The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2000)
Poetry of a higher order courts two kinds of difficulty. The first is formal, connected with the degrees of ellipsis, or leaving out, that a poem can sustain and still be subject to understanding. This sort has been long thought—wrongly—applicable to some early New York School poetry (and all language poetry) but is most rightly applied to poems with submerged narratives, poems whose effects are conspicuous even as their occasions are more or less invisible. The second sort of difficulty is encountered in poems registering deep struggles that by and by the poems come to embody as well. When this happens, such a poem becomes emblematic of the value (for the poem) and dignity (for the poet) that may accrue in the struggle for significance—even if insignificance is the result. The assumed “depth” implies hidden forces by which one may posit anything from God to history to psychic wrestling. The struggle takes place below the urge, and the resulting poem is both a description of the struggle and one of its forms. Its victories are not mere lyric victories: they may also be real gains. As a result, the poem collapses the contested ground between imagination and reality. It is therefore the kind of difficulty often associated with wonder, the flip side, you might say, of bafflement.
Jane Cooper’s poems are of the second, more metaphysical sort. The Flashboats: Poems Collected and Reclaimed maps 50 years of shrewd reflection and dogged engagement. While descending into fields of struggle may run counter to post-modernity’s infinite regressions, where no buck stops, Jane Cooper’s poems incorporate encounters. And that’s not all: they acknowledge the force of the question whether the lived world is a) atoms all the way down or b) may be conceived somehow free of the dictatorship of matter—as with history, God, traditions, Zeitgeists, or mindsets.
Cooper’s first poems are hyper-alert to historical context. As she puts it in a speech, “Poetry is a way of giving people more life, a more vivid awareness of the exact moment they are living through—first a sensuous [sic] awareness, then a historical one.” While it may be the province of the “I” to have experiences in the here and now, it is only part of a sequence, the end of which is judgment. While her early poems hash through the difficulties of relationships (a recurring theme), they never have to do so without keeping one eye on the times. The poet knows better than to give sexuality, friendship, domesticity, or the artist’s quandaries stand-alone billing. A World War II poem (“The Faithful”) suggests this inescapable doubling:
What if last night I was the one who lay dead
While the dead burned beside me
Trembling with passionate pity
At my blameless life and shaking its flamelike head
It is revealing to contrast Cooper’s response to the Second World War with the famous responses of her male poet colleagues, whose publishable psychic scars helped form a new personal discourse seemingly unavailable in the 1930s. Cooper’s reaction was an attempt to triangulate a different set of problems: non-participation, guilt, and responsibility. For instance, her feminism would be partly colored by the grim absorption of the war years and the idealistic aftermath when the Marshal Plan seemed, among other things, a metaphor for the American renewal of Euro-culture. Clustering around cultural centers herself—Vassar, New York, Princeton, Oxford—Cooper had imbibed the prevailing notion of a Noble Cause, a nostalgia not uncommon for a girl reared in the South, but now sanctified with the halo of Einstein’s hair. In “After the Bomb Tests,” scientific saintliness becomes the object of artistic query, just as the scientist’s object (or fetish)—the atom—has become a source of study and means to a higher end. Here, with Kepler standing in for Einstein, the crossover between artistic and scientific inquiry suggests that their opposing alchemies are often complicit in their desire for power:
The atom bellies like a cauliflower
Expands, expands, shoots up again, expands
Into ecclesiastical curves and towers
We pray to with our cupped and empty hands.
Could one harmony hold
The sum of private freedom like a cup?
Kepler, curious, rose
Started to cross himself—then like a lover
Or virgin artist gave himself to his power.
As The Flashboat makes plain, running parallel with the poet’s attempts to come to grips with history are her attempts to measure private trials—the disillusionments at ten o’clock, in Stevens’s phrase. These include not only the artist’s dilemma between work and private life, but also the prior matter of health (Cooper has all her life suffered from a reduced immune system):
My body knows it will never have children
What can I say to my body now, this used violin?
Every night it cries out strenuously from its secret cave.
Not only the body’s pilgrimage but also its rhetorical representation becomes an issue. Cooper speaks of an artistic affinity for theme-and-variation approaches to writing about experience, and over time these have acquired sufficient irony to pack, in their turn, abundant cautions when needed to constrain occasional excesses:
Yes, I’m the lady he wrote the sonnets to.
I can tell you how it was
And where the books lie, biographies and his
Famous later versions now collected
In one volume for lovers. (You
Can never really analyze his method
If you only read those.)
(“Long View From the Suburbs”)
By mid-career Cooper had made the cartographer’s sense of intelligible distortions a part of her own artistic awareness. Accuracy is not the only compliment fidelity pays to art: Mercator’s projections make coordinates too, although they occur in no existential realms other than ones we may be said to imagine. In Cooper’s rhetoric, the distance between what was necessary to endure then, as opposed to now, is equivalent to the difference between Mercator’s gigantic Greenland and the much more modest island offered by Planet Earth. Therefore, because perspectives vary, the possibility of human acknowledgment-across-time (and its emanation, forgiveness) looms large. In one of several pieces devoted to the modalities and endurance of disability, benediction becomes benefaction in lines that recall Whitman:
Mercy on Maryanne who through a hole beneath her collarbone drinks the life-preserving fluid,
while in her arm
another IV tube drips something green. “It never affects me,” she says,
She has Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis and now osteoporosis, as well as no gamma goblin,
as we all have no gamma globulin, or at least not enough. Mercy on Aaron,
her son, who at fifteen has Hodgkins and arthritis and no gamma globulin, who is
out of school
just for the moment. “He’s so bright,” the doctor says, “He’ll make it up.”
But of course you never (As I remember) quite make it up.
(“The Infusion Room”)
The world mapped by desire is also a world where distinctions between safety and participation do not arise. But witness—the taking-in—replaces projection—the thrusting out; not surprisingly, the poet comes to question the tools of her art, as in “A Room with Picassos”:
I can stand and stand
In front of canvas and artistic paraphernalia
But nothing there will answer me with pride:
I am the exact shade of shame and desire.
Your justification in the face of his
Simple indifference to simple fire.
I am the offering which always moves
Anyone, no matter how far away he is from love.
Cooper is admirable in the degree to which she accepts resistance of people and things to reductive meanings, even when these might only provide gentle rubrics and consolations. Unconsoled, she can say, as in the speak of “My friend” , “But I don’t know, she broke off,/ whether I’m making myself clear…” The hesitation here clears more ground than a legion of necessary fictions. it is not clear, in one of several poems involving historical personages (Emily Dickinson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willa Cather) what led Rosa Luxemburg to extol, on the one hand, the glories of war, and on the other to tender beauties of the natural world. But these contraries stand for the poet’s capacity to accept the spectrum that begins with mere inconsistencies and ends with solid contradictions as saying something worthwhile about the world:
It’s no use telling myself I am not responsible for all the hungry little larks
in the world. Logic does not help
Never mind, we shall live…shall live
through grand events
Thus passing out of my cell in all directions
are fine threads connecting me
with thousands of birds and beasts
(“Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison”)
The poet knows that often contradiction favors truth more closely than logic, and this knowledge situates her poems with a familiarity among paradoxes that the mind rejects, although the body never stops squirming through their medium.
Beyond these frank and wise poems of acknowledgment—poems one feels the result of infinite winnowing—she has chosen to include several prose narratives, the last of which is a memoir of, and meditation on, a serious childhood illness. Here is a world where contingency, like original sin, preconditions all subsequent states and consciousness. But what kind of mooring is contingency when we must both set out from it and abide by it? Cooper’s poems—trusty, spare, hopeful, yet beautifully deflationary—log the rigor of this ultimate paradox.
David Rigsbee is the author of the forthcoming The Dissolving Island, a book of poems (BkMk Press), and coeditor of the forthcoming Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry (Virginia).