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Opera by Stuart Cooke
Five Islands Press, 2016.
ISBN 9780734052902
Caitlin Maling reviews


by Stuart Cooke

Stuart Cooke ends his second collection Opera, with a list acknowledging specific 'places as integral to the poems' (87). These poems he states were written by a compositional process involving 'following, and responding to, the creative suggestions of … surroundings' (87). Threaded throughout the collection are photos of these places, highlighting the limitations of the purely linguistic and establishing another layer of collage, the primary mode by which Opera works. Opera opens in Sydney with the title poem and travels, circuitously, out from it. It begins with return:

After each voyage has crumbled into ephemera,

I return to the house

and its quay, I circle the edge ...

('Opera', 9)

and ends with a similar push-pull, between urges to leave and to stay:
it’s the time towards which

we tumble inexorably,

away from which we surge, searching.

('Opera', 10)

This is one of many poems in the book using this type of propulsive linguistic fragmentation, where each line follows the next at imprecise angles guided as much by sound as by semantics.

Opera could be enjoyed purely for it’s own linguistic virtuosity; however, as Cooke is one our more exciting writers on poetry, it is worthwhile considering his poetry in light of his own critical aims. Particularly relevant (and cited by Pierre Joris in his blurb for Opera) is the concept of a ‘nomadic poetics’. In a 2011 article, 'Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling' Cooke uses the nomadology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari to develop an ecopoetics that emphasises movement between places as a way of stressing the myriad connections between places:

a nomadic poetics of Australian places, or a light‐footed travel across them, with an ever‐present readiness to move on should certain situations demand our departure, can offer some promising alternatives for the ways in which we relate to, write about and manage contested and climactically variable locales (230).

This is proposed as an alternative to a settler Australian, or wider western, poetics which values dwelling, localism or a connection of a particular individual to a specific place. He quotes Deleuze and Guattari that 'the life of the nomad is the intermezzo', so the title of Opera morphs again alluding to this middle space of nomads .

It is fitting then, that the poems in Opera travel between places—mostly Chile and Australia—and between languages, Spanish and English. In 'Drift', translation and movement link language to site:

Stride is true                          country           wollemis

wollemis arrested                 abstractly       stride

during a date’s different      descents         descend

and the plight of a                cerro               cerrados

Becoming Hispanic or

sucking a tune’s blushing

i.e. stride was native

… peninsular                 en un peninsular’s thumb                        gordo ground                       rojo

('Drift', 42–43)

The shifts between place and language are collagic, layered so one does not supplant the other but grows over and around it like a layer of bark. This is not a simple, and potentially clichéd, metaphor of trees but one that seems particularly relevant to what Cooke is attempting in 'Drift'. In an article in Meanjin examining the various intersections between Chile and Australia through the primary lens of the genus Araucaria, Cooke threads through questions of poetics or 'the problem of form, and who sees it … when is a line no longer a line, but the leaning trunk of a tree, of a pine?' ('Echoes of Gondwana'). In 'Drift' the spread of the Araucaria is connected to shifts in language, the columnar structure of the poem guided by tree trunks, land masses, but also footsteps, striding.

Cooke’s interest in translation and transcultural poetics is paired with this sense of the nomadic in poems stemming from his work with Indigenous Australian and Chilean poets. In his work on the Mapuche poet Leonel Lienlaf, Cooke links Mapuche oral songpoetry to Stephen Muecke’s reflections on Aboriginal songpoetry, stating that both have a

prominent sense…. that the stanzas could be repeated, like the stanzas of a song, in order for the white space to be more properly filled ('What’s an Ecologically Sensitive Poetics', 96).

This lends itself to the plurality of voices that characterises song poetry, the poem continuing like a song in the round. As Cooke notes on the nulu songs sung by Nyikina man Butcher Joe Nangan in 'Orpheus in the New World', the 'emphasis on any particular subject’s response to the world is in turn dispersed across multiple subjectivities. … A new emphasis might be found on the exchange between bodies, on the tracking, rather than on a particular body' (145). Cooke’s aim for a nomadic poetics becomes an aim for a decolonised ecopoetics, one that emphasises communality.

'Song of the Possible' draws off both traditions of oral song poetry, offering a song of Sydney that through extensive repetition and patterning seems like it could continue beyond the frame of the page and poem:

He might fish from a jetty the size of a thumb, apricot and ebony smeared across the waves’ slick backs

the long waves rolling in from far off

long snakes rolling one after the other


long black snakes rolling in to shore

black snakes rolling over pavements


their inky lines over pavements

the inky lines on their parchment ...

('Song of the Possible', 11)

As a song of Sydney, this is an urban song despite images of fishing and ocean. Cooke has written of Val Plumwood’s concept of 'shadow places' which 'provide our material and ecological support, most of which, in a global market are likely to elude our knowledge and responsibility' ('Echo-Coherence', 236). In 'Song of the Possible' the images of snakes, so resonant in Indigenous cosmology, are fused with these shadow places of industry so we encounter 'the quietly moving coal serpents', 'their husky voices of diesel and desert', 'their diesel mouths assembling at the sailing house' ('Song of the Possible', 11). It’s curious to encounter industry through the lens of lyrical song. These shadow places of refuse and waste reappear throughout Opera, reminders that there is no such thing as a pristine ecology, as in 'Double Shudder' where:

Despite their buildings’ calcified retinas, despite the torrents del concreto buckling with refuse, today the sea spins the same line: suck my fat sun, gobbling down celestial

('Double Shudder', 29).

Sometimes these shadow places are purely human environments. Cooke’s more satirical poems such as 'stratosphere song' and 'An American Family Plays Frisbee at the Beach while on Holiday in Chile' (after Pablo de Rokha), are interested in unpacking how people interact with constructed, colonised, environments. 'stratosphere song' takes us to Las Vegas:

women verging

on  pretty what we lose

focus: what we lose thrives

on waste capital piles

up / hotels spanking roads

the hoary tolls aching

for credit capital p

('stratosphere song', 24)

Here the tight hard alliterative lines jangle like coins spilling from the mouth of a slot machine. 'An American Family Plays Frisbee at the Beach while on Holiday in Chile' has a similar rhythm but a very different form, relying on repetition and typographic effects to create a sense of claustrophic irony out of an average tourist situation:

Americans at THE beach, Americans playing frisbee, adolescent Americans chasing Frisbees thrown by their parents, good, Christian AMERICANS, family Americans, communicating well, relishing exercise, chasing THINGS

('An American Family Plays Frisbee at the Beach while on Holiday in Chile', 23)

In these two poems alone, we see an example of how wide ranging Cooke’s formal eco-aesthetic is. In Opera poems shift between those such as 'Opera' which tend towards a more lyrical mode, to those such as 'Lurujarri: a poem by foot' (discussed below) which are formally experimental.

Despite—or perhaps because of—an emphasis on movement, and the wide success of Cooke’s translations of his poetic theory into poetic action, some of the poems which stick in the mind are the ones where the singular poetic subject is stationary and perceptible as more than a shadow among the shadows of trees. 'An Overcast Day in Another Part of the World' is a study in homesickness, with all the particularity that the word home carries, 'perhaps the things I miss the most: // laps at Clovelly on warm afternoons; decent / Chinese food; the sport on TV …' (61). And in 'Particle', part of the longer 'Cantos de despedida' (Songs of Farewell) sequence, elliptical statements of landscape: the shapes / of the syntheses / emerge from air’s wriggling, / chopping beam’ are paired with lines to a lost beloved: 'just this being towards / here without you’, ‘I could never hone in on the simple like you’, ‘You looked at things as if they were letting you be' (78). Here we glimpse the individual absent from the majority of Opera which eschews the lyrical ‘I’ for more collective voices.

There is a sense across the collection, of each poem, each word having been weighed in what is could be called a poethical way. Here I refer to Joan Retallack writing that, among other things, poethical is 'approaching what is radically unknowable prior to the poetic project, acting in an interrogative mode that attempts to invite extra-textual experience into the poetics somehow on its terms, terms other than those dictated by egoistic desires. ... The poet as persona is largely absent from the poem while the investigative passion of the poet informs every syllable' (39). The pieces of individual subjectivity offered in Opera are embedded deeply into cacophony of place, animal, plant, and person. Words like mesh and web are overused and imprecise in ecological criticism, and do not conjure the type of embeddedness that Cooke offers. His is not a holism, instead as in 'Lurujarri: a poem by foot', the most experimentally ambitious sequence in Opera, we are only shown some connections

we’re scattered by accident

/                   /                  \   /        \

tent         <         >                  (sight)   <cuckool>

/                       \             /

\                       cushing — hot totem

— tell me                /               /                            /

\                    /        granular — bloodwood hum

('Lurujarri: a poem by foot (sixth)', 51)

Here like a torch moving across the wires of a substation in darkness, we see only some things but are aware that, even if it is beyond our sight or knowledge, what we can see must be connected to what we can’t.  And that beyond that lie necessary dark spaces.

Often a poet, even a great one, fails to live up to his own criticism, sometimes like Coleridge falling out of love with writing poetry because of it.  One suspects that Cooke does not aim to be a ‘capital-G’ Great poet, that such an aim would be outside of the communal ecological ethos his criticism, and poetry, seeks. The question then becomes how does Cooke succeed, not in rising above as a singular poetic voice but in threading linguistically among the multi-faceted ways place connects to person connects to other-than-human connects to place. Success, again, is perhaps the wrong word for the accomplishments of Opera. In Opera parts of the world appear, and as readers we are placed amongst them as Cooke’s music teaches us how we might sing and move as one of a chorus.

Stuart Cooke. Opera. Parkville, Vic: Five Islands Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780734052902

Works cited

Cooke, Stuart. Opera. Five Islands Press, 2016.

— ‘Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling.’ Cultural Studies Review, 17, 1, 2011, pp. 230-46.

— ‘Echoes of Gondwana’, Meanjin (Autumn 2016), online,

— ‘What’s an Ecologically Sensitive Poetics? Song, Breath and Ecology in Southern Chile.’ AJE: Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, 3, 2013.14, pp. 92-102.

— ‘Orpheus in the New World: Poetry and Landscape in Australia and Chile.’ Antipodes, 24, 2, 2010, pp. 143-150.

Retallack, Joan. ‘What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It.’ Jacket, 32, 2007.

Published: September 2023
Caitlin Maling

is a WA poet with two collections out through Fremantle Press, the most recent of which, Border Crossing, was published earlier this year. Her first collection Conversations I’ve Never Had, was shortlisted in the WA Premier Awards and for the Dame Mary Gilmore Award. Individual poems from these collections have won the Val Vallis Award and been shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Judith Wright Prize. She divides her time between Fremantle, Sydney and Cervantes.

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