David McCooey: Star Struck

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2016, 90pp.

This new book of David McCooey’s is written in the aftermath of a heart attack – what is now called a “cardiac event”. Massive singular experiences like this must pose major issues for a poet. If you’re committed to charting the patterns of your life then this is going to make a dramatic centrepiece, comparable to divorce, birth of children and so on. But not many poets, nowadays, are committed to a poetry of open documentation. In the case of a recent book by Joel Deane, Year of the Wasp, written in the aftermath of a stroke which affects the speech centres and thus is, perhaps, more profoundly sinister for a poet, the option of a kind of symbolic self-myth is taken up. McCooey is never given to this degree of flamboyancy but, like all those wanting to chart the odd things that happen in our inner lives, he can hardly avoid the repercussions of such a major event. You would have to be a poet from the extreme end of the spectrum, clinging to Eliot’s theory of a necessary impersonality on the part of the poet, to ignore it altogether.

Most of the poems dealing with the physical event are corralled in an opening section called “Documents”, a title that can, just conceivably, be read as a verb rather than a noun so that this section “documents” the event. But all of these pieces are genuine poems, standing on their own two feet rather than appearing as wodges of information justified by the greater project of documenting-the-traumatic. The first of them, “Habit”, sets the tone by avoiding any overt reference to the illness. It is “about” the poet’s son reading a book on Ancient Egypt and its culture of death and rituals of burial. At the end, the boy makes his own playhouse equivalent of what is really a tomb:

. . . . .
In the morning, dressed in his gaudy pyjamas,
he builds with his mother a room-sized construction
out of chairs, cushions, and blankets,
filled with unblinking stuffed toys and plastic jewels.
They are playing tomb raiders. You are invited in.
In your sacerdotal dressing gown, you get on
your hands and knees to enter the labyrinth.
You are shown the bewitching everyday things
that have been set aside for the afterlife.

The stylistic markers of McCooey’s poetry are here, especially the quiet domestic tone and the preference for second person pronouns over first. But the issue touched on – what objects would you choose to accompany you into the afterlife if you were blessed (or cursed) by a religion that made that possible – is a fascinating one. On a comparative cultural level we know that at various periods and in various cultures people have taken slaves, horses, food, jewellery, weapons, pet dogs and a host of other items. It’s rather like the question of what one would save if one’s house suddenly erupted in flames: although it seems a simple issue it uncovers immense complexities of personal and cultural values. And, as the later poems documenting more of McCooey’s experience will make plain, this afterlife that the poem concludes with, will be life after recovery from the heart attack. It’s odd to think that an Egyptian pharaoh, met in the Egyptian equivalent of paradise, would have seen his decline and (probably painful) death as we might see a successfully recovered-from heart attack. “Habit”, like other poems in this book, is also marked by that sensitivity to harmonies and resonances that marks out this kind of poetry. I used to think of this as a method of accretion whereby a central theme attracts to itself images and, more significantly, entire events. It makes a poem unified and structurally strong while, at the same time, widening out its significances. An example here is the mention of the homely fact that the son’s bath towel is made out of Egyptian cotton. It’s a potent and oblique introduction to the poems of illness and threatened death, and has a decidedly sinister reference to the god Anubis, “presider of the weighing of the heart”.

As for the other “cardiac” poems, they are, as one would expect, habitually oblique. In fact you feel that the extreme experience, in McCooey’s case, heightens existing responses rather than wrenching him off track into a completely new dimension. McCooey’s poetry is always highly sensitive to ambient sound for example. One of the first poems of his first book, Blister Pack, is “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” which begins, “The refrigerator keeps in time with cool darkness. / A video records, though the screen is blank. / Even the stereo cannot be silent”, documenting the almost inaudible but nevertheless present sounds of the world expressing itself, perhaps even the background hum of the universe itself. In the cardiac ward poems of this new book, there seems a similar sensitivity to the background noises of the hospital. “Music for Hospitals” is a clear documentation of this:

Sunday morning.
The sound of church bells;
a patient answers her phone.

Nurses recalibrating equipment:
“Four, five, six become
seven, eight, nine . . . . .

only to conclude with the arrival of the specialist with his silent students looking like “graduates / from The Village of the Damned”: a shift to the visual (film) and silence. And when the final poems of this section want to document the weird sense of being given, by surgery, a new life which is, paradoxically, much the same as the old life, the conclusion goes back to the ambient noise of existence:

Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,

you enter the realm
of the second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:

a body lying in
a bed, alive to

the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.

It’s not a confronting world of blaring sirens and brightly lit theatres but a continuation of life with some earlier elements redefined and emphasised. As well as ambient sound, there is a continuing sensitivity to the metaphorical component of language use, especially the double meanings produced by the endless multiplication of dead metaphor. The first poem of Blister Pack was called “Occupations” not because it was about careers but because it was about where people chose to live. Something similar happens here in the title of the poem, “Callings”, which is not about vocations but about painful telephone calls. Similarly the phrase “one way or another” in the poem of that name begins as a promise of information about the date of the surgery – “’We’ll be in touch / each Wednesday / to let you know / one way or another’” – but the phrase itself begins to seem mysterious or even sinister. What meant, in context, “whether it’s a yes or no for surgery this week”, seems to move to meaning “by one path or another” and thus “in one direction or another”. And so the next stanza slides into a common McCooey binary of the inside as opposed to the outside:

And so your future
waits, somewhere
outside, while you
sit inside and re-read

Muriel Spark . . .

And the poem follows this through since after weeks of high-stress anticipation – “your nervous system / a shivering horse within you” – the poem says: “But everything can wait, / one way or another, / as you discovered in earlier / visits to the cardiology ward.” We expect this kind of linguistic sensitivity in poets, of course, but it’s worth noting that in McCooey’s poetry it isn’t connected to a high level of metaphoric intensity (we’re a long way from Hart Crane here) and actually, in an odd way, seems connected to the sensitivity to ambient noise. It’s as though each of these little alternative meanings (“way”, “callings”, “occupations” and so on) represented a sort of hum at the linguistic level, matching the hum of sunrises and refrigerators at night.

If the first section is dominated by noises, the second, “Available Light”, focusses on the visual, though that title, of course, also has sinister connotations for a person with a life-threatening illness. The first poem is a collection of titles of early photographs and taps into – at least for one reader – the disconcerting effects of these early images: they are simultaneously fascinating and, though visual documents, weirdly unreal: they make us seem voyeurs, looking into what should be an unrecorded past in the way that contemporary snapshots almost never do. But the emphasis of almost all of the poems of this section is visual representation shorn of emotive interpretation. Sometimes it is highly precise and imaginatively verbal “capturing”: the poem, “Available Light” includes, among other images, “a low-slung cat” which “crosses / the photographic dusk” and “the science-fiction lighting / of deserted 7-Elevens”. In other cases – “Scenes From a Marriage”, for instance – we get an absolutely denotative, verbally flat representation:

A man and a woman
walking on a beach.

Their small child runs
across the hard, wet sand
of the intertidal zone,
from one parent to the other.

A strange dog barks
at the waves, or the wind,
or at nothing.

Now the child – unrelenting - 
is wanting to be carried.

The car park in the distance;
a scattering of vehicles
in a cold, unsentimental light.

This is not entirely unlike “Three Hysterical Short Stories”, especially the brilliant second “story” where a car, parked across the road, becomes, for no real reason, progressively sinister. One has the sense in poems such as these that it is types of visual representation that are being explored rather than types of poem – rather as in the “The Art of Happiness” sequence in Blister Pack. Something the same happens, though by different mechanisms, in “The Doll’s House” (another poem whose title alludes to a Nordic masterpiece). Here both house and its occupants are described as though they were living people and the description of the dolls gives some access to the personalities of the inhabitants, so that the father, for example,

sits in front of the television,
     with his fixed smile.
If you look closely,
     you will see he does not view the screen.
Instead he is gazing off into the middle distance . . .

“Whaling Station Redux” is a rejection of an earlier poem, “Whaling Station” from Outside – “What trash, that poem of mine about the whaling station / we visited in Albany in the primitive 1970s . . .” The rejection is ethical not poetic (the earlier poem is, as far as I can judge, a perfectly good poem as poem, certainly as good as its counterpart) but the occasion is visual. It is built around the poet’s father’s slides of the visit (as perhaps the original poem was – it describes brother and father taking of photographs – though if it was, this is converted in the poem itself to the recording of a memory) and finishes with the difficult issue of how to explain what happens in whaling stations to a small child.

Interestingly, the second last poem, “Letter to Ken Bolton” – an accretive, interlaced poem like “Habit” – visual in that it is set in a power outage, documents, with fitting epistolary casualness, the experience of playing a recorded “performance” of “The Waste Land” and relishes the interpretive intensity: “Shaw made “The Waste Land” strangely sexy; the / Cockneys in ”˜A Game of Chess’ funny and tragic”. All this at the expense of Eliot’s own reading which is described as “adenoidal”. It’s unexpected that in this section of rather bleached visuals something baroquely verbal should be preferred – but perhaps for McCooey quiet obliqueness may only go so far.

Fittingly the last poem in this section dominated by the visual is devoted to darkness – the absence of “available light”. It’s a dramatic monologue finishing:

. . . . . 
                    Night after
night you dream of me. One day
you will wake up for good,

and there I will be, at last.
Your new and endless climate.

Don’t look at me; I don’t compose
any kindertotenlieder.

There is the same weighing of clichés that I commented on before in the phrase “for good” but the last lines are a little tricky. My tentative reading is that darkness is saying that the poet need not fear that his writing about death in the poems of this book will precipitate the death of his child (as Mahler’s setting of the “Kindertotenlieder” – “Songs on the Death of Children” – was supposed by his wife, Alma, to have, in some way, precipitated the death of their own older daughter, “Putzi”). But it’s a very tentative reading.

The last two sections of Star Struck don’t, to my mind, have quite the compelling qualities of the first two. The third section comprises eighteen dramatic monologues relating to the “music industry”: speakers include the secretary of the Beatles, the photographer Patrick Lichfield at the Jaggers’ wedding, an Elvis fan – “reaching back, / until I find that boy in a Tupelo shotgun shack”, a Stevie Nicks fan, and so on. Much of my difficulty in responding to this section probably derives from the fact that popular music has nothing like the powerful hold on my memories and emotions that it does for McCooey and so I can’t really intuit the significance of the poems for the poet empathically. The series is called “Pastorals” ensuring that we read it under the rubric of the pastoral and its contemporary incarnations and ironies. The last poem is a brilliant one, being spoken by a monkey waiting to be used (by “the tailless ones”) as an experimental subject. It’s a nightmare anti-pastoral, wonderfully controlled:

. . . . . 
My metal cage is hard, like
the light and noise of this birthplace.

The quiet sounds of night are our food;
our food is a trick, as if we didn’t know.

In the night of night that the big ones
call dream, I see green, endless.

But that sweet retreat does not last;
each sunrise delivers me to this world.

The day/night dichotomy invoked here continues into the two shortish narratives of the final section, both being nocturnal stories. Both are, in a way, about the interpenetration of reality and unreality: one accomplishes this by the juxtaposition of a hoax call at a school camp and the other by the uncanny movement of objects in a widower’s house. It’s as though the night world had a reality not quite the same as that of the day and when the two get mixed, strange things occur. All in all I prefer McCooey’s lyric poems to his monologues and narratives but you want good poets to explore and extend their range as much as possible.