Monday, June 07, 2004

Méira Cook’s Slovenly Love

In her third collection of poetry, Slovenly Love (Brick Books, 2003), Winnipeg poet Méira Cook writes an essential musicality, even a musical abstract, in her poems, with a tone unlike any other. After two previous poetry collections, A Fine Grammar of Bones (Turnstone Press, 1993) and Toward a Catalogue of Falling (Brick Books, 1996) as well as a novel, The Blood Girls (NeWest and Overlook Press, 1998), Cook still manages to write in a silence, with very few poems appearing in magazines or journals. It feels almost as though her books simply appear out of nowhere every few years, completed.

Since Barry McKinnon, Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley and so many others, the contemporary form of the prairie poem seems rooted in the long poem, sequences of fragments that hold faster than any adhesive. As Rob Budde once suggested, the amount of prairie long poems being written an effect of the onslaught of prairie long poem anthologies. In Cook’s poetry, a serene and powerful mixture of heart and craft, with shades of other Canadian poets’ work sifting through, including prairie contemporary and friend Nicole Markotic. Cook writes in lush sweeps of language, more sensual than what the boys do. “She reminded him that Flaubert believed every photograph / rubbed away a thin layer of skin.” she writes, in the sequence “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, 1950, and other Kisses Various” (p 99).

Built in five sections of sequences – A Year of Birds, Blue Lines, Trawling: A Biography of the River, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, 1950, and other Kisses Various, and Tempestuous – the first writes of her first child, born since the publication of Toward a Catalogue of Falling, writing: “As for me, // little bird, I am no longer hollow / boned, audacious. Gravity / keeps me buoyant, bright / anklet of teeth about the bone.” (p 12). It leads to the safe assumption, I think, that the dedication to “Shoshana” and cover photo of a redheaded toddler are both her daughter. A sequence of moments referencing sleep (for when else can a new parent write but as their child sleeps), Cook opens with beautiful images, from “What can you be smiling at in your sleep? / Milk, the crook of our arms.” (p 15) to “Sleep is a thin crust these days, / easily broken.” (p 21).

In the sequence “Blue Lines” she begins, “There are places you can only get to by dying / or writing. There are places that cannot be paraphrased.” (p 34). The sequence reads as a love letter to loss, literally blue lines, notes written through the blues, that move from passages to single lines, from “By the time you get this we will have spoken.” (p 38) and “By the time you get this I will have left.” (p 42) to “By the time you get this we will be together again.” (p 50) and “By the time you get these blue lines I will be drowning in revisions.” (p 52). Possibly the strongest section in the collection, if I were to quote all the lines that struck me, there would be no room for anything else. I would have to copy out the series. “The problem with swimming is how to remain / on the surface.” (p 47).

In “Trawling: A Biography of the River,” subtitled “In commemoration of the brief but uneventful hyphen // between the birth of Heraclitus in 535 BC // and the great Winnipeg flood of 1997.” (p 63), Cook writes of the river and Horace, the river and Heraclitus; of city councillors and St. Bonafice church bells, and sand bags protecting “A city of floods and fevers, this old flat weary prairie town.” (p 64). In long, florid and fluid lines rarely seen in Canadian poetry, or seen so well, Cook places the flood in the surge of history, knowing full well you can’t step into the same flood twice. Of the river itself, she writes, “The river is the object of our surveillance, our wary, red-eyed scrutiny.” (p 64). She writes, “So far no one has referred to the river by the female pronoun. It is only a matter of time.” (p 64).

Generations choking in his throat Heraclitus the engineer, sneezes once for sorrow, twice / for joy. Horace-on-the-shoulder cocks his head at an elderly couple on a bridge. With gothic / poise, they watch the river rise. The long calcified haul has not exhausted them, nor yet
the hard ethic of bone and breath. Still, the inching water refutes Archimedian logic, / reminds that blood also rises the better to fall and, falling, drags the body like a tide.
(p 73)

“Six men have borne the name Heraclitus.” (p 70), she tells us, continuing,

Of the sixth Heraclitus three things are known: he tried to save a town from drowning, / he wore his pet raven like an epauler. He was peripheral and always sodden. // Oh, four things: once he made a hole in the world, now he can’t pinch it closed. // Whether he ever said, in so many words, “you can’t step twice into the same river,” / is widely disputed.
(p 71)

The section “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, 1950, and other Kisses Various” begins where it ends, with a photograph so familiar it’s known as postcards and posters, suffering through its own familiarity, and turned into something less than it was. The sequence ends with the picture itself, Robert Doisneau’s photograph “Le basier de l’hotel de ville” (p 102), as she writes, “Everyone recognizes that photo by Doisneau, anyone can buy / cheap postcards at a news stand. The reproduction’s thin slice / cut from the world, vivid as processed cheese. Again, she whispers. // He bends to the perfect repetition of her mouth.” (p 87). She even speaks of the photographer himself, writing, “The photographer of chance meetings and delayed appointments, / Doisneau may be compared to a thief at the scene of the crime. / Of course he would deny loitering.” (p 89).

A Fall Between Kisses

This is a story about falling again (thought I
got it out of my system). Was standing on the edge
of a hole someone dug for some reason. Or:
I was standing on the edge of reason. For
some reason I fell in, hit my head on, say, a rock.
Three weeks later I fell in love with a photographer, fell
hard. (So here I am again, once around the world and back.)
Wouldn’t mention it except for the dying fall linking
both stories and the feeling each time of gravity
sewn into the soles of my shoes.
(p 93)

The last section, “Temptuous,” tells the story of The Tempest, written between Shakespeare’s lines into the smaller moments. “What we learn from these pages is how to stay afloat.” (p 107, “Prospero: Young Ferdinand, – whom they suppose is drown’d, –“), a mantra, perhaps, for the entire collection. The shortest section, nearly a coda, with three pieces over six pages, she speaks of fathers and daughters; of Prospero watching Miranda on their island, circling the collection back to the first section, of mothers and daughters. Each piece beginning with a line from Shakespeare’s play, it moves across a story we all know, and know the ending of, writing of Miranda’s speech, given her, too, by Prospero. “The first word you gave me was father.” she writes of Miranda (p 109). “Father, you named the world out of all recognition, each word / a pendulum in my uncertain blood, my mouth ajar, smoking.” (109). This book is about keeping your head above water. “If you want to stay afloat, watch Miranda” (p 107).

From the pieces in her previous collection, Cook has shown that she is capable of great things, and Slovenly Love gives that and more, each book become thicker than the last, to the point of no exit, and no return. Slovenly Love is the flood, that overcomes.

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