Bookmark and Share


Forests of the Medieval World by Don Coles  

All of the poems in Forests of the Medieval World are accomplished; several of the longer ones in particular are memorable. These two are Don Coles at his best: wonderful poems, loose-limbed, articulate, and extremely moving.

Don Coles has earned a reputation as one of Canada’s finest contemporary poets with books such as The Prinzhorn Collection and Little Bird. In his new poetry collection, Forests of the Medieval World, he explores the power of memory.

Shadowy figures from the past -- a woman in a car, a child at the seashore, a father’s college basketball teammates -- float through the poems of the book’s first section. A modern tale of love is intertwined with an account of the destruction of Europe’s medieval forests. The poet recalls the baseball games and adventure books of his boyhood; he dreams of what death would be like for Cambridge University’s Wren Library; and he listens to ‘long-dead fathers’ giving counsel to ‘their troubled daughters’ in a nursing home.

Rounding out the volume is a haunting sequence of poems about the private world of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. ‘The Edvard Munch Poems’ were inspired by Coles’s reading of Munch’s diaries, which are still largely untranslated. Best known for his famous work ‘The Cry,’ Munch was a lonely and painfully sensitive man. He returned obsessively in his paintings to the pivotal events of his early life: the deaths of his mother and his beloved sister, Sophie, and his adolescent affair with a married woman, the mysterious ‘Fru H.’ The departure point for each of these poems is one of Munch’s paintings and most are offered in the voice of the artist himself. Coles, whose collection K. in Love explored the inner thoughts of writer Franz Kafka, is a master at suggesting character through the nuances of poetic expression.


1993—Governor General's Award,

Review quote

‘If Don Coles’s Forests of the Medieval World were any more polished, the reader would break a leg.’

—Fraser Sutherland, Globe & Mail

Review quote

‘Right on the heels of his stunning Little Bird (1992), Don Coles has produced a new collection of poetry, Forests of the Medieval World. In the title poem, and in much of the new book, Coles continues to flex the perfectly modulated, passionate yet disinterested voice that flowed through Little Bird and made it a masterpiece.’

—University of Toronto Quarterly

Review quote

‘Coles’ emotional restraint is like a translucent membrane through which we glimpse more chaotic emotions below. His most brilliant work has always been informed by the life of another artist -- Kafka in K in Love and Joseph Grebing, a 19th-century patient in a mental institution, in The Prinzhorn Collection -- perhaps because a poet so reticent to confess needs the distance of another voice. This book finishes with a sequence about Edvard Munch, another intense artist who insisted on a harrowingly simple honesty.’

—Cary Fagan, Globe & Mail

Review quote

Forests of the Medieval World contains two parallel currents: the story of the razed forests of Europe and the story of the narrator’s lost love. While the love story is sketched in with quick, telling strokes, the story of the forests is etched in loving, and fascinating, detail. The interweaving of these two tales, and their implied emotional consonance, is another extraordinary tour de force for Coles, whose depth and breadth continue to astonish.’

—Rhea Tregebov, Quill & Quire


Don Coles was born on April 12, 1927, in the town of Woodstock, Ontario.

Coles entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1945. He did a four-year history degree, then a two-year M.A. in English, spending two undergraduate summers in Trois-Pistoles, Quebec, learning French, and one summer travelling in Europe. He had several courses with Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, whom he recalls as the best teachers of his life. In between the two M.A. years, he spent a year in London working in a bookstore, then enrolled at Cambridge from 1952 to 1954, and upon graduating was awarded a British Council grant to live in Florence for a year. It was in Stockholm that he met Heidi Golnitz of Lubeck, Germany, whom he eventually married; they lived in Copenhagen and Switzerland before coming to Canada with their daughter in 1965—supposedly for a visit, but they stayed.

It was only around 1967, in tandem with teaching, that Coles began writing poems. His first collection appeared in 1975 when he was forty-seven. It was followed quietly by several others, but he resisted becoming a public poet-persona. He was sixty-five when Forests of the Medieval World won Canada’s premier literary award. As a poet, Coles has always marched to his own drummer. He was never enamoured of the modernist poets, looking instead to what he has termed the ’Hardy-Larkin line’, those who were able to move their art back towards accessibility and the general reader. Besides his ten poetry collections, Coles has, since retirement, published a novel and a collection of essays and reviews, and translated a collection by the late Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

Coles resides in Toronto, but has lived close to twenty years in western Europe, with sojourns in Munich, Hamburg, and Zurich besides cities already mentioned. A deeply private man, he lists family first among his pleasures.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

Site Search

Buy from your local independent booksellerPreview Google

POETRY / Canadian

ISBN-13: 9780889841581

Publication Date: 1993-02-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 64

Price: $9.95