“If I were of a poetic tone of mind…”
Whether the author is conscious of it or not, her poetry always already presents, at once, multi-faceted registers of the problems of language. Indeed, as Robert Kroetsch suggests, a poet, by definition, “has a problem with language.” And although Méira Cook is no exception to this rule, she seems to be hyper-sensitive to the rule itself. In some respects Toward a Catalogue of Falling is about, or speaks to the question of, what it means to be a poet; or what it means to engage with language as a struggle to disengage from its familiarity, its formality.
The first, and perhaps most developed (in the photographic sense), problem that Cook tackles is the problem of phonetics, of the words in aural connection, or disguise, one with the next. She is troubled with the way in which they transmit sound into the world. The problem works itself out through a long, interrupted fusion of phonemes rarely strung next to one another in conventional usage (whatever that is), words that beg to be read aloud, to be given, briefly, dimension.
I have cut my teeth on language, I am
tongue ticking with tricks and fraud
ticktock ticktock, tongue pendulum
of speech of silence, dingdong.
or more subtly,
Sometimes she surprises herself with homes
she has claimed, the word bicycle
smell of jasmine, her mother’s pots, there
is more there is more, cool lip
of a fluted white cup, this
is Illyria, lady.
We do a dis-service to these poems if we keep them silent.
Another, more difficult problem Cook deals with is the problem of “story.” Some poets, and I know a few from this school, abandon the slightest nuance of narrative from their poetry in an attempt to speak to (or more plainly, to rebel against) the politics of the construction of language and count themselves amongst those who “will not” be coerced into re-inscribing the socio-political terrain of the status quo. They say they fundamentally oppose the “system” and its totalitarian structures. Point taken. But as Derrida so often reminds us, when we become aware that we have been handed a broken tool to harvest with, we still must harvest. Sensitive to the issue, Cook reaps a bountiful feast. Her table is set with strawberries and chicory, blue bowls of lemons, sizzling in the sun, honey, oil-soaked bread, olives, sunflowers and nectarines.
The story is packed with visions of sharp edges and the peeling of skin, skeletons coursing with blood, greengardens, suns and moons. The story is (excuse the ontological verb) the body’s interaction with those tings, including itself, outside of it. There is, because of the drama played out between the story and its language, an invitation, throughout the book, to the ecstatic, to the wonders of being sentient amid the rubble of social chaos and intolerance, indeed amid the rubble of a collapsing binary code.
These poems (or is it one poem?), spoken as much from the spine and thighs, dangling legs and crisp eyes, vagina and womb, are spoken equally as well from the soul, the psyche, the brain. The voice is not afraid to speak as representative of any of these structures, in fact it complements them all. Sensitively, intelligently, almost urgently.
Toward a Catalogue of Falling is so steeped in whispered ideas that I feel on reading it that I could equally be watching stars jump out of a clear night (a son et lumière), or blood spilling into snow. Like frisbees, her words come back to me. Sometimes I catch them securely in my hand, other times I miss them altogether. This hit and miss is exactly what I hope for. The weakness in the book is, ironically, situated in its strength. There might be too much. It might scream with complexity. It might terrify you with its intelligence. The more you read, the tougher it gets.
Although Johannesburg claims her birth, it is Winnipeg who must claim her poetry. In the field of contemporary Canadian poets Méira Cook stands out. With a queer glare in her eye, with trappings at the end of her pen, and with a gentle sense for what is authentic and genuine amongst a jumbled and ruined lexicon, we are cautioned to read her words with care. They are dangerous, unpredictable and, I suspect, fodder for many poets to come.