Méira Cook’s A Walker in the City is the most experimental stylistically, and the one in which walking is the ostensible triggering subject. Méira Cook, a South-African born poet and novelist who now lives in Winnipeg, has won the CBC literary prize and other awards, and this year was long-listed with this book for the ReLit Award. It’s a book of many parts, and the long opening sequence that gives the book its name might be the springboard for all that follows. Perhaps. A situation, if not quite a narrative, unfolds in different, quite mysterious ways, and if all the parts do not quite constitute a whole in a straightforward unfolding, they intrigue and please in all their difference. The eponymous opening sequence dazzles with its groupings of quatrains that take us on a jaunty sojourn, with innovative syntax often reminiscent of James Joyce, and occasional shout-outs to Lewis Carroll:
Then, shining all
and sure, vaults she the wind’s
cathedral, stamping booted feet,
lifting a hand unmittened, yes,
the better to balance welterweight
wind (flying fists) on a wet fingertip.
Hello again, hello. It’s me (it’s only me).
It does take the reader a moment to adjust, but soon the inverted sentence structure, the innovative vocabulary, brighten the walk—a brisk and purposeful journey in which one encounters city scenes, gloves lost or frozen, a bus ride, street lamps, an intersection (Portage and Main) and all the while the (third-person) soliloquy puzzles out relationships and the world at large. And (aha!) she comes across
Lit windows, bent heads
absolving the dishes clean. Passes
the old city poet in his aerie,
dismantled this night by lust
or virtue, pacing his rooms, scribbling…
And gives us the two characters who together and apart will speak and be spoken of
throughout the book in their various aliases.
In reviews of Cook’s collection published to date, there has been some theorizing about the story that (sort of) unfolds—just who the various characters are and what they signify in the seven stand-alone but connected sections of A Walker in the City. The second sequence, “The Beautiful Assassin,” gives us a noirish death (the old poet) dramatized as murder; it’s followed by “Being Dead.” With names and aliases scattered throughout, the reader must contribute her or his own interpretation. Read one way, the entire collection is an elegy to one who loomed larger than life: the poems in “Being Dead” are all the more affecting for being ferociously graphic. Brilliantly inventive throughout, the language is never formulaic, never frivolous, although there are moments of passionate frivolity, of breezy or clipped expression, a tone invented to speak about loss. The truth of momentous experience is told without lapsing into either banality or sentimentality.