REVIEW by Barrie Llewelyn

NWR Issue 97

Here and the Water

by Sarah Coles

Sarah Coles’ debut collection Here and the Water is autobiographical – I’m almost sure of it. Coles writes about domesticity: her children, her environment, her loneliness, her failings and triumphs. They are distinctively hers but because the images are generous and the words accessible and bold, the reader has the opportunity to own some of these experiences too.

For that reason I found this a difficult book to review. Reviewers are not really supposed to write:

I loved this book; I read it from start to finish, sometimes rereading a poem three or four times before turning to the next. I made notes by the side of poems that I wanted to return to and I folded corners on certain pages because the poems there were already favorites, and while doing all of this I still read the whole collection in one sitting. I didn’t stir to boil the kettle or to take the dogs for a quick walk around the block. I simply took some time out and read every bit of the collection as if I was eating it.

It would make me unprofessional if I gushed like that. It would sound as if my critical skills had evaporated because I was moved and because I could identify with Coles’ experiences of relationships and motherhood. I probably wouldn’t get asked to write many more reviews.

So I will tell you what I specifically liked about Coles’ work. It’s her ability to give an honest glimpse into someone else’s world. In the six line poem, ‘Miscarriage’, there is just enough detail to allow the reader to understand the agony of both characters:

‘No, keep your Sunday dress on.
We’ll go for a drive, up to the lake
and I will tell you my plans for the garage.

You can look out of the window –
and I will keep the quiet curve of your cheek
in my peripheral vision.’

The ordinariness of the proposed conversation about the garage, the ‘quiet curve’ of a cheek, watching someone without looking at them – all those images are enough. Without the title this poem could be about a million different domestic situations. The title tells the reader what’s happened, so that, rather than trying to unravel that mystery, the focus is on this terrible and beautiful moment between these two people.

Coles is particularly good at titles. ‘All the better…’ is another example of a title that completes the poem. It serves to sort out the tension between wariness and longing in a new and not completely desired, relationship:

‘How could you have known
that I taste copper in my mouth
when you speak my name
and when the breeze lifts your soft hair,
to glimpse white skin beneath?
I didn’t say that you could walk with me…’

Although the metaphor of the walk, the path, and the dark forest they are about to enter may be a little obvious, the way in which that tension is explored is not a cliché:

‘If I turn
and face you –
stand still in the quiet of the pine-dead air
and let my guard fall slowly
down from my shoulders –
will I see your true form?
Will my tired eyes be witness
to another painful metamorphosis?’

I can’t actually know how much of this collection is autobiographical, of course. One of the things I liked about the book is that I felt like I was getting to know another woman intimately because all these poems have the same voice and the situations seem to have been experienced by the same person. I hope that observation doesn’t make Sarah Coles uncomfortable. The poems, though they may very well be personal, lack a self-pity that would make them confessional. Coles is unsentimental and tough. In the poem ‘Evie’, a beloved daughter is told:

‘Sleep then you –
wax-cheeked kernel of night.
Sleep, youngest of three –
Accident of last-ditch love.
I will not hope
anything for you.’

Confession time for me now: I did read Here and the Water in one sitting and I’m not really ashamed to tell you that. I don’t believe it compromises my critical skills that I loved this book. Every once in a while, everyone should absolutely love a book. I suspect that poetry collections are mostly bought by other poets and critics; this one should be bought by anyone who wants to be moved because they are allowed to get to know another person so well that they don’t just identify with that person, they genuinely like them.

Buy this book at


previous review: Chinaman
next review: Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam


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