Shevaun Cooley: Homing

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 108pp.

At an initial glance, almost everything about Shevaun Cooley’s first book, Homing, suggests the programmatic. It’s so highly organised, from its division into two locations (each introduced by its co-ordinates) to its poem titles (all derived from the poems of R.S Thomas) that it is hard not to expect it to be rationalised as something like “a series of studies in the phenomenon of being at, and getting, home”. The problem with a “series of studies” is that it suggests poems being written to fill out a frame rather than being written because they have to be. It also suggests a project that can be justified in an application for a grant or admission into a Creative Writing degree. And usually the core of the program, the area of interest, is quite specific and thus slightly simplified, perhaps even conceived extra-poetically. It’s a relief to find that Homing is actually a much more difficult book than it looks on the surface. My sense, though it is no more than a reader’s guess, is that the programmatic element arrived at a fairly late stage as a way of giving the book a sense of unity. The poems, taken in themselves, are, in other words, a little more open and resistant to simplification than one might initially think.

But, to explore the programmatic elements a little further. The book comprises two main sections with a group of three ghazals with nicely alliterative titles (“Grain”, “Ground”, “Grasp”) dividing them. Each of the two main sections is introduced by the geographical co-ordinates of a location which turns out – after a little, not-too-difficult detective work on Google Earth – to be an islands. Each of these is off a fairly remote coast, one in the southern and the other in the northern hemisphere. The first is the island of St Alouarn off the south-western coast of Western Australia and the second the island of Bardsey (probably early English or Old Norse for “the island of Bard” rather than anything to do with poets, Welsh or English) known in Welsh as Ynys Elli (The Island of the Tidal-Race). I think we are supposed to imagine these islands as sites for an imaginary lighthouse or homing beacon because they don’t figure very strongly in the poems themselves although the areas which are jumping-off points for the islands (the area inland from Cape Leeuwin in south-west Western Australia, and Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninsula in Wales) are the places in which many of the poems are set.

Having said this, it’s worth pointing out that there is one poem in each section which deals with travelling to that section’s emblematic island. In “There is an island there is no going to”, the sun has set behind hills in the west but out to sea, St Alouarn’s Island (its name, as exotic as that of its northern hemisphere counterpart, derives from its eighteenth century French discoverer) remains brightly sunlit. Any temptation to see this as some kind of epiphanic moment of illumination, though, is stoutly resisted:

. . . . . 
I mean – a wingspan of darkness has come in
over this corner of land. But the island stays alight, out
to the south-east. A deep-buried ember that never gutters entirely,
it flares up like the bronchial longing I can’t shift
from my chest.

It means – it’s maybe a curse. Island’s full
of rabbits and snakes, old Sam Griffith said, when I asked
what he’d found there. It’s too hard to make landfall.
You have to go to the side you’ve never seen. It’s best in a flat-
bottomed scow, but no-one can make the crossing
in one of those . . .

So the desire to arrive here is as much a curse as anything and the island’s grotty ecology reflects its unbenevolent nature. Of course it could be that the homing instinct is itself a curse, something capable of turning an innocent island into somewhere maleficent. It’s also, interestingly, unreachable – if you can cross you can’t land: if you can land you can’t cross. In the northern hemisphere (in the later poem, “Ran with a dark current”), things are a little more promising. There is still a preoccupation with how you approach sacred ground:

. . . . .
                Monks who came here first ghosted
the currents in boats of ox-hide. They knew a deep keel is
more quickly grasped, and dragged . . .

but there is a strong suggestion that something sacred in the island (the graves of the monks, for example, which provide the island’s alternative name “Island of 20,000 Saints”) makes it a place that promises something intangible but powerful:

. . . . .
                             You think you could stay here
and lose the names of everything, even yourself – and the price

would be to find the deepest intimacy with something
you couldn’t speak. Just lichens under hand. The mumbled
bee, the hushed sea, the seal’s melancholic howl coursing

the channel . . .

Although the visit is a short one (“But you won’t stay”), it’s still a poem with some degree of optimism: “We’ll / likely have a good summer, says the skipper. You can tell, / when the kittiwake dares to nest so low in the cliffs.”

Another programmatic element is the way in which each of the poems’ titles is derived from a different poem by R.S. Thomas. As I’ve said, my suspicion is that this was something done “after the fact” – that is, the book isn’t a rather over-planned exercise in writing poems with provided titles as take-off points but is a collection of poems whose original titles have been discarded and replaced by something that has, at least, some sort of unifying effect. Thomas may be the iconic modern anglophone poet of Wales but his poetry is a long way distant from Shevaun Cooley’s. An unnervingly eccentric man, even by the more relaxed standards applied to poets and other creative types, he was an Anglican minister for the whole of his working life, servicing minor parishes in rural Wales. His poetry moves from celebrating (in a very bleak register) the glum members of his flock to bleak poems of meditation on his absent god. Later in life a degree of Welsh nationalism emerged and he attacked both “the machine” of modern life and the hordes of post-war English visitors who ruined the Welsh economy by outbidding the locals and buying up incredibly cheap (by English financial; standards) houses as holiday homes. (As someone who spent his childhood holidays in Snowdonia in the 1950s, I always get a twinge of guilt when I read these poems, but I console myself with the fact that my parents were nearly as poor as Thomas’s Welsh and that our holidays were spent in tents on camping grounds rather than in comfortable second homes.)

My initial sense is that Cooley’s poems don’t have a profoundly important engagement with Thomas’s: he is, in other words, a fellow-traveller or iconic mentor rather than a generative principle. The first of the poems I’ve looked at, “There is an island there is no going to” takes its title from “Pilgrimages” the first poem of Thomas’s 1981 collection, Between Here and Now. Thomas’s poem recounts a trip to Bardsey (he was briefly chairman of the island’s council in 1978-9) and contrasts the modern, metaphorical pilgrims with those of the medieval past (for whom three pilgrimages to Bardsey was the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Rome). It’s opening lines focus, like Cooley’s two poems, on the kinds of boats one might use to land on the island –

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned –

but taking her title as the entire first line and ignoring the enjambed “to but in a small boat” gives her a perfect title for the paradox of the attempt to land on St Alouarn’s Island. Another poem, “About mountains it is useless to argue” derives its title from Thomas’s poem, “Alpine”, but rather as in the case of the previous poem, it plays with the title’s meaning so that “about” is taken to mean “in the presence of” as well as “on the subject of” (the same play is made with the same word, “about” in “Trees are about you”). At any rate, while “Alpine” is a fairly frosty short poem about doing things half-heartedly, Cooley’s poem is about the tension between the arguing of a bickering couple and the geological perspectives of the Welsh mountains:

. . . . . 
                  As we too could rest,
and no longer bicker – but the clefts

and corries were sluiced by glaciers
in a thousand-centuries hurry, and we

can’t bear to think it, can’t even watch
the clock hand ratchet through another minute.

Finally in this random sampling of titles, one might look at “I was no tree walking” which takes its title from the first line of Thomas’s “A Thicket in LLeyn”. Thomas’s poem is a meditation that occurs while pursuing his hobby of bird watching. It concludes with the injunction to himself that, since the mind in meditation always migrates (like the birds it has been observing) it should take as its navigational markers the “spray from the fountain / of the imagination”. Cooley’s poem puts together Hölderlin (and his woodworking host during his madness) with David Nash’s sculpted wooden boulder which – in a more than relevant art experiment – was released over a waterfall and allowed to “home” in its own way, having its progress documented: when it disappears it is, as its creator says, not lost but “just / somewhere else”. True, it also includes material about the poet’s own seeking for a right way which will produce poetry when “your body becomes a tuning fork” and this does accord with the last part of Thomas’s poem. But, all in all, I have the sense, as I have said, that these poems (at least the ones I have looked at) don’t engage really intimately with Thomas’s work. I might well be wrong though, and it would be an interesting critical task (for someone with patience and time) to put each of Cooley’s poems next to the Thomas poem from which it draws its title and to try to describe what the exact relationship is.

Despite all my concerns about whether this is a planned book or one whose poems have arisen and then been subjected to varied attempts to unify it, this remains a complex book about the subject of its title: “homing”. It is a book whose poems concentrate on currents and flow – in water and in the sky. And between these two is the surface of the world: the key word in the poems may well be “grain” which is the current of matter inside timber as well as a word used, in its adjectival form, to describe light. It’s also important to go “with the grain” rather than against it – a direction that produces nothing but profitless exhaustion.

Also inhabiting the surface of the world are the animals, and there is a strong interest in animal life and the way animals – blackbirds, petrel, deer, foxes, weasels, false killer whales (but blessedly not pigeons) – navigate their way through their own lives according to patterns that other species like humans find difficult to sense. Two poems deal with the famous beaching of a large number of false killer whales on Flinders Beach in 1986. Cooley begins with an attempt to see the beaching from the lead whale’s point of view:

To be the first of them:
coming up from the twilit plain,
upswelling to the shallows – the draft
of your keel growing less; to rise

though you don’t yet
know why, hauling in on the bitter
end until you hit air hard as granite,
the concrete winter light;

to be beneaped then, and bent;
for the first time to feel the utter weight
of yourself . . .

For the whales, the elements are inverted so that air and light are hard as concrete and granite. The poem’s last stanza repeats the interest in being “the first of them” but switches species to consider the first of the humans who came across the whales. The concern of one species for another is celebrated in the second poem about the beachings, “I have let her ashes down in me like an anchor”. Here, one of the rescuers is reaching the end their life and the act of saving the whales is remembered, but the poem is really about the history of using whales as a source of oil:

. . . . . 
Your father used to light
lamps on the bridges over the Swan River,
whistling quietly as he set the wicks
to burning. Even then, they used
natural gas.

We had forgotten
almost entirely how the bodies
we soothed to stillness on the shore
held a secret of
combustibility –

And they didn’t burn, or light up
our tired faces, but were ushered
back out to sea.

Although, superficially the switch from animal derived oils to natural gas can be celebrated as an improvement, I think the real point here is made metaphorically: we shouldn’t expect animals to be the source of our spiritual illumination, providers of epiphanies when we cross the path of a fox or deer. In fact the poems which mention foxes and a weasel, tend to focus on the fiery redness of the animals (the deer in “I have no name for today but itself” may well be a red deer too). The weasel of a fine poem, “In the hushed meadows the weasel” is nothing more than a brief flaring of the world, “less / than a reddish passing, some deadly surprise / that sinuates sometimes through each of us”. The fox, encountered on the road in the first of the five sections that make up “Meadows empty of him, animal eyes, impersonal as glass” detects (as I read it) the “predatory” desire of the poet to make it part of herself, to reduce it to a powerful personal experience, and intuiting that “my knowing of it will be the worst / of all deaths” it “skips / sideways / from the path”.

The poems of this book seem to be saying that a simple model of epiphanic illumination, inspired by the animals of the natural world or by momentary configurations of light and current is inadequate. What the poems propose, I think, is that we should go through life as purposefully as possible, looking for markers that might help us in our ad hoc navigation. This is certainly the tone of the first poem of the book. Its title – “Without catching a thing I was not far from the truth” – is particularly revealing after a few readings. The poem is an extended description of an Easter road trip (Easter being another marker of the conventional transcendent and something that raises the suspicion that this might have been conceived as a mini-Commedia) and allows plenty of the poet’s affective life in – there is a lot of bickering to counter the implicitly symbolic movements through landscape (both across plains but also climbing up into mountains). It’s also a poem haunted by death and the realisation that “I write poems for dead / friends. This seems now to be some kind / of terrible error”. I take this, together with the later realisation that in the abundant roadkill “death / rides the edges” of the road to be a fear that the navigational markers the poet is trying to read might be either wrong ones or ones which will have some impact on the lives of her friends. At any rate, the idea of being sensitive to intimations not of immortality but of the knowledge that a chosen path is a correct one, is clearly spelled out in the description of the road at the end of the poem:

Back to driving this road. It is dead
straight, but undulating. Ahead

the bitumen is interrupted
by patches of uncorrupted light.

Brief moments when we’re caught
in the light, then as quickly, we’re out

of it . . .

It may be a “dead” straight road but it’s not without signals.