Westward ho ho ho. Trudgy with weariness
off the gimlet shift and longing
for the vicious rounding of a little sleep.
But how to get home again, home-sweet
east-best and wee wee wee (all the way).
And she without her wings, without key
or compass or ruby mittens. She lost. Wan
& wondering, by the bus stop palely loitering.
Who owns this night the city?
Grain merchants, oilers and bankers, cutpurses,
rogues. Some slithy tove or other
in an office tower above Portage & Main.
The golden lad highballing his Legislature
or Worm the Conqueror? She walks
to disown. The Möbius spool
to spool of earth & sky, no joints showing:
and then the lighting of the lamps. (“A Walker in the City”)
On the surface, Winnipeg poet and critic Méira Cook’s fourth trade poetry collection, A Walker in the City (London ON: Brick Books, 2011) explores some of the same territory of the immediate that Vancouver poet and editor Meredith Quartermain did in Vancouver Walking (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005), in that both poetry collections were constructed out of responses and reactions to the poets’ strolling around their own neighbourhoods. The opening poem, poetry winner of the 2006 CBC Literary Awards, works less through Quartermain’s archival approach and more a matter of the response, walking through Winnipeg streets and allowing the language to simply bounce off where it may. Constructed out of seven poem-sequence-sections—A Walker in the City, The Beautiful Assassin: A Poem Noir, Being Dead, Posthumous, Appendix A: The Keyhole Poems, Appendix B: Follow ME and Last Poems—these poems are consciously darker than what she has produced before, from the poetry collections A Fine Grammar of Bones (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1993), Toward a Catalogue of Falling (Brick Books, 1996) and Slovenly Love (Brick Books, 2003) to the novel The Blood Girls (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1998), as well as editing a selected poems of Don McKay for the Laurier Poetry Series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
In the fourth section, “Posthumous: a chapbook,” subtitled “The Book of Imaginary Fathers (Incomplete) by Felix Kaye,” Cook writes a series of plays reminiscent to the one Robert Kroetsch wrote in his collection The Hornbooks of Rita K (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001), writing the archivist Raymond, seeking out the disappeared poet Rita Kleinhart through her poem-fragments. It begs the question, how closely connected are these two Winnipeg poetry collections, these two poets, neither from Winnipeg, but who lived in the city during the composition of each collection, and why are they articulating such a city of voices? As the brief introduction to the chapbook/section begins:
The poet Felix Kaye, as many people know, died last year in the middle of a poem. This is not to say that he was writing a poem when he died, but that he was living it. Somehow he had gotten himself right in between the lines and it killed him. Art killed him.
Requiescat in pace.
It is our great privilege to publish as a chapbook, the handful of poems left with his editor when he died. The Book of Imaginary Fathers was his working title and, given the importance of the father as subject and symbol in his poetry, we can think of no better. Our thanks are due to his amanuensis, Ms. Em Cook, whose assistance with the selection and assembly of the posthumous material has been invaluable.
It is as though A Walker in the City is a book of distances, of removals. Who or whom is Cook seeking through the displacement of names in this section, “Posthumous: a chapbook,” the fictional Ms. Em Cook, the fictional Felix Kaye, or for a specific father, using the distance as comfort, or so much smokescreen? The first of Cook’s poems by “Felix Kaye,” a series of questioning, pithy and wry pieces, writes:
A harlequin argument for the existence of God.
Much patched in patterns of blindness and its dark opposite,
For what would freedom be were the dead not also liberated?
At least the ones who live within us.
(Perhaps there are no others?)
In our disgraces dwell also our graces.
I’m intrigued at the idea of Cook writing out a series of poems in voices not her own, whether in this section or in the final section of the collection, “Last Poems (from Loitering With Intent by F. Kulperstein),” much the way Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell has been over the past few years, from his work-in-progress “Impossible Books” to The Real Made Up (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2007) and earlier Fruitfly Geographic (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2004). But still, this is, first and foremost a book of walking, and Cook explores various aspects of what accidents the mind might wander into during such, with one of the most intriguing sections in the collection being the second, “The Beautiful Assassin: A Poem Noir,” that begins:
The snowstorm begins at five past the hour,
always late always late,
like some huge harried white rabbit
clutching at its cuffs and moaning softly
into the wind.
Kulperstein lies potato-eyed in the dark, lies,
a man of resentment like Nietzsche was said to be
whenever his name was misspelled.
He is angry because of something – a bad review, a bad night,
a bad life. Now he is the carcass of a leopard
frozen in some high stony place.
Buried in all its heroic spots and unable to change them.
He is remembering his father,
who turned to salt from too much retrospection.
But his words held like water
contained unexpectedly in a sieve.