August 26, 2016 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 87 – Méira Cook presented by Catherine Hunter

Short Note on reading Méira Cook’s “Easing the Spring”

“Easing the Spring” is only one of my favourite poems in Méira Cook’s Monologue Dogs, but it’s the one that dogged me most with its familiar, tip-of-the-tongue title. Where, where, where, had I heard that line before?

Many readers have praised the rich, allusive nature of Monologue Dogs. David Huebert describes the collection as “highly intertextual, weaving a series of literary fabrics—Shakespeare, Lorca, the Book of Genesis—into its tapestry,” while  Michael Dennis describes it as “a gallery full of fine tapestry, you have to wander around, take your time, return to each well woven beauty like a warm memory.”  The tapestry metaphor is apt, but only to a point.  For this book moves. As Paul Franz puts it, this book’s “major medium is surprise”; it is full of unpredictable twists, and “even the kind of twist—lexical or metaphorical, rhythmic or syntactic—can’t be predicted” (93). I like Franz’s lively list of twists. Though not exhaustive, it accurately captures the kinetic energy of this collection, in which tonal shifts, generic code-switching, and off-kilter quotations create different and unexpected effects in every poem.

The dramatic monologues in Monologue Dogs are delivered by famous figures such as Eve (who has been dipping into Dylan Thomas) and Adam (who is heavy into Auden), as well as King Lear, Judas Iscariot, Hansel and Gretel and Virginia and Leonard Woolf—all of whom seem equally well read. And every speech is double-voiced, for we can always hear the sly, wry, witty, lyrical lilt of Méira Cook at play. Elemental images (dogs, bones, tossed coins, salt, honey, bees) migrate from poem to poem, unifying the text as a whole, while reified bits of the English language (sayings about spilt milk, eggs in one basket, and knocking on wood) are juggled and re-jigged with a deft skill that brings them back to life. The high register of the royal court, m’lord, snugs up against tough sarcasm, Pal. And sometimes, kiddo, it all gets somewhat jocular. Often a sentence that’s apparently moving along with an innocent, conventional sense of direction, suddenly torques itself free of cliché: “you can’t go home again/or even once” (37). Or tumbles into a delicious pun: “One ate too many melons/from a jar marked melancholy…” (46).

The words of the title “Easing the Spring,” which are also the poem’s closing words, resonated within me as soon as I read them, like a song I couldn’t quite remember. Slowly, it came to me. First, “They call it easing the spring.”  Then, upon waking the next morning, the full line: “They call it easing the spring: It is perfectly easy.” Finally I recalled an image of a soldier in training, learning the names of the parts of his rifle, while all around him the beauty of nature is unfolding.  The slow retrieval of this poem from the inner library of what I’ve read, was a pleasure. But finally (my inner shelving system in a state of disarray), I had to resort to the Internet to look it up. Ah, yes. It’s “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed.  Reed’s poem draws ironic parallels between the spring season that brings new life and the spring (along with the bolt and the breech) that is part of the soldier’s mechanical, death-dealing weapon.

In “Easing the Spring,” Cook’s intertextual weaving creates an uncanny atmosphere, in which everything familiar seems slightly askew and meaning is always just out of reach. The poem opens with a mother and daughter waiting at the entrance to a subway station (perhaps the London Underground) for “him” to come to take the daughter away. Infused with the sadness of separation, the scene is reminiscent of a contemporary divorced couple exchanging custody of their child. But when the mother feeds her daughter meat from “the Greek takeaway on Third,” and we learn that “he” plays “Bad Translations” on “winter nights,” and then suddenly the dead appear at the station–“Around us ghosts lope into the future”–we realize we’re smack in the middle of one of the most powerful ancient myths of Western Civ.  The speakers are Demeter, ancient Greek goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and forced to spend six months of every year in the underworld, ruling over the dead with him. The world of the poem takes on that timeless, doubled nature that Cook creates with such apparent ease throughout this book.  It’s a world of stories laid down on top of other stories in thin, translucent layers, each one a little at an angle to the next, leaving lovely jagged edges.

According to the myth, Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds in the underworld, though her mother warned her not to. It is this breach that doomed her to her annual six-month sentence, and her mother’s annual mourning is the cause of winter every year.  In the poem, Demeter lives a meager, ordinary life, for a goddess. Much diminished by the loss of her daughter, she returns to her kitchen, “where I hunker all winter, plotting/my small kitchen revenges.” Demeter laments the impossibility of teaching children to avoid eating fruit. The fruit from “the Market” she describes is eerily sexual, “Windfall and sour and swollen/with seed,” and icky as the goblin fruits in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” But the bruised, over-ripe fruit seems gorgeously alive when compared to existence down in the subway of hell: “steel-jawed longing,/below igneous and the knock of teeth/against rock.” This image of cold, metallic hunger is a spectre that stalks many pages of this book, and the contrast between lush fertility and cold, hard death is similar to the contrast in “The Naming of Parts.”

The “half-price deals” on the subway to hell are advertised in the title-capped phrases that Cook uses often in Monologue Dogs. In “Easing the Spring,” the phrases are “Let the Dead Carry Their Dead” (fusing the words of Jesus, “let the dead bury their dead” and perhaps the words of Sylvia Plath, whose bees “carry their dead” out of the hive in “Wintering”) and “You Won’t Look Back With Us” (merging the language of advertising slogans with the myth of Orpheus, another supplicant to Hades). Perhaps I’m only thinking of Plath’s bees because I teach “Wintering” every winter.  But bees also appear in Henry Reed’s “The Naming of Parts.”  Reed’s soldier, distracted from his duties, observes that “rapidly backwards and forwards/The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:/They call it easing the spring.” And bees are alluded to in Cook’s “Easing the Spring” as well. Demeter cries out: “Oh, my daughter! My laughter, my wild// wild honey of the heart.”  I love the sweet eye rhyme of daughter and laughter, and the reference to honey, doubly wild, of the heart.  Demeter also conjures bees as she anticipates the imminent arrival of Hades: “Soon he’ll step into the burning street, my daughter will sway/and falter on her feet. Listen for the bees, she will say.” The sound of bees (“bee-static,” as Cook calls it in another poem, “The Talking Cure”) reminds me of the noise you hear just before you faint, as Persephone is perhaps about to do.  But Cook’s bees are also, like Plath’s bees, harbingers of spring. At the end of Plath’s “Wintering,” the beekeeper wonders, “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?” The poem ends on a hopeful note, because Plath tacked on this answer as a final line: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” But no reader of Plath can forget that Plath herself did not live to taste the spring that year. Persephone’s season underground, like any separation, any winter of the soul, is laced with peril, and Cook’s poem leaves the question of survival open: “Listen for the bees,” she will say./But who knows if they’ll come this year, the thrum,/the stir of half-past thaw, an open door/easing the spring?”

Demeter, no fool, knows that “not everything lost may be recovered.” As Cook’s poem comes to a close, it seems to fuse Demeter, Plath’s beekeeper, and Henry Reed’s soldier into one brilliant, buzzing, sun-in-your-eyes confusion of longing, hope, and fear. Or at least that’s what happens when what I’ve read encounters what this book has read. That’s poetry, kiddo. It’s the truth (truth is a dog, says Shakespeare/Cook) told with an immeasurable degree of slant.

Readers, if you have not yet ventured beyond the double-dog dare of this book’s cover, I bid you, enter.  It’s like a tour through a dream-like library that threads itself through the gaps in your own reading history. All of the poems are excellent and most are brilliant—and no poetry reader should risk missing out on what is one of the best poems ever, and I mean ever: “Five Act Iscariot,” a heart-breaking, mind-expanding, gospel-defying exploration of love, executed in flawless, and beautifully subtle, sonnet form. I can’t talk about it right now, but read it. Read the whole book and see how many echoes and half-echoes sound through your head and heart.  Enjoy.

Reviews Cited:

Huebert, David.  “A Review of Méira Cook’s Monologue Dogs.” The Rusty Toque: An Online Literary, Film, and Art Journal Issue 9, November 15, 2015.

Dennis, Michael.  Review of Monologue Dogs by Méira Cook. Today’s Book of Poetry.  n online blog. October 15, 2015.

Franz, Paul.  Review of Monologue Dogs by Méira Cook. The Malahat Review Issue 194, Spring 2016, pp 93-95.

Méira Cook has published three previous poetry collections with Brick Books. Her poetry has won first place in the CBC Literary Awards, and a poem from this collection won the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize. Her first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, won the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Her second novel, Nightwatching, was published in May 2015. Her latest poetry collection is Monologue Dogs (Brick Books, 2015). She lives, writes, and talks to herself in Winnipeg.

Catherine Hunter’s books include the award-winning poetry collection Latent Heat and her new novel After Light, an Irish-American-Canadian story about family, war, trauma, and the extraordinary, life-saving power of art.

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