Book people: Poetry of place

2008-08-06 00:00

clear night sky

wind in the pines

May moon breathing

THIS is a poem from Chant of the Doves, a new collection by Stephen Coan, who is probably better known to most Witness readers as a senior feature writer and assistant editor on the paper than as a poet.

However, Coan has had poems published before, in Sesame, The English Academy Review, Fidelities and Carapace. He has also edited Rider Haggard’s Diary of an African Journey and (with Alfred Tella) Mameena and Other Plays — the Complete Dramatic Works of H. Rider Haggard.

But the poems in Chant of the Doves are different from others Coan has written. “They are nature-based and observation-based, not self-referential,” he says. “They come from the place itself.” And the place is the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo, which Coan has been visiting regularly since 1987. He also runs retreats there and sits on the centre’s steering committee.

On his first trip to the centre, when he was still living in Johannesburg, he stopped off in Pietermaritzburg and bought himself a notebook, and ever since, whenever he goes, he takes a journal with him. It is not a confessional diary, but somewhere to note what he has seen and jot down thoughts drawn from his own reading.

Coan uses poetry when he leads retreats — it makes a good jumping -off point he says, particularly Japanese and Chinese poetry, and their influence is clear in this collection. His poems are pared down, simple and clear in form, but evocative of the sounds and sights of the area around Ixopo.

The book came about when Coan looked back through his journals and pulled out ideas and phrases that lent themselves to poetry. He worked on the poems while on holiday in Tuscany a couple of years ago, refining them into the form they now have. “I worked on them overseas — it helped to have another landscape to refract them through,” he says. On his return, he showed them to Kobus Moolman — a friend, fellow poet and editor of the Fidelities journal. “He liked them, and made some good suggestions, and so I went ahead and found a publisher,” says Coan. The elegant little book was designed by Fiona Crooks, a former Witness colleague.

“There was no real purpose, other than to give a sense of place,” says Coan. And that is exactly what the poems do — create a sense of peace and intense awareness of the surroundings that inspired them. The title, Chant of the Doves, calls up a sound that Coan says always makes him think of the Retreat Centre. It is a powerful evocation of place.

* Chant of the Doves by Stephen Coan is published by Leopard Press and is available from the Buddhist Retreat Centre, the Midlands Arts and Crafts Society and the Tatham Art Gallery Shop.

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