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 cliches 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.

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 siecle.
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.