Simon Patton reviews Homing by Shevaun Cooley

Shevaun Cooley, Homing. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781925336207

 

Simon Patton

 

In this unusual debut collection, Shevaun Cooley writes in both English and Animal. She is a curious watcher of the non-human world throughout the book, observing scavenging kangaroos, trying to save stranded false killer whales, listening to a horse as it ‘drags up thunder from the ground’, coming face to face in Wales with y llwynog (the fox), and flying with the kittiwakes ‘who call out their own names’. You could even say that she goes out of her way to make special contact, employing her skills as a mountain climber and occasional sailor to get as near as she can to non-human nature. Yet all the while, she keeps a close eye on herself, constantly wondering what her discoveries concerning these other creatures might tell her about herself.

She presents, indirectly, her notion of what a successful poem might look like in a piece inspired by Lucian Freud’s painting ‘Naked Man with Rat’. The tone is hushed: ‘You don’t move, but sense its trace, / so light and exquisite, at rest on your upper thigh.’ Cooley’s voice is a quiet one most of the time, but what she lacks in loudness she gains in subtlety. Many of her poems drift from one elusive association to the next, supplemented by soundplay, wordplay, etymology, scientific vocabulary, word-class shifts and, occasionally translation. She is also a refreshingly literary writer. She draws on the work of Welsh priest and poet R. S. Thomas, using lines from his verse as titles for every single poem in Homing. She also refers to Raymond Carver, Paul Celan, Hölderlin, Franz Kafka and Rilke, as well as the reclusive nature writers John Alec Baker and Annie Dillard. But for all her exquisiteness, she never forgets nature’s rapacious, menacing side — in fact, she feels drawn to it.

The opening section, with the daunting but geographically precise title of ‘34º24’13.6”S 115º11’43.9”E’, features poems with a mostly Australian setting. In ‘call your horizons in’, Cooley not only thinks with animals but with the sky and the sea and the sand:

Hard as an icon, the sky,

and almost as untouchable. In Flinders Bay,

the sea is only partway through its sweeping. A perigean tide

 

as high as you’ve ever seen begins now to ebb, an unseasonal creep

that draws away the white sand, leaves the dark

mineral glitter

 

of ilmenite. They say the grains

are faintly magnetic. Is that why you put your hands

to it? Get off your knees. They say the water is never warm like

 

this unless a current runs from the north, dragging the sea-

bed, unsettling whatever is used to sinking in.

That must be why you’re in it

 

to your ankles. When the white-

headed petrel lifts itself from the shore

you can watch it all you like, but it brings nothing

 

closer. If you could ride with it, would you gather in the end-

lessness, or wheel your hunting down to the silver

flash of a fin?

 

You’ve quickened

now to the blunt horizon. The seaweed

has a hayricked, iodine stink. Dead inkfish line the shore,

 

their Rorschach bodies a clue to what stops the pulse. I said get off

your knees. Let’s see what the petrel draws in

with its cry.

(13-14)

Instantly, we are plunged into the action by an incomplete sentence comparing the ‘hardness’ of the sky to an icon. This may strike you as unconvincing — as icons are generally painted on wood, the firmness implied here is really only that of timber. But this mild incongruity is typical of Cooley’s style and is meant to alert us to that fact that her topic is not primarily physical rigidity but spiritual difficulty. The enigmatic title therefore also contains an undertone of ‘orison’ or prayer.

The poem then moves us from heaven to Earth. Cooley loves the daunting technical term, and she throws in two here, perigean (from the noun ‘perigee’, meaning ‘that point in a planet’s [esp. moon’s] orbit at which it is nearest to earth’) and ilmenite (‘a mixed oxide mineral containing iron and titanium’). She uses the first, strikingly, to suggest that a parallel ‘unseasonal creep’ is moving through her own troubled psyche, and with the second, she can concretize this disturbance as a type of paradoxical dark matter that both glitters and exerts an irresistible attraction, like magnetism. At this point, she sinks to her knees instinctively, as the only way she can think of to deal with her predicament. At the same time, she is chided by the voice of normality, a second, less sensitive self, that insists on her getting up.

The poem then reverses from Earth back to sky with the appearance of the white-headed petrel. Cooley pays homage to Charles Baudelaire’s albatross — vastes oiseaux des mers — elsewhere, and demonstrates her affiliation with all sky-roving poet-seabirds in a number of poems. The petrel can bring no discrete object to the speaker; in its flight, however, it can evoke a sense of spacious emptiness or numinous no-thing-ness that, like the dark mineral glitter of the ilmenite, somehow lightens the experience of abject hardship. This illuminating turn is consolidated by a question (‘would you gather the endlessness, or wheel your hunting down to the silver / flash of a fin?’) to boost the momentum of the poem and to quicken it mercury-like against the ‘bluntness’ of the speaker’s private ordeal.

I think it would be fair to say that, at the heart of Homing, there lies a degree of tension between constructive and organic approaches to poetry. In a brief note, Cooley mentions that she found herself ‘writing poems in parts’ — particularly in cases where the poems relied ‘on creatures to carry them’. In ‘call your horizons in’, Cooley sets out to build a text through a marshalling of distinct details such as the icon-like sky, the learned reference to the perigean tide, the nagging voice that repeats ‘Get off your knees’ and so on. In this instance, the sea-setting of the poem effectively ‘naturalizes’ the separate elements, and renders the more intrusive poetic devices (such as the frequent use of the formula They say to insert explanatory material) less conspicuous. In other poems, however, the constructive dynamic is much more dominant, and results in texts that are built up bit by bit collage-fashion rather than organically in flows. The three poems of the middle section are all like this. Here are the opening lines from the first one, called ‘the true trade: to go with the grain’:

Cross the high meseta of central Spain in summer, and

you will see nothing

on either side but fields of wheat, the air’s dry grain.

 

Under open skies in France, there was a time to declare the wolf

is passing through, at waves of wind flattening the grain: they knew

 

what it means to be unsettled. “Paul Celan chews a word

like a stone,”

said Jean Daive. “All day long. It produces word-energy.”

He could see it pulse

 

in the muscles of Celan’s jaw. With enough pressure

even sand will turn to glass.

But even this begins with the simple matter of a few grains pressed

 

hard against each other. I wonder whether Sisyphus began to push

only a kernel of earth that grew as he rolled it uphill.

(45)

Content is generated through the clever unfolding of the various senses of the key-word ‘grain’ along with a fertile association of ideas. First, ‘grain’ is used in its cereal sense and is linked to Spanish wheat-fields, before hinting at the sense of texture in the menacing image of the ‘waves of wind flattening the grain’. Perhaps the association at this point between cereal and food helps provide a link to Celan and the anecdote about the poet chewing on words. Thereafter we come to the idea of pressure and glass, at which point ‘grain’ is used in its particle sense. From sand-particles Cooley makes the etymological jump to ‘kernel’, and from there we find ourselves contemplating Sisyphus and his terrible punishment. The ingenuity at work here is quite astonishing, but for me the whirl of polysemy and association is too contrived.

This is borne out in another poem in parts called ‘the line trembles; mostly, when we would reel in the catch, there is nothing to see’. It opens with a story about Sigmund Freud, who apparently once dissected four hundred eels in an effort to locate the gonads of the male of the species. The poem then touches on a personal anecdote involving Freudian slips of the tongue, the folk-belief that eels were born when a loose strand of hair from a horse’s tail fell into water, a part of the poem ‘L’anguilla’ by Eugenio Montale translated from the Italian, and instructions about how to skin one of the poor creatures. Here Cooley puts into practice the belief that her wild things have to be approached ‘from the side’ rather than directly. However, I would gladly do without all this dexterous jigsaw-puzzling for the following lines in which Cooley makes a more memorable and altogether more fluent kind of contact with her theme:

This is how the eel is made.

We take a ribbon of albumen,

and infuse it with clear Sargasso

blood. Translucent, at first,

then marred to a darker

skin, it drifts until it makes river-

fall, where we change the eyes to gold

and leave it to feed and fatten

on bugs and crayfish and old flesh

rotting the riverbed. Here it learns

it is lonely. Also how to slip the hook,

and tooth quietly at the mud.

(64-65)

This lyrical burst is, paradoxically, much more conservative in its use of poetic devices: for the most part, it relies on lucid, vibrant phrasing and flowing, eel-like rhythms, supplemented by a sure use of line-breaks, a touch of soundplay (‘marred/darker’) and some low-key alliteration. But, compared to the rest of the poem, which seems like a set of sober preparatory studies, there is a much stronger sense of the wild here, both in the language and its subject.

Many of the poems in the third and final section, ‘52º45’34.4”N 4º47’11.6”W’, are set in the Welsh countryside. Cooley is a lover of place-names, and relishes eye-catching examples such as Cnicht, Crib Goch, the Llynau Cŵm, Coed y Bleiddiau, Ynys Enlli, Dolgellau and Penrhyndeudrath, all of which excite on the page with their typographical word-energy. Wales is also a place that brings the writer closer to the untamed. The poem ‘in the hushed meadows the weasel’ is, for this collection, a surprisingly concentrated quasi-sonnet-like text dealing with one such encounter:

Turned away from the sea, tired of the shifting

blues. I’d like to know what else there is. Please.

The days stretch out but the light seems to be closing

off, a hand on the shutter. At midday in the field,

I saw the weasel. The air suppled by her eager

spine, and in her paws rose the dusky scent

 

of damp earth and dung, of blood, a seed long

embedded. She was nothing at all; less

than a reddish passing, some deadly surprise

that sinuates sometimes through each of us.

I think now I have waited my whole life to pass

through a field of white flowers and long grass —

 

like that, light as a murderer. To be the small fire

that bursts the earth into being beneath, then dies.

(57)

After the halting opening, which skilfully re-enacts the stultifying sadness of the speaker, suppleness returns to the diction with the appearance of the weasel and all that it stands for: life at its most essential, with more than a hint of precariousness and ‘deadly surprise’. Adjectives are relished (‘eager’, ‘dusky’), verbs grow distinctive — although ‘sinuates’ is a bit too poetical for my taste — and there is even some uncharacteristic end-rhyme. Cooley’s ‘field of white flowers and long grass’ is an emblem of all that life could mean, and the weasel that she evokes for us represents an intensity of being that we no longer find it easy to feel in ourselves. In other words, we can be brought back to life in these meetings.

All in all, her cast of elegant predators — petrels, whales, foxes, otters, egrets and ospreys — reminds her that life at its richest is always at the edge of things, and therefore fundamentally a kind of life-and-death at once, as inextricably connected as two swans she describes as ‘untouching and inseparate’ (76). Human beings, on the other hand, tend to cling with a kind of deadly greed to existence and are apt to kill in the most lifeless, degrading ways, exemplified by the description of eel-skinning already mentioned. Awareness of this tendency leads Cooley to a certain justifiable uneasiness with regard to the human. Like J. A. Baker — whom she quotes as saying ‘let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence’ (58) — she feels a palpable disgust at ‘our lasting stench’ (71). In a sense, Cooley’s concern with nature’s rapacious aspect seems at least partly motivated by her fear that what we think of as ‘normal’ human existence is tantamount to sanitised living death. Poetry as resurrection? It’s a tall order, but surely one worth attempting.

 

Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, cat, chickens, goldfish and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. Recent work has appeared in Cordite, Asia Literary Review, the Sydney Review of Books, and Plumwood Mountain journal.

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