A Classical Light: W.S. Milne on David Cooke’s Collected Poems

The Following review of David Cooke’s Collected Poems was published recently in the online supplement of Agenda. It is reposted here to avoid the inconvenience of having to scroll down through a substantial document.


MY cover not Carla


W.S Milne: A Classical Light

Collected Poems by David Cooke. Littoral Press. ISBN: 978191241246. Signed copies available here (via the ‘Editor’s Spot’) for as long as stocks last. £16 inc p&p and via amazon.co.uk and .com

This excellent compilation comprises nine collections of poetry David Cooke has published over the past forty years or so. In an interview with Patricia McCarthy first published in Agenda, reprinted here, the poet told her that ‘I have never been what you might call “fashionable”. So if I have any claim to authenticity, it probably stems from this’. This outlook, and I think it is a sane one, is reinforced in a translation from the work of Constantine Cavafy where he writes that ‘he has not courted the world’. This approach has meant that Cooke has managed to maintain ‘a consistency of tone and outlook across the years’ (his words from the same interview) which means he has forged a voice very much his own.

In the epigraph to his poem ‘Magnesium’ Cooke quotes David Hume approvingly that ‘The difficulty, then, is how far we are ourselves the objects of our senses’, the poet situating himself ineluctably in the world of the sensorium (Neil Fulwood has written perceptively of Cooke’s ‘poetic ability to study the everyday’), a stance that lies at the root of his poetics, celebrating quotidian flux (‘the simplest routines that can save us’), one of the reasons I think he likes the poetry of Phillipe Jaccottet (see his translation from Jaccottet on p.169 of the book) and Boris Pasternak (see his poem ‘The Pasternak Season’ which wonderfully evinces the beauty of a snowfall). The poet tells us that ‘I do tend to go for work that is rooted in real experience and focuses upon particulars’, avoiding abstractions (he writes of Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘desolate quest for an absolute/in the glacial lake of verse’, for example, a pursuit that is not human enough for him), far from Lenin too, for example, and his ‘language of a big idea’ (see his poem on Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya) avoiding ‘the din of certainties’ (in ‘Fathers’).

This is the poet’s private domain then, if you like, but he is equally interested in the public realm of history, all of its tides, even down to the primeval ages (the coelacanth ‘bides its time/in lightless deep’), ‘shape-shifting’ time that tells of the ‘rhythms of violence’, ‘the surge of dynasties’, of utopias that have failed, of the past’s burdens and triumphs (see especially ‘The Burghers of Calais’), history’s changing customs and mores. He has a great admiration for all those who practise legerdemain, all those who take risks in the world, entertainers such as Houdini and Philippe Petit whose masterful high-wire act in crossing between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974 had ‘the cops amazed/at a man walking across the sky’, a miraculous instance of risk, a miracle of sorts to redeem the humdrumness of life (in his poem ‘Gambler’ he endorses Pascal’s advice to take risks, ‘Il faut parier’, against the odds).

There are also poems concerning explorers like Gertrude Bell and pioneers like Captain Webb who was the first man to swim the Channel. There is a connection here with poets who test the limits of what is possible in the realm of words. He translates Boris Pasternak, for example, writing that ‘The world revives like Eden’, poetry tapping ‘a well of freshness’ (in an early poem called ‘Occitan he also writes of tapping ‘a lyric source’ to discover one’s true voice).  In his most recent volume, The Metal Exchange, (reprinted on pp.401-456 of Collected Poems), he translates Ibsen, where he writes of the poet as a miner delving and forcing his ‘way/into the dark where metal sings… Tapping the words/to test them/you try to hear them sing’ (from ‘The Metal Sonata). At one point he quotes Pushkin as saying ‘I seek again/ the Union of magical sounds, feelings and thoughts’—that ability to transmute prosaic details into something miraculous (as in Cooke’s poem ‘The Master Builders’ where the masons ‘took the measure of stone/and dressed it, hoisting it up/until it soared like logic/into the high, unanswering air’—rather like Phillipe Petit’s act on the highwire).

As for his own art or craft, Cooke writes of the necessity of weighing ‘the pennyweights of syllables/rising, falling and reaching the end’ (a phrase which reminded me of Dante sifting his words ounce by ounce, oncia ad oncia, in The Divine Comedy), the writer always aware of the gravity of his task, his ‘verses planed and filed’, ‘vowels/and consonants marshalled/in a strict , enduring music’ (as he expresses it in his poem on the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel), enjoying the craic, the blarney, of the enterprise at the same time.

Family means a great deal to the poet. There is a very moving poem about his grandson writing his name, a poem on his belief that his Catholic upbringing taught him ‘a medieval rigour of mind’ and ‘a taxonomy of virtues/and vices’. He writes of his adolescence and schooling ‘brought up on ‘great slabs/of Virgil’, his serious accident when he was knocked off his bicycle when young, his relationship with his parents, relishing stories from their past, his father teaching him to box, his years in Reading and Grimsby, his own love of domesticity (we see him gardening, doing DIY, shopping, cooking, watching his children growing up and moving away, stamp-collecting and bird-watching with his son, thinking back on his own childhood hobbies, and so on).

We see him lauding marital love, writing of ‘the kindness of sheets’, and ‘a sense of your [his wife’s] bodily comfort’. There is a lovely poem on his daughter’s conversion to Islam, and an even lovelier one on her nikah (her wedding). These poems give the lie to Strelnikov’s brutal statement (in Doctor Zhivago) that ‘The private life is dead’ (see Cooke’s poem ‘At Varykino’ which is based on an incident from the film version of Doctor Zhivago).  I also found the elegy to his brother Martin particularly moving, praising the ‘crazy pickles’ he got himself involved in, and acclaiming his gentle soul. Cooke values gentleness highly, as he does peace, moderation, decency and toleration (what he calls ‘a clear moral framework’ in his interview with Patricia McCarthy), a quality I admire him greatly for in these cynical times. Hope is also a virtue he cherishes. He translates Pessoa’s ‘the voice of the sea… speaks to us of hope’, and Mallarmé’s ‘But, O my heart, just hear how sailors sing!’ He writes of his own belief that always ‘In the end words will come’.

There are several fine poems on the fate of the inhabitants of the remote Scottish island of St Kilda (whose ‘primal trust sustained existence there’) who were uprooted to Glasgow early in the twentieth century, very fine poems on his kinship with Ireland, and his love of its ‘lyric speech’ (see especially ‘Connacht’). He writes also of the difficulty of having to work hard at finding his affinity with Ireland (he talks of a feeling of ‘homelessness’ in his interview with Patricia McCarthy, for example), going as far back as memories of his boyhood holidays in the townlands of Clooningan and Johnsforth. He translates the Irish language poets Séan Ó Ríordáin and Mairtin Ó Díreáin, again writing of rootlessness, homelessness, as in the St Kilda poems: ‘to build a dike/or a dry stone wall/was each man’s stoic pride—/like a poet making verses/to keep his language alive’. Music is very important to Cooke as well, and in several poems he celebrates the ‘local music’ of the Gaelic language. There are a number of poems (mainly elegies) extolling jazz and blues’ musicians—music for the poet is ‘where truth/and pain can burn in one held note’ (see his poem ‘For Free’).

Across the Collected Poems we can see the poet visiting many lands and cities, determined (mainly successfully on the whole) to disprove Kingsley Amis’s contention that ‘Nobody wants any more poems about foreign cities’ (a quote Cooke employs as the epigraph to his previously uncollected sequence, A Virtual Tour,  the poet wrestling with ‘the confusion/of tongues and homeless song’ (‘Ships At A Distance’) and yearning for ‘the mythic home of the dispossessed’ (see his poem ‘Slow Blues’).

There are some very fine poems on the paintings of Bruegel, and excellent poems on the photographs of Willy Ronis (to my mind Le Nu Provençal is one of the finest poems in the book). The latter catches perfectly the ‘classical light’ of the photograph, focusing on what I think is best in David Cooke’s poetry—his ‘heart and humanity’ as Wendy Klein has expressed it, ‘the human ties’ he writes of in his poem ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’, treading, as he puts it in the first poem in the book, ‘the limits of what words mean’, to find what he calls ‘the humanist in me’. Given the amount of brutality in the world today it is a godsend to find a poet who still believes in hope, a poet who still believes in what it means to be human. David Cooke’s Collected Poems is a book every lover of poetry should have on their bookshelves.

Sam Milne writes  was born in Aberdeen in 1953. His parents moved to the countryside when he was five. He first lived in a fishing village (Portlethen) in Kincardineshire and then at a railway halt in Aberdeenshire (Pitmedden, near Dyce) where his father worked as a linesman until he lost his job due to the Beeching cuts. (He then moved then to Corby in Northamptonshire where his father was employed as a steelworker. He started writing poems in Scots about the age of ten or so continued to write later, but mainly in English.

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