David McCooey: Outside

London: Salt Publishing, 2011, 73pp.

Outside is David McCooey’s second book (his third if you include Graphic of 2010 though most of the poems in that chapbook are republished in Outside). His first, Blister Pack, was published in 2005 and was an impressive debut volume noted for its compressed elegance. It is also an introduction to many of the themes of Outside. Of its four parts, the second and fourth recorded the miseries and pleasures of love lost and love regained and the third was rather a collection of disparate pieces. It is the first section which stood out on first reading. The sense I had at the time was that these poems were probably written last: they look ahead and seem in a slightly more self-confident mode. Whether this is true or not they, more than the other poems of Blister Pack, seem to link closely with the poems of Outside.

The emphasis in McCooey’s poems is on a kind of hyper-sensitive response not so much to the natural world as to the ambient world. They lead one to want to construct a parodically typical McCooey poem in which the poet is alone in a room (or his car) and the incomprehensible machinery that surrounds him – fridge, video-recorder, radio (or car radio, engine, windscreen wipers) – impinges on his consciousness and seems to be sending messages that are just beyond interpretability. One step farther away from this ambient environment is “the outside”, the world of trucks passing, birds calling, cars starting up and so on. One step in the opposite direction is the inner world, mainly the world of dreams. This spectrum is clearly laid out in the first poem of Outside, “Another Dream”, which moves from the (significantly) violent outside (“trees / roar at the wind” through the domestic machinery (“a gas heater gives its / free translation / of a record at the / end of its groove”) to a sleeping person whose head contains “a cupboard of dreams”. The two extremes pose the most questions but they seem to be left as imponderables: a poem about Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut says:

. . . . .
Lastly, ask whether it is
     the outside or the inside
     that is beyond reckoning. . .

At any rate, “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” from Blister Pack is a good example of the sensitivity to the immediate environment which, after all, contains mysteries enough:

The refrigerator keeps in time with cool darkness.
A video records, though the screen is blank.
Even the stereo cannot be silent.
Its lines are open and are noisy.
It listens to itself and hums.

This is locking up at night, fin de siècle.
Who knows what real silence is?
Outside, the city is in second gear.
I close the door and wonder
At the inexhaustible self-expression of things.

Only the clock, like time, seems silent;
Its LED flickering over with infinite indifference,
As if dealing out a pack of jokers.
My pen is rasping out a name I almost know.
And you? Can you hear me listening to myself.

It’s a good poem with enough of a twist in its last line to make sure that we aren’t too familiar (in the sense of “casually matey”) with it. But the real and activating tension, I think, is between its sense of what lies just outside comprehension matched with its clear, denotative language and its highly streamlined syntax. It’s a set of propositions followed by a question and where possible the propositions are one per line – a kind of rhetorical end-stopping. That makes for a very attractive idiom: suggestiveness expressed clearly. There are very few gestures in this sort of poetry and no lapses into suggestive (but ultimately vague) images. There are certainly no gestures towards the epiphanic which always, after all, trails whole theologies in its wake. One of the best of a fine series of unrhymed sonnets based on French phrases is, as one might have expected, the one based on “Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi” which speaks of a time when a mind

Can glimpse its shadow, and entertain
Those moments of I-know-not-what: the sound
Of bells, or just after; the sight of clouds
Upon the milky page of childhood; the
Nostalgia of trains; and grappling with verbs.
And a moment, not for anything so
Unsubtle as revelation, but a
Stillness, of empty longing, homesickness
At home: echo of a question hitting
The walls of the well as it goes down, or
Else the mirror saying, “I know not what.”

“Distance” records the experience of hearing his partner’s voice on the car radio while driving home, “Just outside Melbourne / I hear your name announced and then / Your voice appears . . .” and crucially the next words record, not that it is a voice from beyond (or away) or the way in which the tones of the loved one re-animate a dulled world, but that it is “utterly // Unmagical, as everyday / As the speed limit”.

McCooey conveys this state better than anyone around but it leads to a number of questions: exactly what, psychologically and metaphysically, is this state? How does it relate to what poetry does? There are also questions about the two “farther” states. The nature of the inside world we usually leave to Psychology – though that may turn out to be a flawed strategy – and McCooey’s two epigraphs in Outside from Winnicott’s Playing and Reality give some idea of where his own thoughts are going. And, as I’ll emphasise later, there is much about the nature of the outer world which is a difficult issue for McCooey’s poetry. It may well be that McCooey is dealing with these questions and is doing so far more satisfactorily than I am able to. But I was intrigued by a recent review, in The New York Review of Books, of a Don Delillo collection of short stories which identified a particular state of trance, evacuated (the inevitable word that appears here in critic-speak is kenosis) of the transcendent as a quintessentially postmodern gesture and speaks rather well of a condition which “empties out all thought, resulting in a kind of mystical opacity verging on enlightenment but never arriving there”. It is something very sympathetic to poetry which, after all, thrives on the poet’s power of attention and exploits the concomitant tone of hushed awe while being very equivocal about having this framed by any sort of religious sense. You can see something of the effect in McCooey’s poetry of a secular vision (well and truly after the death of God) which nevertheless is sensitive to liminal and very suggestive states. Of course it’s an act of critical stupidity to try to understand a poet through the lens of a general position or description of the zeitgeist, but it does provide a way of thinking about the implications of this sort of poetry and the problems it raises.

The second issue is what to make of “the world”. One of the later poems from Blister Pack raises this problem. In “Bird and Fox” the poet is, as so often, driving (ie within a highly defined ambient space) through an environment that begs to be interpreted allegorically: a hill (an unprocessed part of the natural world) is cut off by both the highway and by the opposing hill which, with its housing estate, hardware store and service stations, has been converted into “an adamantine / network of networks”. Picked out by the sun is a fox which “indifferently // looks my way, / then up and around . . .” (This recalls that wonderful Robert Gray poem, “The Dusk”, in which a man comes face to face with a kangaroo at the edge of an allotment and the significances raised by this encounter, never explicitly analysed in the poem itself, spread like ripples.) There are a number of issues in “Bird and Fox” which perhaps boil down to: What is the world saying here? and What am I going to do with it? The poem goes on to worry about this:

I manage the speed hump,
     and make my ponderous
way to the roundabout,

leaving behind
     the hill and its
ambiguous animals,

neither picture book
     nor symbol: strange
suburban agon . . . . .

There are no real solutions but the problem is clearly outlined and taken over into the poems of Outside. How can I get the fox and the bird into a poem if I am not to treat them as part of a simple rural description or as symbols (metonymic or metaphoric) of another reality?

I have a strong sense that the poems of Graphic, some of which are about Kubrick’s films and others, in a quite contrasting mode, about autobiographical experience, are crucial attempts to deal with the issue of letting more of the world into the poems. I read the fine poems about the Kubrick films as, in a way, homage to the filmmaker whose images are always stylish to the final degree of what that word might ever mean but never evacuated by abstraction. In other words there is an awful lot of the world in Kubrick’s images and you feel that their ultimate responsibility is to the world rather than cinematic art. And yet, as art, they are – as these poems say – fantastically sophisticated. “How many science-fiction / films” asks one of the poems about 2001 “have focused / so resolutely on the soft, / primitive violence of eating?” And another makes the fascinating point that the “murderous stare” on Bowman’s usually bland face as he goes to shut HAL down was “stored ghosts ago, sunk / within the base of / his prehistoric brain”, that is, Bowman’s brain is a computer whose origins lie in the events with which the film begins. My own widow’s mite here involves observing the wonderful rapid fades-in and -out which effect the transitions of those first scenes in the far, far past. There is no mind here and so there is no connectivity (or, perhaps, no sense of time or, even, death). Since there are no connections there is no narrative (and hence no montage) and so this most beautifully conceived example of narrative (who has ever been bored by even a few seconds of 2001?) grows out of the first experiences it documents. Not only is space travel (and meeting supra-human alien cultures) made possible but so is narrative itself.

Sometimes the world presents itself as horror and we experience it as trauma. I think McCooey knows that this ought to appear in poetry if poetry is to relate to human experience. Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove takes the position that the issue can only be dealt with as high farce but then it is a film about pre-horror decisions and ends on pictures of mushroom clouds without ever having to look at what is happening beneath them. The poem on The Shining (which I’ve always felt to be one of Kubrick’s few failures) seems to stress its factitiousness. The Kubrick film which deals with horror and trauma at about the dimension at which people can most relate to it (or be confronted by it) is Clockwork Orange whose basic point, it seems to me, is that thug-violence is child’s play compared with what science and political authority can do. Significantly McCooey’s poem about this film is the least satisfying and is omitted from Outside. One of its techniques is to use personal experience (“In nineteen seventy-three, / the year I turned six, / I was taken to see . . .”) as a device for looking at the film, as though it were some toxic object for which one had to work out strategies for seeing it only from the outside and never sympathetically from the inside. As a result I don’t think I’m being too harsh when I say that the result is evasion and contemporary pieties.The autobiographical poems of Graphic and Outside deal with trauma at a manageable level: memories of a fox dying in agony at the side of the road (seen from the insulated car), a visit to a whaling station, accidentally – as a child – seeing chickens being slaughtered industrially. But these don’t seem to be true McCooey poems. Though they continually use the issue of memory this seems more like evasion than a way of letting raw and confronting violence into an elegant poetry. They remind me of the first of Gwen Harwood’s “Father and Child” poems in which a child kills an owl. You can see what she is trying to do, to escape from the rather jeweled high style which is her métier and to let something nasty in. But poetically the results are poor – it almost looks like a poem that could have been written by anyone and only stays alive (though, paradoxically to me, it is widely anthologized) by its uncomfortable pseudo-confession, by its raising of the issue of the poet’s stance to the material (“How autobiographical is it?” is a crucial question in Harwood and there is something about her shape-changing personality that makes these uncertainties pleasurable to her) and the way this contrasts with the rest of her work.

Ultimately, how to let the world at its most extreme into poetry like his is probably an insoluble problem and I’m happy to leave it to McCooey – who is a good critical thinker as well as a fine poet – to puzzle out. In the west, one extreme position is summarized in the often repeated comment that the Napoleonic wars don’t enter the world of Jane Austen’s novels (though she was very attuned to contemporary events and, because of her brothers, had a stake in them). Presumably she was too focused on her patch of “two inches of ivory”, detailing the social comedy of the time, to be able to fit the other events of the world in. I think of Hafez who lived through the indescribable horrors of Tamberlane’s invasions. You wouldn’t know it from his poetry but then it focuses on one version of the inside world (the invisible world, or gheib) which, in a religious age (or to a religious sensibility), precedes and interprets what “the world” is. Perhaps Celan is the best example in the west of a lyricist of extreme sensitivity who made a way of speaking about a massive historical horror. What these random examples teach us is that your broad cultural framework (especially its belief-system) profoundly affects whether (and how) your poetry can deal with the horrors of the macro-historical; violence usually means something. The Catholic poetry of Peter Steele deals with these violences frequently, and they don’t seem to do any violence to his poetic mode. It’s a problem specific to us. For those still trying to interpret and write about a universe whose God has died, sensitive to the nearest outside environment, getting the violence of the world into a poetry that aims at stylishness is going to pose a lot of problems.