grandfather (his nickname was Brutus, hers Muckie) on his first day out on the island of Loewock[3].  In this excerpt, the italicized words are his, from letters and journals.

Before setting out into the wilderness, he wrote,

          I always feel like a little boy in a big strange mysterious place. He had tended to details, moving toward the moment he would overcome his resistance, making the first start, and the real work, its violent physicality, began. It was the part of every expedition he liked least. Here, I am with him—at the start of every adventure, of every book, the inertia, and the question, How do I begin? The only thing to do is get it over with.
          Brutus set out with the bare minimum of equipment and food to their first camp on the wild Kienton River. In the morning, he took the two most agile men to scout the deepening, narrowing gorge.  By late afternoon, they had forded the river more times than he could count. Above sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet, a strip of sky glowed hot blue, but below, deep in rock shade and mist, he shivered.  Then something changed in the air, underfoot—vibration, more intuition than sound—and he paused, gazing upriver. Under the tumble of whitecaps, a shadow crept toward them, the line between clean water and silted so distinct he could have drawn it with a pen. Somewhere above, it was raining hard. The line swept past; the water, now the color of chocolate, began to rise with a surge of panic he contained, reduced to the size of a bean behind his ribs. He turned the men around and told them to hurry.
          My heart is pounding. In twenty minutes, the trail was under water. Hugging cliffs, they stepped from boulder to slick boulder. Water swirled around their knees, waists, necks, sweeping with it branches and debris. Brutus stumbled through the brown tumult pulling at his clothes, his feet in their heavy boots like blocks of cement. His two men, all but naked, were quick and sure. They went places I could never even attempt to go, and when we crossed the river to the north side they stood on both sides of me in heavy swirling water and handed me across. Ten more minutes. Ten more, driven by adrenalin, trying not to let it overtake them.
          Almost an hour to travel a mile. Soon, the water would be over their heads, and they would have no choice but to try to ride it. Desperate, he scanned the rock walls until he found a narrow opening. They stumbled up, the water still rising, dragging at his trouser legs, the river’s roar urging them up, a hundred feet, two. Finally, they heaved over the lip of the gorge and lay panting, looking down into a wild chute through which entire trees now tumbled. A wash of relief, pure wonder, his body fully present to him. The current surged, rolling a boulder the size of Muckie’s Ford as if it were nothing.  The noise was terrific.
          You can get used to anything. They started back along the edge of the gorge, over rocks and mud treacherously slick. Brutus’s feet, cold and clumsy, couldn’t feel the ground. He didn’t know he had misstepped until his gravity shifted, one boot sliding from under him. Beside him, the cliff curved into air, three hundred feet down into a raging flood. He felt his body suspended; he almost wanted the giddiness of the fall. He tried to dig his other boot in, but the ground beneath it also dissolved—into mud slick as ice, into nothing. 
          Just as he gave over, a grip bruised his arm, holding him over the chasm. He didn’t dare move, even to see which man had him. Again, his body, present, all in all.
          What was there not to understand? I should have been killed or at least fairly well busted up if those fellows had not rescued me. A little Malay between them, flesh and blood, gravity. The men could have let go, brushed off their hands, gone back to their villages. Instead, they hauled him away from that sheer edge, and he lived.

I didn’t go to Loewock when I was in Indonesia. It is almost as remote and impassible now as it was then. As you will have noticed, I am present in that piece, but I’ve followed him on the page. I did follow him, in real life, as far as Palembang:

          His Dutch assistant, Agerbeck, waited on the dock to lead him through Palembang, half of it built on stilts or rafts over the Moesi River, rising and falling with the tide. Coolies selling things to eat and drink, ringing a little bell, chiming Chinese, Dutch, Malay—a cloud of tongues I trail him through words on the page to the floating market, a street that flows with water when the river is full and now stinks of garbage. Women step gracefully along elevated blocks foundering in the mud, bend over rolls of batik or peer into bamboo cages stuffed with chickens, bead-eyes rolling and throats throbbing with panic. Now, also, Nike knock-offs, plastic Disney figures. 
          In my sun hat, I turn every head. At last, a woman grabs my arm, says, in perfect American English, ‘Excuse me. What are you doing here?’
          Jet-lagged, disoriented, I begin to answer. ‘My grandparents,’ I say. 
          ‘Here,’ she says, pointing to the mud beneath our feet. ‘You will be robbed.’ I am slow, my head fogged.  Exasperated, she points at the bridge. ‘Get on a bus,’ she says.
          The stench of refuse and raw sewage reaches the gates of the Sultan’s palace, the call to prayer wafting over all of it. I don’t get on a bus. I walk the decayed sidewalks a mile back to my hotel, the Sandjaja, built the year of my mother’s birth, 1932, where my grandfather will often stay and my grandmother will lunch, at least, with a man she loves. Behind me, my grandfather and Agerbeck haggle for goods and men: Chinese pit diggers and surveyors, Sumatran coolies to carry housing, tools, food for a hundred on their backs. They deal with Dutch officials for bodies, many conscripted or working off debts or sentences.  My grandfather doesn’t ask. 

This is not my only retreat, not my only failure.  Here I am again, having followed my grandmother to the Grand Hotel Selabintanah, at the bottom of Gunung Gede:

          In the bungalow, everything is as it must have been, down to art deco furniture and a coldwater bath. The quiet, punctuated by the soft cries of monkeys and birds settling for the night, has a physical presence, as does the volcano looming in the dark. I eat my dinner under a bare bulb on the terrace, spotlit. After testing the locks on the doors and windows, after checking my phone to find I have no coverage, I shiver through my bath and go to bed.
          My mind will not stop moving from floating market to volcano to supermarket, everything strange. A jungled night. A poor night for sleep. Music pulses, grows louder—I have been hearing it for some time, just beneath my awareness. People singing, calling. I put on my robe and step onto my terrace. Light flickers up the mountain. A ritual—the rhythm and tone of the music is haunting, intense.  Fire pulses through the dense trees.
          I could dress and go up. Nancy Drew would, in any of the books Miriam sent every Christmas. And her? Whatever this is, it wouldn’t have happened in 1932 with the hotel full of Dutch. Where, then, did people worship? I am completely alone. My husband in Salt Lake City has a copy of my itinerary, but I can’t call him. No one who knows me knows where on earth I am.
          This is what I love about travel: being adrift on the earth, the illusion of being untethered, unlocatable. But I will not venture alone at midnight onto the sacred mountain, with its god who would hardly welcome me hovering, having come from so far away, looking for something I can’t explain. I am not protected by a bubble of whiteness and a colonial legal code. I am a stranger, suspect, alone and a little afraid, trying impossibly to go unnoticed.
          The music throbs for hours. Footsteps pass beneath my window. I wonder if those people know I am here, without my husband, and that I cannot even understand my driver. I lie awake, waiting for a step to pause, for a hand on my doorknob. I get up twice to check the locks. Only later will I wonder why I thought anyone might be interested, plunged as they were into dance, music, their lives.
          Just before dawn, I doze. I get up groggy, dress, walk up through the grounds toward the mountain. The path, well traveled, is abandoned. I can smell ashes.  The jungle is so thick the site could be anywhere, just a few feet off the trail, and I might never find it. The air blows fresh and the birds, waking, have begun to sing, to stretch their wings on the breeze.

You can see why I feel less than adequate.  I am always, it seems, allowing myself to be turned back.  But I have achieved the feeling of being foreign, alien.  And I can describe the flash flood as I do, with details that didn’t quite make it into his journal, because in my twenties I huddled on the banks of the Colorado River above Cataract Canyon watching water pour over the rock walls, watching the river change color and rise, rolling car-sized boulders down the riverbed.  We had to decide whether to stay where we were, with the walls sheering off around us and our body temperatures rapidly falling, or risk running the rapids in a flash flood.  It felt, at the time, like deciding how to die; later, it became the touchstone for my grandfather’s flash flood.  And here is where I remember, again, that my job, is not to go to any particular place—for each of us, the place will be different—but rather to go the place I find myself stripped away, stripped back to my eyes, cleansed of expectation and able to see.

Still, what happens when you get home? 

As I’ve grown older, the work has shifted emphasis, from using my own foreignness, my own strangeness, to sharpen my perceptions, to trying to figure out the thing Dickinson seemed to know in her bones: how to be a stranger at home. 

The new poems in the beautiful little book the Institute has made, Bewilder, were written as a part of this developing effort to bring the sensibility I have tried to cultivate by sending myself away.  I believe in bringing the capacity for looking to bear wherever I am, including the dingle at the bottom of the street[4], if only I can see my way clear to it.  Most of the new poems were composed in my room with a wall of windows overlooking a canyon that ends, yes, in wilderness.  But though the canyon brings deer, coyotes, rattlesnakes and tarantulas, various owls and hawks, and even moose and bobcats to my yard, the wilderness itself is ‘over there’.  The birds at the feeders and even nesting in the owl houses my husband hangs are domesticated exactly this far, though the occasional finch or sparrow may, when I forget to close the sliding door, end up in the house, where I scoop it up bare-handed and carry it outside.  This gesture frightened me the first half-dozen times I made it, and after eighteen years I am not inured (the beating in my palms is my heart as well as the creature’s), but I am able to make it now with only the slightest hesitation.  What I have not yet been able to do—though I have tried it, twice now, with miserable results—is write a poem about a finch, a dove, a hummingbird throbbing with panic in my hands.  Perhaps I identify too closely.

In spite of their domestic location, these poems, many of them, have been, in all my work, among the most harrowing, the most frightening to me, in their writing.  Their location in the domestic space has perhaps forced me to concentrate on the contours of my own mind and of that space where mind, through the skin of the eyes, meets world.  There is nothing more intimate, and perhaps nothing more revealing, than what happens there.  But I also very much hope that I have learned to bring the sensibility I have tried so hard to cultivate ‘out there’ back home with me, to make what is habitual and familiar strange again, to bring the world I take as given into doubt.  I want to doubt at least as fiercely as I believe.  Exploration, wherever it occurs, requires me to doubt at any moment not only where I am but what. I am not trading my black dress for a white one, but I am trying to let myself be tutored in the habits of wildness.

By way of thanking Paul Munden, Owen Bullock, Caren Florance, and the Institute, and of celebrating this occasion, I’d like to close with just a few of these poems.


Make room for doubt.  Dig
And roll in the cool hollow

And snooze.  Dig some more.  Find
A bone you buried last year

Or before then forgot.  Believe
You have no past or future, no

Idea.  Chew and gnaw and worry
What if you’re the hard

Core of everything. What might
Be wrong, hold together.



I could have told you.  Then, I would have
Had to.  Long ago, and there were

Too many roses, little black beetles
Masticating the leaves.  The hidden place gives

Its flower perfume.  I wish I’d kept
A secret from you.  I wish you knew it.



In a world full of poison you survived
The copperhead you carried into
Your mother’s kitchen whipping

Its tail while she screamed.  Your father
Beheaded it with a shovel on the linoleum
Then beat you blue.  That was just

The first.  Later came water moccasins,
Rattlers, asp at breast
And scorpion at the heel, black widow

Hiding in the laundry minding
Her own bloody hourglass until your hand
Reached in: the world provided

No such end but left you after
All that for me and for me counting down
Bite by bite what eats you.



All love is odd.  Never again
From a distance shall I see you
Unless we are torn
Asunder.  What could rend you

Now from me, apart from final
Rendering?  Don’t growl
At me.  Dogbody, I’m not your
Monstrosity—only a simple

Furnishing of life, no stranger
Than the hound lazing at your feet,
Inhabiting the persistent fact
Of flesh, passing weird.  Linger

With me here, in twilight’s gruff
Boredom.  Don’t nod off.



At the door, licks
Or checks its teeth.  Closes

Eyes and gnaws just
Where you think

Your heart is.  Dogs you, head
Lowered at heel, hungry

As, pulling
The leash.  Slips

Light to shadow then
Brings shadow back,

Remember, and lays it down
Every corner, along

Folds and wrinkles,
The coats in the closet,

The sheets. Faithful, always
Only yours.  Remember

The clearing, no locks
Or keys, woods

Pressing in.  How you lit
A fire to eat the dark

And made yourself
Inviting.  What line

Separates your moony
Mind and the world

You can feel, until
A lean shadow crosses,

Head lowered, set down
Sure-handed, in ink.



He made the Leviathan for the sport of it,
The Lord of my childhood.  Her fluke

The size of two sleek rowboats
For lifting and drawing down

Knifelike into the water
Or for slapping—so many gestures

A fluke or fin can make with or
Without ruin.  I remember

A whale rolling sideways
Just—it appeared—so I could see her

Waving or flirting, her eye deeply
Winking at my eye, no more

Human for that.   Can’t
Even say she was real beyond

The tide of my imagining or I
Beyond hers, so completely out

Of scale were we, so soundly
Did she sink and finally not

Come up.  The lord of my childhood
Made her to flirt and nurse, to sing

But not to me, for
Enchantment and for love.  Believing

I am not superstitious, I make
Her like any muse

To bewilder me, to say
As the wave curls overhead cast

Loose, be charmed, be lost, for
Godsake remember be wild.



[1] These programs can be downloaded at

[2] Since delivering this talk, I have begun this work.

[3] In all of these excerpts and in this paper, I spell place names as my grandparents did, with the colonial Dutch spellings/

[4] A reference, of course, to the work of Philip Gross and to his chapbook, Time in the Dingle, also published by IPSI for the occasion.


Works cited: 


Capello, M 2013  ‘Propositions; Provocations: Inventions’ Bending Genre. Ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 65-75

Coles, K 2015 Bewilder Canberra: IPSI

Coles, K 2013 The Earth Is Not Flat  Los Angeles CA: Red Hen Press

Coles, K 2016 Flight Los Angeles CA: Red Hen Press

Coles, K Reckless (under consideration)

Coles, K 2014 ‘Slippage, spillage, pillage, bliss: Close reading, uncertainty, and machines. Western Humanities Review, 39–65

Dickinson, E 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Variorum Edition)  Ed. RW Franklin,Cambridge: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press

Gross, P 2015 Time in the Dingle Canberra: IPSI

Howe, S 1993 The Birth-mark  Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press

Howe, S 1985 My Emily Dickinson  Berkeley CA: North Atlantic Books

Lein, J 2014 ‘Sounding the surfaces: Computers, context, and poetic consequence’ Western Humanities Review, 84–109

Link, W K  unpublished letters and journals

McCurdy, N, Lein, J, Coles, K and Meyer, M 2015 ‘Poemage: Visualizing the Sonic Topology of a Poem.’ IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of Infovis 2015)

McCurdy, N, Srikumar, V and Meyer, M 2015 ‘Rhymedesign: A tool for analyzing sonic devices in poetry’ in Proceedings of Computational Linguistics for Literature.

Wilcox, M  Unpublished letters and journals.