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Charles Coe's life lessons

By Catherine A. Salmons

JULY 19, 1999: 

Picnic On The Moon, poems by Charles Coe, (Leapfrog Press), 79 pages, $12.95

Charles Coe is a poet's poet, a kind of jazzy, postmodern Ben Jonson: bold, plain diction; soulful, improvised swirls in a matrix of straight-ahead narrative; understated, but shimmering with wit, compassion, integrity of purpose. No artifice, no show, no creaking of formal machinery: what drives his verse is the muscular cadence of experience -- life, through the poet's prismatic eye. What drives his verse is the story. Or as Coe puts it, in this bluesy riff from the epigraph to part one of his new Picnic on the Moon: "I come from where I've been."

Where Coe has been resonates from every page of his graceful book, the first collection from this Cantabrigian now in the early years of middle age, an artist as unhurried about getting into print as his poems are unhurried, mature in their pacing. We glimpse the artist as a young black poet coming of age in mid-1960s Indianapolis, mapping his way through the era's labyrinth of conflicting ideologies, falling in and out of contradictions -- deciding how to think, and how to be. "Blues for Mr. Glaspar" is one of Coe's wry portraits of his own young self, on fire with the hope and spirit of the times ("Man,/the world was on the move! Reverend King/was pulling black people out of the mud./Sidney Poitier was getting rich/making movies, and acting/like a man!"), yet dismissive of the title elderly neighbor, who'd "plant his long, skinny body in a lawn chair,/and drift away on the Delta blues." Young Coe was sometimes blind, older Coe confesses, to the cultural richness in, literally, his own backyard.

This seems to be Coe's favorite tactic: the object lesson, with himself as foil. His tone is humble, self-effacing, implying a sigh and a roll of the eyes and a good-natured "Here's what it's taken me years to learn!" There's great charm in this device, and a certain slyness: he circles a topic, surveys all the angles, then strikes at the point of greatest surprise. He tackles thorny questions of religion ("Praying in the Dark"), family ("In the House of Echoes"), history ("For Rosa Parks"), and love ("For the Traveler, Far Away"), always in a voice studied and humorous, meditative, political, and humane -- the quintessential poetic voice of experience "recollected in tranquillity." There is passion in Coe's work, but it's subtle and slow building, like a tidal wave still barely visible -- like the "slow anger" he attributes to Rosa Parks, anger that had swelled for years and in a moment "was finally called to birth."

Although Coe is an accomplished jazz vocalist and musician, his poems are not explicitly musical. Instead they have a comfortable, uncluttered, slightly prosy rhythm that's effective on the page: intentional and measured, not exuberant but quietly right for both ear and eye. They are full of thoughts about music ("Long Live the Queen"; "When Charlie Mingus Played His Bass"), but they're crafted around a musician's understanding of the rhythms of linear thought: ideas, he seems to imply, have a music of their own. Coe works within loose but varied constraints: he sets up a pattern then breaks it, reinvents form to suit his mood, never stays in any one groove too long. The poems embody his own playful dictum from the tongue-in-cheek "Yo, Poets!": "when committing an act of poetry,/never be a slave to rules."

The publication of Picnic on the Moon is newsworthy in itself. The book is the latest release from the Wellfleet-based Leapfrog Press, which was founded in 1996 by the celebrated husband & wife literary duo Ira Wood and Marge Piercy. Wood explains that the press is both a labor of love and a way of rescuing distinguished authors "not considered commercial enough to publish. . . . We're committed to the idea of the small press, because without it, many fine books wouldn't be in print at all."

Charles Coe's debut is a textbook example: the late-ish first book of a mature, uncompromising writer who's paid his dues, in both art and life (a 1996 winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in poetry, he's also a community-arts administrator, a respected reviewer of other people's books, and a tireless advocate for other artists). There's no "filler," nothing grasping or careerist in these pages, just the patient voice of a genuine poet working out his life in verse -- a poet who (matching his own description of his friend, the late Etheridge Knight), "stirs/a pot of words/and changes lead to gold."


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