David Cooke’s latest collection offers both variety and a sense of unity, observes Emma Lee
After Hours is a thoughtful, lyrical collection of poems on aspects of family life. Interspersed with the other poems is a sequence inspired by photographs by Willi Ronis (1910 – 2009). In one, ‘Le Nu Provençal’ a woman “like Eve in exile” is going through her morning routine,
But first a strip-wash, the astringent purity of her ablutions. Leaning over a basin, the chill water unseals her eyes. Still only half awake, she takes in the tarnished mirror, a chair; and sees how little is needed to live on the far side of paradise.
It doesn’t just describe what’s in the photograph, but imagines what’s playing on her mind and how she prepares for the day that lies ahead. The sense of resignation is mirrored in the black and white photograph where the woman stoops over the basin, her back to the viewer, only the top of her head just about visible in the mirror not looking at the open top half of a stable door which reveals the sunshine outside.
In ‘Piano’ the narrator buys one for his children to learn to play, having wanted to do this himself when he was younger. The narrator eventually signs up for lessons in a class run by Kate (the ‘she’ in the extract),
The last time we came together the man who checked our names told us the little he knew, that piano wire was what she'd chosen; and later when the kids left home the piano grieved in silence. It was all we could do to give it away.
The notion of people being described through the lens of treasured objects is revisited in ‘Last Orders’. In this case the object is a 1970s’ home bar,
Embalmed in a gloopy coat of varnish that set to a brittle sheen, it lacked retro chic, scuffed down to the wood along its edges, its surface crazed with memories. In days when family came to stay it placed him centre stage, measuring out precisely his perfect Irish coffees or each medicinal dose of whiskey. And yet, for all its high stool bonhomie we dumped it, an eyesore for the viewers - then missed a convenient shelf, sorting mail that even now in his posthumous life makes him offers he can't refuse.
There’s less regret about getting rid of the bar than the piano. The memories the bar evokes are warmer, a reflection of the fact the bar-owner was better known than Kate the piano tutor. The junk mail suggests the bar-owner’s stories weren’t always true, but were always good to listen to. However, the best publicans are listeners, not talkers, so, although the poem is a fond memory, it acknowledges its subject’s faults too.
The collection isn’t just about family, ‘Lines for a Fighter’ is written in memory of Muhammed Ali,
The voice of conscience was Emmett Till, the imaginary twin whose date of birth obsessed you, his features lying like bruised fruit in the bigots' torchlight - an omen for the uppity. For you outraged them too with your lip and fancy footwork your Five Pillars of Islam. Turning up the heat with verses, you out-rhymed no-hopers.
Fourteen year old Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman (later the allegation was confirmed as false). Easy to see how that could provide inspiration for another black man to start boxing. Although I don’t think “no-hopers” is quite the right phrase; it diminishes Ali’s achievements by suggesting his boxing skills weren’t tested.
After Hours isn’t just about those who have passed on; other poems look at the wrench of adult children leaving home and turning out all right. One section is based on a trip to Florida and includes, ‘Loxahatchee’
it isn't a park, it's only Nature – as if by flagging its lack of amenities he'd spare me a pointless drive, when Nature, really, was all I wanted, caged in as I was between Palmetto and Glades, locked down by Lyons and Dixie - imagining flocks of startled waders storming the heavens, in flittering clouds.
I think all tourists identify with the desire to move away from the tourist spots and enjoy a “real” taste of wherever they’re visiting.
After Hours shows a quiet craft that explores how the past shapes the present and how memories (even negative ones) inform behaviour. David Cooke’s measured voice gives the collection a sense of unity.
Emma Lee‘s most recent publication is “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, 2015) and she was co-editor for “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.