Nov 18 2019
Poetry Review – Sightings. Mat Riches finds that Rose Cook has compressed a lot of looking at the world into one pamphlet
It’s clear from the get-go that this is a book focused on looking at the world around us; Cook dedicates it to ‘Gaia, beautiful Earth, our home’ and, among others, quotes W.B Yeats at the start, ‘The world is full of magic things. Patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper’.
Cook also quotes Jeanette Winterson at the outset, ‘Looking is an act of renewal’, and the various scenes captured in the first poem certainly have us looking again at the world anew.
“Sightings” is both the title and first poem of the collection and has us casting our gaze in a variety of directions, including nods towards the animal kingdom (whales, seals, swans and dogs), humanity (children, adults) and everyday life – the final stanza refers to the mundanity of washed clothes, ‘tied high above a street/ several white sheets and a single red shirt’ – as an aside, I really hope they weren’t washed together.
So, while we cover a range of focal points in the poem, we are directed to look at them closely through Cook’s choice of language, for example the Seal that makes ‘her way along the shore, / head round and black, slow flippers, trawling a sea / pink with sunset.’ The use of ‘trawling’ puts the seal’s natural, instinctive act in a human context. Another example is the whale that flexes ‘its muscular back against blue water, / not far out, the shiver of a god.’
The deification of the cetacean provides us with a new way to look at them, a human filter that follows the mission statement given to the book by the Winterson quotation. There is further weight added to this by the fact that each of the sightings mentioned in this poem are in the past tense…’Saw the whale flex….’, ‘Saw a seal…’, ‘Saw the lifeboat mem run to a shout’, etc. What is missing here from these pictures, with everything in the past tense does this mean these are things we can’t see anymore? Are these reminiscences from a great distance? A looking back or something more concerning, you can draw your own conclusions here.
The rest of the book contains more whales, dogs, birds, feelings of being trapped, death and loss and aging, and in many ways, it is fitting that “Sightings” is the title poem and the first poem as it covers the themes of the collection in one fell swoop like a sort of secondary contents page.
I suspect Cook is a fan of whales, they feature quite strongly in the early part of the book—the first three poems, in fact. My favourite of these is the third, “A Whale in My Window” where the protagonist appears to get the amazing gift of a humpback whale swimming within spitting distance of their house as a view. (As a further aside, how glorious to have a home that looks out onto a bay). The closing three lines of this poem contain a marvellous notion that while I hope it is backed up by actual science, I am content to believe it regardless of this.
When you speed up the song of a humpback whale, it sounds like birdsong.
The collection travels from the aforementioned whales in bright light at the start through to the apricity of a February day and the ‘fertile goddess of the field’, St Brigid as well as Seamus and Marie Heaney in “Brigid’s Day”. This last poem ends with a paraphrase of Heaney’s last words to his wife, ‘and we are not afraid’ and it’s a brave poet that even attempts such a thing. I think Cook gets away with it here and it makes for a fitting place to end the book.
The circular nature of the poem’s references to St Brigid, Heaney’s love for both St Brigid and his wife, the poem mentioned within a poem of Heaney’s “The Clothes Horse” with its own references to St Brigid* all mirror the circular nature of the book – starting in and ending with light.
Overall, this is a very strong collection of poems and while it’s not explicitly a themed book, it does have a clear and coherent structure about it. It contains a couple of poems that are perhaps glimpses rather than sightings for me. “Godwit Sightings” and “Moorhen” feel more like notes towards a poem than the finished articles to me, but these are minor gripes in the grand scheme of this pamphlet.
Helena Nelson of HappenStance describes Cook’s writing thus: ‘The delight is infectious’. It’s easy to see why on the basis of this pamphlet. I didn’t know this poet’s work before, but I will be hope for, er, sightings of it in the wild from now on.
* – Honestly, I’m not being paid** by the references to St Brigid…Oh, I’ve done it again.
** – At all, and that’s fine with me.