REVIEW by Jake Oliver

NWR Issue 103

Spool by Robert Cole

by Robert Cole

With Robert Cole, the résumé could really speak for itself. He’s lived on three continents, been published on two, anthologized by six different publishers, he owns over a decade of editorial experience, and has now six collections of poetry. For someone so accomplished, the fear might be to believe his latest, Spool, could end up an exercise in ego. Many readers will no doubt pause here to consider the many artists who have allowed their skill-set to slacken, to put it kindly, in the glow of accolade. After all, the man corresponded with Seamus Heaney, the kind of rare air most of us will never inhale. Such a fear ‘on paper’, however, belies Cole’s remarkable ability to synthesize his experience into poems that engage without pretence. Indeed, the book comes with minimal biographical information or self-referential padding. The unassuming Spool (its impression probably reinforced in no small part by Oversteps Books’ modest jacket art) does carry Larkin and Auden in its wallet and refuses to flinch; ‘the blood; the burnt earth’ (‘Reprisal’), the absinthe, the chewing tobacco, an eye-lash away from the blossom (‘There should be blossom…’): Cole is at the full height of his craft in the trenches of memory or in the baking heat of Mexico City.

Spool is described as a small poetry collection, and at fifty-one pages is indeed not a marathon. But the poet, refreshingly, appears to adhere to strict quality control, and the forty-five poems present all feel necessary. The gift can sometimes be in the small discoveries, and it is a testament to Cole’s ability as a poet that whether they ‘are a jumpcut / Over the mountain road / Shouldering above the jungle’ (‘Leaping Lizards’) or a ‘little crucifixion… At its centre a Golgotha / Encircled by satanic stigmata’ (‘Passionflower’), these insights are charged with a vitality that allow the cosmic warring of carnality, of Heaven and Hell, and Wikipedia reference-checking (Golgotha in my case, as my Sunday School lessons are some time in the past now) writ small under the passionflower’s ‘Aureoles of petals, an evening dress’ to stand next to one man’s personal hell in ‘Reprisal’, and feel equally as compelling. Cole does not need to grind grit into his palms, either: these poems are the genuine article, no matter the subject.

Cole’s reverence for art, though – and not just his art – is probably the clearest through-line in this collection. This reverence leads to some interesting places, and not just from the expected sources: “’Milton to Galileo’, ‘Flaubert teaches Guy de Maupassant to write’, ‘Dante’; ‘Above the Beargarden viewed from the Globe’ somehow has Christopher Marlowe’s spectre inhabiting Sackerson the bear, and ‘Dutch Master’ may well be the High Renaissance of snuff and liquor. That Cole is able to keep the Dantes and Lenins of his poetic world fresh – well-trod territory at this point – is yet another example of his tremendous skill, a skill he makes look effortless.

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, its relative brevity and understated arrival, Spool is an extremely strong collection of poems that finds Robert Cole in full command of the written word. The book yields many pleasures in its deceptive density and humble lines, at once rewarding patience and, as in ‘Leaping Lizards’ and ‘Passionflower’, intensely focusing on the small details of the landscape that yield unexpected discoveries. Spool invites you to converse, observe, and ‘cut the tarot pack’ (‘Mars in Scorpio’).

Jake Oliver is an NWR online contributor.


previous review: Hatchet Job
next review: The Known and Unknown Sea


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