Aug 2 2020
Poetry review – STEM: Carla Scarano reviews a collection by Belinda Cooke which looks perceptively and acceptingly at human frailties
A scrupulous self-examination expressed in conversational tones reveals itself in Stem. The poems display the influence of Robert Lowell’s poetry (which Cooke studied for her PhD in the 1990s) and also of Marina Tsvetaeva, many of whose works she has translated; but nevertheless they are fresh in terms of themes and prosody. English and Scottish landscapes overlap and the ups and downs of relationships seem to blend into multiple shades. The poet is looking for novelty within the predictability of ordinariness – she longs for a limitlessness that cannot be attained in the finitude of everyday life but that can be evoked in poetry. A sense of relief and hope is present in nature, where trees, water and wind open new dimensions of time and space; the poet skilfully uses these in her original phrasing and imagery. Life and art merge in the depiction of personal experiences in which memories are sometimes painful or frustrating but always celebrate life and aim for renewal.
The natural setting of the west coast of Scotland, where the poet lives, becomes a metaphor for relationships that are sometimes troubled and always flawed and whose depths are fathomless and never fully comprehended:
Water, summer green, masks its olive dark connections with the wind, I watch you as you set off uphill after lost views in the camera’s lens… I cannot feel these shadows crossing Coigach the way you do, perfection a flaw we cannot fathom – like surf on the beach, I know. (‘Salt Water’)
The world seems to be seen through the lens of a camera, a recurring image that characterises the poet’s view and her relationship with her partner. It is probably a hobby they share, a passion for capturing a landscape; it is a means to dissect and appropriate the object but it is also an approach that analyses and transforms the world. In this way, the poet detaches herself from reality and freezes an idealised moment:
This cream tulip might taste of vanilla pod, vertical petal just tipping the frame. One stop more and the velvet olive stem would disappear into that soft focus. Remember, once you showed me how a wide aperture narrows the depths of field to free the white owl from its cage? (‘Stem’)
There is tension between the possibility of a total freedom that unleashes the imagination and the framing of the image in a limited space, even though it is blurred at the edges. Eventually images shift and avoid a final definite description. We often find ourselves isolated even in the happiest relationships when our partner seems to be incomprehensible and emotionally detached from us. Though this can be painful, it also gives us a sense of freedom and therefore allows a reconsideration of the relationship from a different angle:
this stain that seeps right through our clothes till, no longer forced to close the shutters, you and I, both, might yet find the place where we can live in days. (‘Days’) Heat takes us outside to a mild ache of regret, or guilt, irritation hanging in the air, that does not act like love except when shocked into loss, love at a distance a much easier affair. (‘Home’) We turn our backs on the ash-grey mountains and walking beside you I’m reading the signs, glad to embrace the day on this if not the best of days. (‘New Year’s Day’)
The poems speak of a constant movement of going away and coming back home in an acceptance of imperfections. This is profoundly human and crucial in terms of understanding and caring for others. Nevertheless, the poet longs for more and reveals a passion for life beyond the narrow paths we are forced into taking. There is more to feel and experience, as Cooke expresses in the poem ‘From your Hands’, which is dedicated to Marina Tsvetaeva:
distances, miles, wires, telegraph poles, railroad track, and the patchwork ground – your pathless paths, of you, lone lover of this wide, wide world!
Cooke’s passion for life, despite its grey or dark side, is unquenchable and resembles that of Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), who is considered one of the major Russian poets of the twentieth century. A more adventurous existence is desired when domesticity and quotidian life wear people down. The poet’s Catholic background seems to contribute to the final understanding and eventual acceptance of the imperfections inherent in being human, along with the inevitable ups and downs of relationships:
– Ave Maria as St Bernardette gazes up, heavenly rays descend, and Hollywood choirs go ‘Ahh – rising – ahhh! So glad always to be a Catholic with my little box of imagery, my pristine, pointy white Sunday shoes where, Wilhelmina and the Mainliners lives on. (‘Foot on the Cross’ 1)
The ‘little box of imagery’ helps the poet to accept and reverse the ordinariness in a renewal that occurs in language, that is, in poetry. It is a renewal that is reflected in the poet’s connection with nature, in the vitality of the wind and water and in the humanised trees which convey a sense of infinity:
Amid five-barred gates, low light, and luminous blades, wind races and rattles through deciduous trees. Dizzy, soaring, upward look: as with a wide-angled lens you capture the trees’ infinity over a leaf-strewn wood, Tolstoy’s pantheistic oak – Russia’s infinite steppe of birch and rowan. (‘Trees’)
As is the case in nature, relationships seem to harmonise at the end of the collection in a warmer and wider perspective when ‘[e]venings I come home/lie back, take in the heat’ (‘Coda: Wood-Burning Stove’). Past and future look friendlier and more attractive despite the unhappiness voiced in some recollections. Apparently, no tragic events or traumatic experiences have marked the poet’s life – everything looks ‘just ok’ but with a question mark; this intriguingly interrogates the reader and invites her to scrutinise memories in search of a deeper understanding about who we are and what we wish for. Cooke’s poetry analyses well these deeper sides of human consciousness in light yet compelling lines.