Aug 26 2022
Poetry review – THE METAL EXCHANGE: Carla Scarano reviews David Cooke’s exploration of humanity’s complicated relationship with metals
The new collection by David Cooke explores connections between metallic elements and the human world. It is a conversation that considers the composition and structures of metals, conveying interesting information and developing clever literary references and insights about their relevance in human history and in our life on the planet. The poems transform this cold and apparently unfriendly material in way that engages the reader in the investigation of a variety of unexpected properties of metals in relation to everyday experiences and existential questions.
There are over 4,000 different minerals on the planet containing metallic elements. These range from precious metals, such as gold and silver, to base metals, such as lead, zinc and copper. Ninety-five elements in the periodic table are metals, and alloys make up 90 per cent of the metals we use today. This is because alloys have more strength and versatility, which in turn allows more diverse usages. (Cooke acknowledges that he studied metals by reading information he found via links on Wikipedia as well as Paul Parsons and Gail Dixon’s The Periodic Table: A Field Guide to the Elements and Paul Strathern’s Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements.)
Metals’ toughness, resilience and adaptability as well as their shiny aspect are qualities that might be related and explored in connection with various aspects of human life. The Metal Exchange insightfully and ironically voices these different aspects in its three sections, ‘Silverado’ (a place of silver), ‘A Golden Lesson’ and ‘The Metal Sonata’. In contrast to Cooke’s previous collections, which are mainly drawn from memories and the revisiting of past events from childhood to adulthood, this collection scrutinises personal and human life from a detached point of view via the metallic elements. However, there is a parallel with his previous collection, Sicilian Elephants, in which there is an attempt to reorder and refresh life through the activities of gardening and DIY, which is an intellectual journey that eventually fails. In his latest collection, Cooke further develops this thread in an intellectual approach that encompasses ordinariness as well.
The opening poems of this collection emphasise the solidity and physicality of metals which are useful in transactions: to buy bread, for example, or to grant a passage to the Egyptian underworld in which ‘the heart is weighed/against a feather’. Ephemerality is confronted with the hardships of the quotidian and the ruthlessness of an unequal society, for example in the line that speaks of the gold that is locked in vaults and that ‘the rich cling to when the bubble/bursts’. The poems about precious metals seem to suggest that we are dependent on these constructions which Cooke labels as ‘Platonic Forms in which, yes, absolutely, we / have placed our trust.’ Gold is also connected to the Golden Age, that is, the that mythical age that writers such as Ovid and Virgil described as a time of harmony
when wolves were tame and neighbours civil […] mildness reigned until that era ended (‘After Ovid’).
References to the ancient past and connections to modern time are also present in ‘After Horace’:
In an age of tweets and trolls, of wannabes and won’t-bes, I am pinning my faith on the future. I am taking a punt on a long shot, hoping, perhaps vainly, that a copper and tin alloy, with a hint of nickel and zinc and even a dose of arsenic, will outlast tinsel I am squaring up to reality shows and reinventing the past.
The poem wittily refers to Horace’s line ‘exegi monumentum aere perennius’ (I have made a monument more lasting than bronze), suggesting that his poetry will outlive any monument made by humans. The conclusion of Cooke’s poem confirms the importance of poetry in a modern world and, at the same time, implies a wider view that is contingent and open to ‘the music of the spheres’.
‘Nothing comes of nothing’ is the opening line of the poem ‘Nothing’ that voices the poet’s existential confusion:
instinct fails to hit the wall or find the door that never opens onto a view explaining it all, the blank where memory started. If nothing begins, nothing ends. That’s the dark sense of circles, the noose containing all there is.
It is a circle rather than a progression that suggests that everything is recyclable like scrap metal and that nothing has a real, durable value. This concept links to the final poem of the collection, ‘The Miner’, a free translation of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Bergmanden’, in which the protagonist looks for answers in the deep darkness of the mine. He eventually realises that the darkness he has chosen does not enlighten his way and does not answer his questions. It is a bleak, hopeless view that tries to find sense in human life in this world. The centre of the labyrinth is inhabited by monsters and the thread does not lead to the way out.
The poems in the appendix at the end of the collection remind us of the basic elements of metals as well as religious principles, and the poem ‘Mnemonic’ plays with the lyrics of Matt Hegarty’s ‘Periodic Table Song’. The collection emphasises that there is no ending to investigations and that the attempt to provide a conclusive encompassing view fails. The discourse is therefore open to further considerations that will probably not solve uncertainties but will try to reach a greater understanding in a world of knowledge that is solid, lustrous and malleable, like metal. Alas, however, this attempt will often be made in vain.