Ken Head reviews David Cooke’s ‘Workhorses’
In her editorial to Issue 163 of Envoi magazine, editor Jan Fortune confronts a question which even passionate poetry readers must sometimes ask: why read poetry? In answer, she argues a position which seems to me not only self-evidently true, but also apposite to a consideration of Work Horses, David Cooke’s new collection, his third after Breughel’s Dancers (1984) and the retrospective In The Distance (2011). Reading poetry, she says, makes a difference not only to the ways we respond to the world, but to how we negotiate it as well: “… poetry assists us to pay attention to our perceptions and expectations so that the quotidian does not simply remain ordinary and familiar, but becomes the context for moments of epiphany … when we step beyond the familiar to gain new insights. At its best poetry allows us to experience the deep connections between language and seeing.” I’d add memory, a form of seeing, to this definition, as I think Cooke might also, although the point remains well made.
The collection is prefaced by two epigraphs, one being Irish language poet Seán Ó Ríordáin’s “Tá Tír na nÓg ar chúl an tí”, “The land of eternal youth is just behind the house – a beautiful land, fluent within itself”, a perception of the value of the past, the place we come from, clearly central to Cooke’s thinking also. In “Stereogram”, for example, his memory of the sideboard-sized wooden cabinets containing turntables on which shellac and later vinyl records used to be played sits alongside his discovery of the songs of Bob Dylan. In one sense, it’s a simple poem remembering the music of half a century ago as he first heard it; in another, it’s a meditation on the passing of time and of the poet’s own life: “I was listening to Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, / … When he sang about death / he ripped through hokum. / We had all our lives before us.”
Work Horses delves deeply into Cooke’s preoccupation with these themes. In one way or another, all the poems touch on them. In the title poem, for example, he recalls “somewhere in the hinterland / of just remembered childhood” watching not only “a drayman / as he guides heraldic horses / through a time-thinned stream of traffic”, but also his father in “The clanking compound of the brewery, / where my dad did shifts when work / was slack on the buildings”. In other poems, there are other memories, of 1963, the year he became ten and “the Beatles invented / the good times”, of time at school spent earning gold stars and chanting “tables daily – / our paean to the god of rote learning”, of family house-moves, “the years of thrift and children”, of boyish mischief, “my jackdaw eyes twitching / at a glint of silver between the floorboards and, finally, in a moving poem entitled “Empty Nests” and dedicated to his wife, an acceptance of the extent to which history repeats itself: as he grew up and away, so have his own children, as his Irish background once made him a stranger in a strange land, so now, on a journey south, to “polyglot streets in Holloway”, he and his wife are met at a motorway service station, “by Polish girls, / whose English has a lilt / they’ve brought from Kraków, / Warszawa, or a place in the sticks / they’d tell me if I asked.” Everything changes, everything stays the same.
The jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, was once criticized for sounding “too sunny”, paying so much attention to musicality that all her songs sounded the same and so lost dramatic power. Her reply was simple: being clear doesn’t mean lacking soul. It’s a view I share both in regard to music and poetry, where sloppiness and obscurity sometimes masquerade as profundity, when in fact they represent inability to write clearly. In this respect, one of the pleasures of Cooke’s poems is the quality of their craftsmanship, their respect for language and its music. These skills are manifest throughout the collection, although “At Varykino” must serve here. Economic in expression, tightly structured, but far-reaching in thought and content, the poem, one of a group derived from a family journey to Russia to visit Cooke’s son and his Russian wife, evokes memories and images from David Lean’s film of Boris Pasternak’s great novel “Doctor Zhivago”. At the same time, it broods over the 1917 Revolution and, by implication, everything that followed from it. The narrator addresses Lara, played unforgettably in the film by Julie Christie: “… like a ghost reborn, Strelnikov / told you the private life is dead; / his rectitude a new kind of purity / whose thought is doctrinaire, / his speech a bridled mob / that makes you seek your chances / beyond the margin of events. / Arriving at Varykino, you find a house / that is wrecked in snow, a past’s discredited / chattels forgotten beneath its sheets … / its new growth pushing beneath untrodden snow.”
Elsewhere in the collection, poems about his daughter’s conversion to Islam, her subsequent marriage, his and his wife’s first visit to Sri Lanka to meet their new son-in-law’s family, “as far from home / as we’ve ever been”, rub shoulders with memories of visits to Irish relatives, attempts to learn Irish, not wanting to be the boxer his father thought he had the “style and the stamp” to become and admiration for the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the gift of making “… open chords / slide down frets / like a freight train’s / thunder on tracks.” What binds these elements, gives them a convincing unity, is the clarity of the poet’s focus, his sharpness of observation and his understanding that attentiveness to life is important, because “each day light forsakes us”. Enjoyable, thought-provoking and honest. Definitely one for the bookshelf.
Work Horses by David Cooke is published by Ward Wood Publishing ISBN: 978-1-908742-00-1, £8.99 (£5.99 on publisher’s website) Order your copy here
©2013: Ken Head