Thomas Roberts reviews a recent poetry collection …

Work Horses by David Cooke
69 pp, £8.99, Ward Wood Publishing

Much has been written in poetry about in-between places, but there can be no in-between place  more prone to heartache than that which lies between the cultural stools of England and Ireland.  This is the territory which David Cooke inhabits in this collection: a Wokingham man by birth (according to his biography); an Irishman in his heart (according to his poetry).

It is a territory which runs from the Sligo of his parents to the Holloway Road in North London, to commuter towns in Berkshire, to childhood holidays in the old country.  It also extends to trips in later years to Russia and Sri Lanka and it is these later poems (which I will call postcard poems) which allow the collection to look sideways and forward rather than just to look back.  Cooke’s territory is also an emotional one that encompasses faith and family.

David Cooke provides us with 48 poems divided into 5 chapters: “Work Horses” with a strong Irish narrative set mostly in the poet‘s youth; “For a Good Intention” grounded in contemporary Russia; “Shadow Boxing” a mixture of Ireland and England; “The Island Shaped like a Tear” inspired by Sri Lanka; and “Ships at a Distance”, a return for the most part to Ireland, or more particularly, Irish England.

“Work Horses” is the title of his collection; the title of the first chapter; and the title of the very first poem.  Herein would seem to lie the emotional heart of the collection,

Born to a scant inheritance
of rushy Sligo acres, my dad was bred
like his brothers to follow the work,
sending remittances home
from London, Reading, and Philadelphia –
for worklessness
would have been their defining shame.

That heart is not only the Irish experience of England, not only the virtues of hard work and betterment, but also of the poet’s respect for his father.  In other poems there is a hint that his own life does not quite measure up.  “Work Horses” also treads the line between the general (where Cooke’s poems can work less well and cross into the waters of cliché) and the personal where he shares a little bit of what it means to be human and we thank him for that.  Later in “Work Horses”,

I am watching a drayman
as he guides heraldic horses
……[ ]……..
their sinews barely tensed,
they go unfussed about their business.

So also in “Beginnings” when the author steers, on the day of his daughter’s Islamic wedding, towards some Irish-in-England stereotypes,

Suddenly memories surfaced
and my mother was back on the stomping ground
she’d known just after the war,
when all  the others from home
had made the journey too –
the men on buildings and roads
while she and her favourite sister
skivvied in a  plush hotel

But afterwards he steers (for the positive) towards his own reflections,

And, as we moved into separate rooms,
I remembered the Mass
at Swinford; how years ago
the men would sit on the left
and the women filed off to the right.

One of the best poems in the collection is “On my daughter’s conversion to Islam”, written in iambic pentameter.  Many of Cooke’s poems follow form loosely but this poem is one of the few that adheres to a specific form, which is something he might consider trying more of in the future.  The overall effect is a feeling of tautness where every word is made to work.  This poem is also an example of another strength seen throughout the collection, a tone of easy intimacy with the reader.

How strange when I, who inherited faith
and kept it like a shabby gift, outgrown
and then abandoned, see how on your own
you have discovered a different path

Two of the five chapters describe experiences in Russia or Sri Lanka.  Another clue to their nature may lie in one of two quotes which preface this collection, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” – in other words the dream that things might be better somewhere beyond.   Creatively at least, the exotic inspires this author in a way that his experiences in England do not.  That is not to say that there aren’t poems about England.  There are, but they are a minority.

The postcard poems cover both positive and negative aspects of the destinations visited.  So in “Colombo”,

A dirty war drags on, each merciless surge
in the field bringing terror home.

And “In Moscow“,

Through the reinstated archway,
of the Resurrection Gate you could see
St. Basil’s Cathedral, 

which Stalin had also once tried to remove

However, a problem with the postcard poems is that one is left to wonder whether they are just summaries from a travel guide rather than events in themselves.  Even at “The Wedding Feast” of his daughter,

In the patriarchal house
of one of the nation’s founding fathers,
……..[ ] at our own daughter’s walima ,

the poem turns away from the banquet to the yonder,

a seaborne people who had settled,
establishing their trading posts.

The Irish experience of living in England is an important story to tell, as is the related story of the second generation Irish living in England.  David Cooke’s collection contributes to this.  Although his parents may have come from the rural West, the Irish poet who most comes to mind on reading his collection is Louis MacNeice.  There is the important relationship with his father, being caught between England and Ireland, poems as postcards (e.g. MacNeice‘s “Birmingham“, “Belfast“ and “The Hebrides”) and the impact of organised religion in their lives (MacNeice‘s father was an Anglican bishop).

MacNeice once wrote that, the poet must maintain his elasticity and refuse to tell lies to order.  In his most famous poem “Snow”, the truth he outlined was of a world more spiteful and gay than one supposes……[ ]………..[T]here is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

David Cooke’s work hints at a similar truth in the poem “Valediction”:

our floral tribute, a skilled
confection of white roses and lilies
lit by pink carnations,
was laid out on slabs
beneath a spatter of rain. 

The fragile roses
would be the first to go.




Thomas Roberts is a poet based in London where he works as a lawyer.  He is originally from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and is also a songwriter.