Méira Cook and her acrobatic writing in Toward a Catalogue of Falling
In the poem “Light, moving,” Méira Cook declares, “I was raised a cubist, with a sense of astonishment.” This strikes me as an excellent description of the way she writes and of her collection of poems Toward a Catalogue of Falling (Brick Books).
Rather than describe a scene from one fixed point of view, Cook will jump back and forth between a first-person and a third-person voice in the space of a single poem, as if to suggest two separate selves: the one involved in the action and the one writing about it. For this South African writer, multiple perspectives are a way to, as she writes in the title poem, “conjugate past lives/ I fell I fall I have fallen.” The poems are all about memory: how, even though fragmentary and non-linear, it holds our lives together. The poet is like a juggler trying to keep all of her “selves” in the air at once.
Although Cook experiments with form and syntax her poems are never simply intellectual exercises. They are sensuous, musical in their use of language and chock-full of magical imagery. The form always serves the content; thus, the more naturalistic, autobiographical material in “Elsewhere” is mostly composed of complete sentences while the fantastical suite “The Ruby Garrote,” inspired by the circus, has no capital letters or punctuation.
Mythical and magical elements are prominent throughout the book. There’s a recurring image of a garden, which, of course, suggests Eden and what we think of as the first Fall. There is falling, in all its different meanings, among them “in love asleep downstairs.”
Cook seems constantly aware of the baggage carried by a word, whether it be “fall” or “apple,” “tongue” or “girl.” I love the density of language in these lines from “Legends of Tongue”:
Words branched and antlered
fall to furrow two by two, it was
the catalogue that arked them
in the end
against the grind of Ararat.
No loss of creature fossilled in print
not gone if one slant letter arched in sky
As someone who has left one whole continent behind (she now lives in Winnipeg), Cook is preoccupied with what gets lost and what is preserved. For her, language is a way of recreating things in their absence.
This is not “confessional” poetry of the sort that tells us far more than we cared to know about the author’s personal life. In fact, Cook doesn’t allow the reader more than the briefest glimpses of “real life.” This is not out of coyness but rather a belief that the life of the imagination (thought and memory) is more interesting—and perhaps more truthful—than the day-to-day.
There is a wonderful playfulness here, a joy in language that both balances, and somehow emphasizes, some quite violent imagery. Yet the violence itself is more mythical than naturalistic, as seen in these lines from “Days of Water,” based on the story of the little mermaid” “…They say/ each step was like walking on knives// balanced on blade of heel/ tracking webfeet across sand/ to stand at his feet…”
There is too much going on in these poems to do justice here. Therefore, as a sort of shorthand, I present this fairly absurd (in its diversity) list of writers Méira Cook reminds me of, if only a little bit: e.e. cummings, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Adrienne Rich, Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Bishop, Erin Mouré…. If your taste runs to any of the above, I would recommend running straight out and buying Toward a Catalogue of Falling.