Oct 29 2023
Poetry Review- COLLECTED POEMS: Tom Phillips welcomes a comprehensive retrospective view of David Cooke’s poetic career to date
Poet, translator and editor of The High Window online journal, David Cooke has, for half-a-century been steadily and unassumingly accumulating the rich collection of poems gathered into this elegantly produced volume. However, despite winning an Eric Gregory Award with his debut, 1977’s Breughel’s Dancers, his trajectory has not followed those of other, now more widely trumpeted poets who scored an award-winning hit in their twenties. Indeed, as Cooke explains in an interview with Patricia McCarthy (which is included in this volume), years and decades passed when he wrote and published very little, only bringing together the work from this intermittent hiatus in the early years of the 21st century in the retrospective volumes In the Distance, Work Horses and A Slow Blues. Since what I suppose we must call his resurgence or re-emergence, however, he has published an impressively consistent series of individual volumes, from 2015’s A Murmuration to 2022’s The Metal Exchange. The appearance of his Collected Poems enables a fuller appreciation of a poet who, eschewing the showiness of both the self-consciously avant-garde and the merely attention-grabbing, has created a body of work that is scrupulous in its attentiveness to both the resources of language and the lived experiences that occasion his poems.
Reading again the poems from Breughel’s Dancers, it is not hard to identify Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon among early influences, not only because, being of Irish extraction himself, he often explores his inherited primary landscape, but also because his language exhibits a similar heft – as in the opening stanzas of ‘Hill-Fort’:
Evening, and small fields are assigned to shadows, the hills smudged dully against residual sky. The mournful call of a curlew, distant, is finally no more than the sky’s soft pulse.
Such precision of language, the careful weighting of sound and meaning, runs through the entire collection, a soft energy coursing through and between individual poems and ensuring a consistency of voice that simultaneously engages and communicates in a way that resembles an ongoing conversation or negotiation with the perplexities and wonders of both the seemingly routine and unexpectedly sublime rather than reports from a completed lab experiment or, worse still, mere oratory. In ‘The Pump at Heptonstall’, for example, Cooke writes:
I try to absorb the business of water – its dour mechanics of buckets and balance; how something that’s ordinary becomes a problem whether you’re up or down a lane.
The village of Heptonstall is, of course, inextricably wired into twentieth-century poetry, being the burial place of both Sylvia Plath and Asa Benveniste as well as a former home of – and source of inspiration for – Plath herself and her husband Ted Hughes. There is, indeed, something Hughesian about the opening of Cooke’s poems with its “lump of disused iron, its black the shade/of drag endurance, its surface pocked/and flecked with hints of blood”; but then the lines quoted above also bring Philip Larkin’s ‘Water’ to mind. Here, though, rather than a putative religion, water – or at least the pumping of water, its extraction from the earth – is decidedly secular, a “business” with “dour mechanics”, an engineering “problem” and something very ordinary which, at the same time, requires technology and deftness (“buckets and balance”) for it to be drawn into human usefulness. Noting that “Its spout has choked on a gulp of air”, Cooke ends the poem with an aphoristic flourish that opens up multiple possible interpretations, alerting us to the diverse applications and connotations carried by the words at the end of each line:
Where this is no flow there will be no voices.
To focus on the details of a single poem when reviewing a volume that contains hundreds may perhaps seem perverse, but Cooke’s poetry rewards this kind of close reading. Rather than being thrust upon us, his poems’ rich textures emerge, not only through the felicity of the language, but also through the accumulated layers of meaning and connectedness. Cooke’s poetry is simultaneously ‘of itself’ and rooted in his own deep knowledge of and engagement with other poets’ work and, perhaps even more significantly, with other cultures, other times, other experiences.
Here, then, are poems that approach a wide variety of themes – the natural world, travel, home, language, music, visual art, family, memory, death – but always with openness, an exploratory quality, an effort to – as Cooke puts it in ‘Going Home’, a poem about the death of his father and his own attempts at learning the Irish language – “get it right” that takes us beyond the merely observational or the curse of the ironic shrug. Even the tiniest detail can acquire poetic significance and it is a measure of the remarkably sustained quality of Cooke’s writing that none of the poems gathered here exhibit the qualities he attributes to lead in The Metal Exchange: “A dead weight or a lump/in a line of verse.”