||A Review of: Postscript
by Graham Good
Poetic debuts need to clear a space in an already crowded field.
When a new voice is raised, it needs to be distinctive to gain a
hearing. Voice is not merely a metaphor: poets increasingly have
to take their work onstage at live readings and develop some kind
of vocal persona. The Homeric epics were oral performances long
before they were written down. Now, poems often exist in both
dimensions of reading: aloud, and on the page.
But even in print, poetry still "voices" itself: poets
invoke the muse, provoke with satire, evoke scenes and experiences.
The voice should be individual, though paradoxically it is often
heard in relation to the established voices the new poet has tried
so hard to leave behind.
To hear the new voice, audiences need to "place" it on
their existing map of the poetic territory. Where is it coming from?
How does it sound, and how does it resonate with its environment?
Even in a globalized culture, nationality still counts, as do region
and even city. But often the poet is speaking from (and about)
"away" rather than "home", and I don't just
mean travel poems. When home is described, it is frequently seen
as it was in the past, especially in childhood. The experience of
dislocation, spatial or temporal, is often what produces the calling
to write poetry in the first place, or rather, the second place.
Though all poetry relates to place, some is more tightly localized.
The topographical poems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
are often devoted solely to evoking a specific locale. This could
be a country house, as in Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" or
Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House", and this tradition
continues at least as far as Yeats's celebration of Lissadell. The
Wordsworthian nature poem replaces the Big House with a peasant
cottage or an uninhabited landscape, while Eliot's Four Quartets
articulate both a personal and a cultural heritage through description
of four named places: "Burnt Norton", "East Coker",
and so on.
Where are we now with poems of place? Some of the most interesting
work lies between the travel poem (poet as visitor) and the domestic
poem (poet as denizen or citizen). The conditions of modernity often
lead to temporary "stays", measured in months rather than
the days of a visit or the years/decades of permanent residence.
These sojourns (the French sejour sounds better) might be occasioned
by a love affair, a short-term work assignment, or simply a retreat
for writing. The sojourner knows more than the visitor, but is still
an outsider to the "locals." The debut volume reviewed
here, Geoffrey Cook's Postscript, speaks from "away", as
the titles indicate, though it needs the help of the cover picture
(a pile of letters accumulating under an empty house's mail slot)
to show the second meaning of "post". The dialectic of
home and away is highlighted by the poet himself, as for example,
in Cook's epigraph-Joseph Brodsky's "Muse, may I set out
The poet-figure in Geoffrey Cook's Postscript has been sojourning.
Sections headed "Peninsula" and "Shorelines"
(both seemingly in the Maritimes: Cook was born in Wolfville, Nova
Scotia, and now lives in Montreal) enclose a central sequence about
a stay in the Czech Republic. Throughout the book, memories of place
blend with personal memories (we get glimpses of love affairs),
historical memories (an elegy commemorates Donald Whitman Cook,
who died in the Netherlands near the end of World War II), and
literary memories (Dante is a haunting presence). But place-the
rhythm of arriving, staying, departing-is the thread connecting the
other themes. In "A Refuge", the poet spends a summer in
a neglected shack, and blends his detailed rendering of the decay
("the rained-on bed" and "the spider's lucid web")
with echoes of other literary shack-dwellers (Pasternak's Zhivago
and Shakespeare's Poor Tom).
Landscape is everywhere in this collection: "the landscape of
love" is no mere metaphor, though at times the main benefit
of the affairs seems to be the way they can enrich and energize
their settings. All personal experiences resonate with their place.
Cook produces highly wrought material textures of dwellings, like
the "sun-beat, salt-scrubbed, sooty wooden boards" of the
coastal settlement in "Watermarks" (like some painters,
Cook delights in shacks.) Yet along with these vividly touched
places goes a sense of homelessness. The poet is a
"come-from-away," to use the eloquent Newfoundland phrase
Cook discovered for his evocative translation of Rilke's "The
Island". The poet-sojourner can never become a true local; the
"awayness" may actually be essential to the poetic vision.
Cook is a formal poet who uses sonnet, haiku, renga, quatrain and
tercet to dwell on (or in) his scenes and subjects. Rhyme and
half-rhyme lend a pensive quality to his verse. He treads carefully
but firmly along his path. The lines are metered and (appropriately)
the tone is measured. He is at ease with European (and to some
extent Asian) traditions, neither defying nor deferring to them,
but simply adapting and alluding as needed. The textual (allusions
and forms) complements the textural (the finely registered surfaces
of the real). These poems acquire in both ways a weathered feel,
finely marked and dignified by age in a way the Japanese celebrate
as wabi sabi). They have a delicate patina, a quiet patience, which
respects, as Cook nicely puts it, "time's taste for
monochromes." Cook paints in watercolour rather than acrylic.
His poetry seems to mime the effects of weather, as well as observing
them. The book begins and ends in fog. "Moving In" describes
setting up house in a new city that is virtually invisible for two
days. "But then a home's not real unless it's half imagined."
The newcomers have to imagine their environment before seeing it.
The fog creates a space for imagination, just as poetry does. The
poet muses that the clapboard shacks might see the similarity:
"a poem's just one more bank of passing fog to them." To
the reader, though, the poems are much too precisely wrought to be
described as foggy.
This debut is strong, and bodes well for the new generation of
Canadian poets. It shows that the poetry of place continues to be
vital-place as seen through a sojourn's interval, rather than a
visit's brevity or half a lifetime's familiarity. This is a poetry
of dwelling, of staying in a place long enough to experience
relationship, community, and self-change, but not long enough to
stop feeling "unsettled".