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Chant of the Doves by Stephen Coan PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 30 August 2008 10:46

Chant of the Doves is Stephen Coan’s first collection of poetry. And I hope that it will be the first of many. It is a slim, pocket-sized collection, comprising approximately seventy short untitled poems. A large number of these are haiku poems – although not in the strict ninth-century classical Chinese style, but rather more loose and open-ended.

Coan has made a name for himself as feature writer at Pietermaritzburg’s daily newspaper, The Witness (where he is assistant editor), and also as a researcher on the work of H. Rider Haggard. In 2000 he edited for first-time publication, Haggard’s account of his 1914 visit to southern Africa, Diary of an African Journey. And in 2007 he edited (with Alfred Tella), Mameena and Other Plays: the Complete Dramatic Works of H. Rider Haggard.

But it is Coan’s double life as retreatant and meditation teacher at the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo that gives rise to the sustaining metaphor of place that runs through the collection. The poems then are a loose series of reflections both on physical place and landscape (the hills and valleys that Paton sang of so lyrically in Cry, the Beloved Country), and on the practice of a meditative lifestyle that encourages silence and contemplation. In this way, much of Coan’s poetry – in style and content – reminds me of the quiet and simple, but profound, epiphanies of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

Like Merton, Coan’s writing is inspired by his patient observations of nature (in particular the bird-life around him), rooted strongly in a sensory attentiveness: ‘opening the door / the smell of honey / inside the walls at night’.

There is also a gentle humour that runs through this collection, which helps the reader, and the poet himself, not to take the contemplative life too seriously: ‘ringing the bell / for the sheer bell of it’ and ‘stretched out on the bench / by the dam / for as long as it takes / to suck a boiled sweet’.

But apart from the quiet and unassuming strength of the poems, I must also applaud the design of the book itself. Printed on a pale khaki paper and using artistically blurred black and white photographs taken by Coan as dividers between the various sections, designer Fiona Crooks has come up with a delicate visual complement to the poems.

Chant of the Doves cuts through much of the pretentiousness and posing within contemporary South African literature, obsessed with the writer’s ego and self-promotion. It is a small collection with a very compassionate heart.

 
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