This quarter I am posting four poems which I have written over the years about my mother, Noreen Cooke, who passed away peacefully on 30th April 2020 at the age of eighty-six.
i.m. Noreen Cooke (1933 -2020)
THE LEAVING CERT
Mislaid for decades, I had never seen it
– the certificate they gave you the year
you finished school. Thirteen and biddable,
I doubt you had been much bother at all,
picking up quite easily the basics
prescribed for the life that lay before you.
Beyond the geography of small towns,
fields, and enigmatic hills, among which
your predecessors scratched out a living
or moved away, you’d followed the Master’s
travels, his pointer assertive on maps,
his ‘memories’ a well-intended ploy
when his horizons were limited too,
his learning shaky: a sprinkle of words
in a dying tongue, his high-sounding speech
and wisdom adding weight to his display –
though any time refinement failed, the strap
or a cuff would teach the clowns and dunces.
But there it is for all to see, the sum
of what you needed to know, entangled
in a script you never got the hang of.
A plodder in Irish, your English fine,
you’ve always been a reader: family
sagas, memoirs, whatever comes your way;
and learned enough doing sums to eke out
the pennies, those tougher days you had to.
Your sewing basic – good enough to patch
and mend – religion still sustains you,
making little fuss when those you’d nurtured
turned their backs and let it wither away.
Never admitting to brains, but smarter
by far than what’s suggested on that brief
resumé, what was the spur to frame it
– quiet pride? nostalgia? – when it turned up
again in a box heaving with papers,
clutter, your children’s own pleasing reports.
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
God alone knows why our mum had bought them,
a set of five thumping tomes with green boards
and gilt titles. The cross embossed on each
was emblematic of a better place –
while she seemed happy enough with this one.
In her small bookcase they were dusty slabs
laid flat on the bottom shelf. Never read
or even opened on a rainy day,
they were crowded out by flimsier stuff:
Time and the Hour, These Lovers Fled Away …
So when I was after a grown-up book
this is where I started: The Dark Secret
of Josephine, Cousin Kate, Venetia …
Their covers mainly soppy – carriages
and bonnets – too much flirting spoiled the plots.
No lovers’ games distracted Butler’s saints,
who knelt down and prayed serenely on rank
and clotted sand, or otherwise bided
their time, single-mindedly focused
on healing afflictions, saying their prayers.
Fulgentius, ‘shining one’, Chrysostom,
‘the golden-mouthed’, were not the names of souls
who yielded. Accepting the final cut,
Eulalia’s neck was like a fountain
from which, unabashed, a white dove fluttered.
When days were out of kilter
between the daylight and the dark
our mother set a limit: eight o’clock
and bed, a watershed marked
twice weekly by funereal brass
that wafted from that blabbing
street, its title sequence vanishing
into a Land of Nod beyond
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx XTrailing upstairs
to functional bedrooms,
we mumbled slipshod prayers
breathless, into chilly sheets …
Late one night I am dreaming
voices: a woman still young,
who has her brood, and a man
who is buoyed by pub talk,
the craic, his cronies …
Her litany’s a wall
he won’t get past until like us
he’s learned patience has its limits.
SONGS HE SANG HER
I imagine their whisperings along grey streets,
trying now to understand what their courtship
might have been. Even the word is a period piece,
upright and earnest, like a pledge of clear intent
that starts at temperance dances
where he buys a cordial which she accepts.
He is skinnier than I remember,
though his hair is the same: the unruly waves
brushed back off his high forehead;
his Pioneer pin a piety that won’t survive;
while she is so young. Then, as now,
all go and focused on living.
Marriage involves a letter from home,
parish boundaries, dealings with priests.
Holloway and Camden –
familiar haunts split by jurisdiction.
Then come years of thrift and children,
who will learn how their father
sang songs to their mother,
his favourite I’ll Walk Beside You,
loved for its melody and because it was true.
Note: The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart is an international organisation for Roman Catholic teetotalers that is based in Ireland.
This quarter I am posting four poems from my new collection Staring at a Hoopoe, copies of which can be purchased by following the link. The collection contains poems which, in their different ways, embody or illuminate Kierkegaard’s famous dictum: ‘Life is understood backwards but has to be lived forwards.’
Four poems from Staring at a Hoopoe
MAN ON A WIRE
When he looks back on his life
he will see that the best of it
was a journey he took from A to B
on a wire between two buildings –
his every breath a distillation
of what it meant to keep your nerve
and hold steady, each muscle
braced and quivering like the wire itself
which, at a distance, was no more
than a filament, but close up
was a hawser along which he took
illicit steps, knowing his future
weighed upon them and all things
were simple, once the choice was made,
however the pole teetered
or the air roared wildly
above a world of chairs
and carpets, dates and deliveries,
or the cops who stared amazed
at a man walking across the sky
whom later they cuffed
and cautioned apologetically
before asking him politely his name
and a few relevant details.
I remember his name and features
from my brief matchbox phase
that sparked up and fizzled out
like so many others. Phillumeny,
yes, that’s the word. Cutting out the labels,
I glued them to homemade charts.
When Bryant and May raised his profile
he couldn’t have been more famous,
if he had stared from banknotes.
On a cheap box of lucifers
– the white cliffs at his back –
his pose is muscular, relaxed.
In an age when maps were
splotched in red and folding stuff
was no concern of any working man,
he seemed such a British hero,
the first one to swim the moat
that maintains la différence.
And sensing that achievement
ends up as commonplace
he moved on to stunts that paid
– like a man surprising you
by what he’ll do for bets – aware
that easy money soon evaporates.
Afloat in a tank for days on end,
watching clouds, did he see the future –
minor celebrities desperate
‘to give something back’ or even you
and I, greased up for charity,
ticking off our bucket list?
His style was never flashy.
Dour and dogged wins the race.
Burnt out and broke, his final plunge
was madness. Spat out by rapids
beneath Niagara Falls, his plot
in Oakwood is called ‘The Stranger’s Rest’.
for Grant Tarbard
Northern kids, their futures
predictable, they grafted dourly
five days a week down pits, in shops
and on the factory floor –
paying their way with some left
for vinyl, speed and threads.
Travelling miles by train each
weekend with a change of clothes
and a box of classic tracks
– minor hits and rarities
by blacks the charts ignored –
they kept the faith
and stormed the bouncers
– who lost their cool and didn’t get it –
once doors were opened
to another drenched all nighter
at Wigan Casino, the Highland Room,
the Golden Torch, the Wheel.
A four-four beat was all
they needed, rock steady,
relentless, and simple lyrics
that told the truth. Hallucogenics
and hopeless solos
warped the walls of bedsits
but lads in bags and polo shirts,
their girls in swirling skirts,
danced all night till morning.
Doing splits and fancy tricks,
they span around like dervishes.
STARING AT A HOOPOE
ilare uccello calunniato
Caught in the moment,
there is no way of knowing
who might have blinked first –
the old man or his visitant,
the bright, crested
ambivalent bird. A few
implying a workspace,
the room is otherwise
the reciprocal stare
of two survivors.
The eyes of one are stoical,
but lit by a sense
that all is not determined.
The other’s are steeled,
impenetrable – the maligned
harbinger of spring
or a bird whose piping
is like a final summons.
This quarter I am posting four poems from my collection After Hours which was published by Cultured Llama in 2017. Copies may be purchased by following the link. They all look at various aspects of childhood and education.
David Cooke: Four Poems from After Hours
MY GRANDSON WRITES HIS NAME
The first letter he has known for months
in zig-zag lines getting nowhere.
Turned on its side and crayoned blue
he can stretch it out like a river;
or if he changes colour can make
a mountain, some grass, a fire.
Cut back to its simplest form
and laid out in rows like ghosts,
he follows the dots over and over
before he does it on his own.
When he learns its sound is a buzz
he likes, he hears it and sees it again
in the stripes of zebra,
in the bars of a place called zoo.
He has five shapes to master.
They stand above or hang below
a line that’s always there –
even if you think it’s vanished.
But when it all comes together
in a final downward stroke
– staunch and straight as he will be –
it tells him who he is,
this name he has always heard
ever since he’s been here.
‘The world divides into facts’
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
In the high-ceilinged rooms
of ragged schools you hear
the clack of chalk on slates.
Heads down, still breathing,
they are figuring out,
applying the rules
they hope will get it straight.
The first day they dip
their pens into tiny china wells
the mistress smiles
and tells them
to call this their ‘copy work’.
It is letters and words,
the bare bones of wisdom.
When the time has come
they will learn to think.
Meanwhile the neat
inherit the earth –
for if they smudge it
the page is spoiled.
Beyond high windows
the world exists.
It is made up of the facts
they are gathering one by one.
All day long they raise their hands,
owning up to their futures.
FOR THE RECORD
Without so much as a thread of decency,
Antoninus Elagabalus, high priest
and mother’s boy, made biographers weep.
Proponents of discipline almost choked,
repeating the syllables of his name.
His sculpted head is unremarkable
and bears no trace of his supposed excesses;
the muddled genes of his outlandishness
those of a handsome kid who, like the best
and worst of us, will sometimes try it on.
In the fevered prose of his narration
Lampridius got stuck in with dismay
and the fervour of a red-top hack.
As he took prim steps along the gutter,
he lamented earlier days.
Trawling the city’s desolate quays
for the wayward and well-hung,
an inner circle supplied the emperor’s needs,
while he, disguised as Venus,
mooned enticingly on the street.
When thugs who had raised him
had enough, they cut him down as swiftly
in a dank latrine, then turned towards Severus
who, after certain recent events,
was always bound to shine the brighter.
for Ziyad, Tamim & Rafiq
When the day has come,
you will make a journey
to the city of Mecca.
Each of you a pilgrim
dressed in white,
you will cast the stones
that set you free
from Shaitán, the evil one.
Circling the Ka’aba
you will feel around you
the crowd surging
like a river in spate;
and though it’s a distance
I cannot travel,
the scallop shells
on my school badge
made me a pilgrim too
like those who had tramped
to the far-flung shrine
Inspired by the autumn essay, Sam Illingworth’s A Sonnet to Science, I have decided to post a set of poems taken from an unpublished collection of mine called The Metal Exchange. I hope in due course that it will be published as a book, but meanwhile here are four poems, all of which are inspired in various ways by science.
THE TRANSFERMIUM WARS*
There are certain structures
that fall apart when their logic’s
at its limit; and when what might be,
but can’t be, is dreamed up by those
who are bombastic, driven.
There are laws abhorred
by nature, regimes based on fear,
whose fates are pre-determined
when the brave say No
to dogma, tanks and swords.
And in the wake of Armageddon
our sensors glimpsed chimeras
that self-destruct in our world
but still engendered wars
between white-coated alchemists
laying claim to them:
meitnerium, hassium, hahnium,
rutherfordium, seaborgium …
in nanograms invisible
to the unassisted eye.
Achieving more than Adam,
when they chose the names
for matter they’d created,
they howled like dogs prowling
around scattered bones.
Note: The title of this poem refers to a series of disputes between American and Soviet scientists as to who had first isolated and had the right to names the unstable elements beyond Fermium, #100 in the Periodic Table.
How fitting it was that a scientist,
taught by monks in a seminary,
should have been among the first
to see beyond appearances. Unkempt
and bearded, like a desert oracle,
he had sensed a scheme while dreaming
and, on awakening, had laid the elements out
like cards in a game of patience.
When others claimed he’d fixed it,
he turned on them and pointed out
the errors they’d accrued from impure
samples, their own inaccurate weights.
Rubbing their noses in it, he left
them gaps that he predicted
they could fill themselves
with substances unknown –
their properties determined,
their places reserved.
Foul-mouthed and foul-tempered,
he had stormed out of labs abroad
and sulked in isolation.
Back home in a backward land
he was lionized by students,
enthused by his asides. The Pied Piper
of insight, he impressed Kropotkin,
the crown prince of anarchists.
‘The difficulty, then, is how far we are ourselves
the objects of our senses.’
David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature
Like a flimsy thread my vanity
clings to, it seems that as far
as logic’s concerned what I call
my self’s a phantom and no more
a part of me than skin, hair
or toenails are, shed by the strangers
they started out with.
So where is the screen memory
flares on and who’s the kid
sitting there, spellbound,
as JB in his goggles ignites
the bright metallic strip
he holds in tongs then dips
into the flickering Bunsen?
Of all those hours spent
behind stained benches
what else remains but a few facts
or party tricks, consigned
to the dark for years
until that moment sparks?
– lighting up once more
what I learned but never used
about the alkaline earths
or hyperactive alkali metals:
their symbols, numbers, properties,
and what it is they’re good for,
when exposed to water.
And then there’s music shared
with friends I’ll never meet again
that takes me back to school
as now, unaccountably, a teacher does
who prepped his board in break
and signed it: Do not efface! JB –
his aim with the chalk deadly.
for Kevin Mulqueen
A numinous bead
slithering in a world
of angles, it seems
at first composed.
Probe more deeply
and you will see
it weeps elegant tears.
it adheres to laws
of tension, weight,
Devoid of guile,
it has no time
though you stare
for days, you cannot
see through it,
I am what I am –
make of that
what you please.
Breathe it in,
or touch its skin
with your own
you will learn
Having been encouraged to do so by a few kind souls, I have decided to reserve one small corner of The High Window for some of my own poems:
This summer I am posting four poems taken from my fourth collection, A Murmuration, which was published in 2015 by Two Rivers Press at more or less the same time as A Slow Blues, New and Selected Poems, the first book published by The High Window Press. Copies of both can be purchased by following the links.
You can read an online review by Greg Freeman here.
David Cooke: Four Poems from A Murmuration
There’s another city inside the city. It lays
its template of odours across postal districts.
One day, perhaps, you will sense it
beneath your speed: a faint hint of fox piss
that clings to street lamps and bollards.
Leaving its marker, it establishes different laws.
Below our fences there are badger setts
and mole runs, scrabbling polities
obscured by codes, dissimulation, the plunge
of adits into the dark of the earth.
It’s 5 a.m. and a rackety slew of birdcalls
fills in a gap between late revels and the early shifts.
All day the city accumulates heat, hatching
prematurely the high rise predators.
In a colour supplement once I read
about Year Zero in a city called Phnomh Penh
and how the jungle broke it up
when all its people had marched away.
We’re two hours’ flight from a northern spring;
the impassive sky we’ve left behind us
a canvas primed but still awaiting
some splash of inspiration;
the grey pavements underscoring
routines we cling to; but here
our touchdown lights a spark in a town
whose name suggests a beacon
and where all winter, unknown to us,
the orange trees on the Largo da Sé
ripened slowly, revealing now
a constellation of sweetness on a coast
whose warmth detains the storks
that headed once for Africa;
and as if plonked recklessly
on rooftops, ledges, hoardings,
their nests rise from platforms
of branches, twigs and rags,
growing bulkier year by year –
ancestral homes they sublet to sparrows.
But when we get too close, climbing
the bell tower, we find ourselves
in a perfect storm of beak
and wings like loose rigged sails.
A small time hustler, a princeling,
he is on the make and mooching
down along the hedgerows.
His head in the cloud
of each moment’s business,
the world is lying at his feet.
On a whim, his thoughts
a-scamper, he sets off
on a pointless dash
from one place to another;
then remembers flight.
above the stubble,
his song’s in the key
of twisting metal.
And when the time is right
his sex is functional.
It’s all him, his pageantry –
for any drab will do.
from distant Asia
does he dream of lives
he’s bred for, or guess
how it will end
here at the roadside
– cast off by
a casual bumper,
his gauds in disarray,
his dark flesh ripening
beneath a perfect sky?
Something is gathering
at the edge of the evening,
a shoaling of consciousness
as light fails,
each speck a singularity,
an occurrence of will,
as the living skein is formed
to twist and glimmer
like a burnt-out image
of the Northern Lights.
One by one,
they will come to roost
in a city of leaves,
a settlement of feathers.
Having been encouraged to do so by a few kind souls, I have decided to reserve one small corner of The High Window for some of my own poems. This is particularly timely as my sixth collection, Reel to Reel, has just been published by Dempsey and Windle. I will continue with further brief selections in each quarterly issue.
David Cooke: Four Poems from Reel to Reel
GETTING IT TAPED
When I couldn’t keep up with the cost of music,
I found a solution: the second-hand
reel-to-reel I picked up at a snip –
a Philips most likely or maybe a Grundig,
some brand I thought would last.
Its clickety counter gave no insight
into the digital age. It couldn’t remember
or shuffle a thing. Pre-CD and pre-cassette,
it lacked a remote or any inkling
of the bells and whistles to come.
To make a start you wound the tape
onto the empty spool, then let it
run to take the slack. Engaging
its five sturdy controls
required decisive pressure.
And once you’d hooked it up to the radio,
you only had the space of a song
to change your mind and reset it,
ready for the next one, your dithering clunks
recorded in that seamless stream.
So I gave up on Pick of the Pops
and ‘Fluff’, its pop-picking deejay,
but left it purring quietly to the John Peel show,
his musical taste consistent,
his mumbles, yeah, laid back.
A NEW SHIRT
In the Shangri-La of San Francisco
they called it The Summer of Love,
tuning in and dropping out
to a soundtrack of spacey guitars.
Bookish, shy, and too young
for a droopy moustache and sideburns,
I was hothoused instead by Hayes
for the maths I was taking early,
but got a hint of something else
in Scott Mckenzie’s anthem.
Against her better judgment,
my mother allowed me to pick a shirt.
– A bright yellow shocker
with a floppy, extravagant collar,
it didn’t survive the first lesson
before they sent me home
to dream on at the back of the bus
of topless Haight-Ashbury girls,
whose painted bodies sway
to airborne waves of music.
FREEMAN STREET, GRIMSBY
Location! Location! Location! It’s a mantra
the upwardly mobile intone,
who have set up shop elsewhere –
catchpenny merchants with tricks up sleeves,
purveyors of pleasures and deals.
On a street where ripples of boom
and bust have long since subsided
beneath the tide of failure
the footfall of ‘three day millionaires’
kept all the rest in business.
Awaiting turns to land their catches,
trawlers rode at anchor, backed up
beyond the docks. Their crews staggering
ashore to re-establish land legs
lost them again in pubs
where men now washed up at forty
nurse disconsolate pints;
while workless youths hang out,
honing their skills with cues
in a room above the Scope shop.
Marks and Sparks pulled out, leaving
a space filled by Mad Harry’s
discount store that held its own for a while,
until it went the way
of Tony’s Textiles, the Polski Sklep.
Along this windy channel
nothing much survives beyond its lower
reaches, where Asda thrives like a final
outpost. There’s a place that fixes hoovers;
an Alpha course that fixes souls.
From time to time – like a twinge
of conscience – there’s talk
of schemes, regeneration: but who throws
good money after bad? Everything Must Go!
the sign says, when it’s already gone.
LE PETIT JULIEN
He is pissing his life away
– this wayward child
with the face of a cherub,
his back tensed in an effort
to further his arc
of spangled water
toward the basin’s
rim, until one day
his trajectory rises
takes flight, his stream
onto the pavement
and down along the gutter …
Meanwhile he’s the age
when all’s forgiven,
in spite of those
who’ve seen it before –
how once indulged
the child is ruined,
his features blank,
his eyes dilated, staring,
out of it, across the shambles
of each wasted day.