Méira Cook, A Fine Grammar of Bones and Toward a Catalogue of Falling
Reviewed by Amy Barratt (Malahat Review (119))
Although Méira Cook has what some might call a morbid imagination, what’s even more striking in these two books is the way beauty is juxtaposed with, or blooms out of, death and decay. Take these lines, for example, from “crazyWoman” (Grammar):
unbuttoned to the bone
by the heels her
fold and flank glints
mica in pumiced skin
or this excerpt from “Too Ripe for Skin” (Catalogue):
The ferment of things grown to seed
and rot is colour, also. The suck
slide of worm through cavities
of earth of flesh, maggot colour
rainbows in the bowels blooms
buds and blows in the eye..
I am reminded of the expressionist painter Chaim Soutine, whose painitings such as “Dead Fowl” become, despite the subject matter, oddly beautiful flurries of movement and colour. Because the bird in it appears to be pitching headfirst towards the bottom of the canvas, that particular painting has been said to evoke the legend of Icarus. Coincidentally, the image of Icarus falling from the sky, “wax/ dripping from the blades/ of shoulders,” (“Diptych I,” Catalogue) is our introduction to the theme of “falling” in a diptych of poems that begins Méira Cook’s latest book.
It’s astonishing how much resonance—literary and emotional—she manages to get from the seemingly simple idea of falling. The lines in the title poem of Catalogue “turn to me with empty palms/ and conjugate past lives/ I fell I fall I have fallen” suggest that our lives are made up of a series of “falls,” including, as she writes in “Diptych I,” “in love asleep downstairs.” Nor is this theme new to Cook: In the poem “with words my tentpegs” in the first book, snow “falls/ gently/ not like the damned who/ also fall” and “… a bird/ falls slowly earthwards wings/ beat paperthin against the season’s/ frenzy. …”
Although Cook’s subject matter is wonderfully varied and vibrant, her underlying theme is the act of writing itself, and its corollary, reading. Her series about circus performers in Catalogue, for instance, says as much about language as it does about the circus: “the circus/ is language too the power/ of faces, cumulative// as irregular conjugations…” (“this way to the barnum & bailey…”). And a series of poems based on travels in Spain and Portugal is liberally punctuated with writing metaphors. In “Water, falling” a road suggests the “rise and fall of Andalusian cursive” and a rose is the “colour of thick vellum/ in a book with uncut pages.”
The logic of Cook’s work is often the magical logic of fairytales. Although her universe doesn’t function as we might expect, it does follow certain rules, some of which are explained in Catalogue in “Slip of the Tongue III”:
If you want to catch girl first
find her sleeping, in a cave
or castle or garden she must be
asleep that’s the rule. Now stoop
to her lips, stoopsuck the poison
from her finger the apple stuck
into her throat, the rule here
is to stoop. …
In “crazyWoman loses a button” (Grammar), the title character searches a house, turning up items familiar to us from fairytales: a glass slipper, a handful of magic beans, a pea under a pile of mattresses.
This source of material is most thoroughly exploited in a section in Catalogue called “Days of Water,” based on the legend of the little mermaid. In Cook’s version, the story of the mermaid who trades in her tail for a pair of legs in order to be with her handsome prince is all about hungers: the mermaid’s awakening lust and the hunger for language she doesn’t even know she has until the man starts teaching her to speak. A brinier setting, but basically it’s the journey of Eve from innocence to experience.
Cook has a special knack for taking stories which have been told about women and retelling them with an eye to what it would really be like to be Eve in the garden, or Sleeping Beauty, or the Little Mermaid. “Mesdames et monsieurs” is a poem about a knife thrower told from the point of view of his lovely assistant, and is both a tribute to and a jab at Michael Ondaatje’s “There’s a trick with a knife I’ve been learning to do”:
so eager his knives for the space
body gapes open, fingers thighs
nothing like death at the end
of a blade the ruby garrote, our body’s
dark ore, he smiles a circle
of light so eager his teeth
for the soul’s tender place so eager
my life by the grace of his knife
A writer of fresh, startling imagery, with a sophisticated ear for rhythm, rhyme and near-rhyme, Cook is also, when she chooses to be, a mesmerizing storyteller. Her “Palm of the Hand Stories” in Grammar are funny and twisted and too vivid to be forgotten in a hurry. The strong narratives and absence of line breaks distinguish them from the poems, yet these “stories” are nevertheless unmistakably poetic. Prose poems and poetic prose pieces are less prominent in Catalogue, but “Fairytales from the Old Country”—gory as the original, unsanitized tales of the Brothers Grimm—provides a tantalizing taste.