Review of Toward a Catalogue of Falling, by Méira Cook and Behind the Blue Gate, by Carol Rose
Here are two books of poems by Winnipeg women, the first, an at-times surreal, always linguistically involved examination of the way we—and women and girls, in particular—describe ourselves in the rumbling world, and the second, a very straight-forward appeal for understanding and brutality.
Méira Cook was born and raised in Johannesburg and now lives in Winnipeg. Her second, full-length collection of poems, Toward a Catalogue of Falling, begins with two parts of a diptych, both taking their inspiration from the story of Icarus, and both meditating on the act of falling: “Perhaps it is always spring/ when we fall. … To fall/ in love asleep downstairs. Of those three I have fallen/ twice. … But I have never fall/ as Icarus/ from grace.”
From there, Cook, in the words of her title, catalogues in a gentle, often fun, even whimsical way the kinds of falling we can do, and what it means, in a supposedly fallen world, to remain in, or fall from, a state of grace. In “In Pendulum of Green,” a girl swings in the green garden, so close to the red fruit, the red dust and snake. “Swing high swing low she sings/ her soul’s pale exile from this/ bright gash of earth.” and she feels desire well in her. What is it for? Her pale soul doesn’t know but she is so close to realizing her desire, so close to tumbling from the swing.
This is one of the acts of balance about which cook writes, another being the way the circus woman goes round and round the ring on the back of a horse in the first poem of the section “The Ruby Garotte.” Here Cook uses the circus as a metaphor for acquisition of language and for the balancing and falling: “the circus/ is language too the power of faces, cumulative/ as irregular conjugations.” In the third poem in the section “rosie envies the stability of tables/ four legs to clamp the earth apart,” while in the eighth poem Cook writes of “a face/ delivered to grace at last one last time they are so graphic the fallen.” In the section’s final poem she pushes back through time, back before the captured “but not tamed” lions, tigers, and bears, to “a tale/ of apples and figleaves/ of shame forgotten at last the lost/ hierarchy of animals and angels/ when the earth flew wings and/ hooves pale quattrocento.” She returns to the obscenity of zoos and “someone always tasting/ blood at the back of the throat,” but for a while the old story of the pre-lapsarian world is there before us in the circus ring.
In “Last Fall” she writes of cutting her teeth on language, another way of “tasting/ blood at the back of the throat,” and says, “I am/ tongue ticking with tricks and fraud.” Of course, as we acquire language, we learn new ways to hurt, to commit acts of barbarism, to fall, but the beauty of such a fall, what Brueghel recognized in the story of Icarus and what William Carlos Williams and W.H. Auden then saw in Brueghel, followed by Cook writing about all of them, is how beautiful we can make the fall look or sound.
Falling can be hard—goodbye to the childhood swing of innocence—but with “each word a mouthful/ of pale green wine,” Cook’s description of the kinds of falling, of the “graphic” faces of the fallen, carries the consolation of being described beautifully.