David Cooke’s Reel To Reel – Reviewed.

Memories recollected in tranquillity is the golden thread interweaving in David Cooke’s last collection. The reel-to-reel metaphor effectively expresses the connection existing between life events in a variegated continuity that has inevitably shaped the poet’s personality. It is a revisitation of his past through music, literature, trips to France and different work experiences in the fishing environment of Grimsby where he lived for thirty years. The picture he gives is multi-faceted, rich in humour and profound, unexpected sides.

The collection is divided into three sections that chronologically retrace the author’s life from childhood to adulthood evoking important images and familiar figures that significantly reveal his self retrospectively. It is a movement from past to present and back to the past, in a ‘[f]ree falling into the past’, like in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, that withstands the present and is projected into a dependable future.

The poet’s Irish roots are explored in poems such as ‘The Wren Boy’, when, on Stephen’s Day, children went around with a wren in a cage asking for money in exchange of a joke or a song:

Shock-headed, crowd-pleasing,

I might have been one of their own,

giving them back The Irish Rover,

The Woman from Wexford Town.

… At each house

we stopped I gave them my party piece,

while across the buttons and keys

perished fingers danced

like spiders on warm stones.

(‘The Wren Boy’)

The apparently simple memory is seen from a kaleidoscopic eye that gives the poem the quality of an epiphany revealing an important moment in the poet’s life.

Playing and reading are two other formative activities that shaped his character.  Brooke Bond tea cards are humorously evoked as a source of knowledge ‘before Wikipedia … in a week by week drip feed/of bet-you-didn’t-know-that facts’, then exchanged in the playground trying to get the rarest ones. It is a vintage world of ‘the game of Chariots’ imitating Ben Hur, a world observed with a clear unindulged gaze. 

His first grown-up readings unexpectedly mix romance novels found in his mother’s bookshelf with the lives of the saints, ‘a set of five thumping tomes with green boards/and gilt titles’ his mother bought:

Fulgentius, ‘shining one’, Chrysostom,

‘the golden-mouthed’, were not the names of souls

who yielded. Accepting the final cut,

Eulalia’s neck was like a fountain

from which, unabashed, a white dove fluttered.

(‘Lives of the Saints’)

The iconographic texture is vividly rendered by the imagery that shows the poet’s catholic background in its richness and understated acknowledged presence.

Some poems stand out in the second section, such as ‘The Grimsby Chums’, ‘Drink’, ‘Braider’ and ‘The Shipping Forecast’ for the mesmerising characteristic of their lines where alliterations, rhymes and precise descriptions merge and work in unison involving the reader in the scene created by the poem:

He has a way with a pint that hints
at who he is. It starts as the ale is drawn,
his eyes moving from the barmaid’s chest

to her grip on the polished wood
of the pump. Along the tilted side
of the glass, the liquid rises

as if spelling danger, or re-establishing
an equilibrium, while the over-lively froth
gushes forth like loose talk

before it drains into the slops;

 (‘Drink’)

When the seas
have emptied
she will make a net

that serves no purpose.
As ornamental
as a tapestry,

it will speak
of the days she’s spent
stooped and aching.

(‘Braider’)

The poet holds on to details that acquire a surreal feature filtered by memory and conveyed in precisely chosen words.

‘Washing’ describes a fisher coming back home from an unusual original angle. The wife has to wash his equipment in a few days when there were no washing machines or tumble dryers:

And when you’ve sluiced
and sluiced the grease suds away,
lift the dripping weight of wool
that you will wring to dankness
and then force down
a mangle’s tight-lipped throat.

If weather’s bad, God help us!
as once again you pray for days
of providential breezes – 
for though he never says,
you know he’ll love that freshness:
its pliant warm, its laundered smell.

(‘Washing’)

The domestic humble act gains a mythical space that surges from the quotidian to the exemplary emphasising renewed human relationships.

Paris and music merge in the poet’s young years mixing hints of rebellion with the discovery of Sartre, Beckett and Stendhal. Jazz music leads the way with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, George Benson and vinyl records from the African-American record label Tamla Motown. Their songs mark important moments of the poet’s life, such as the year he got married and was listening to George Benson’s Breezin’. Passionate with jazz and in spite of the mortgage rates rising, and the new family growing, he bought ‘bargain records/by Mingus, Miles and Monk’, testifying his inextinguishable interests and curiosity.

The final poems reveal a settled life ‘as Grandma/and Grandpa’, with ‘a neat list of dos and don’ts’ (‘In Loco Parentis’). However, there is no ending to his inner discovery in an attempt to make sense of the ‘[l]oose ends and carelessness’ of everyday life. It is a renewed way of breathing that pervades the poet’s mature years:

I am learning to breathe again;

and how to breathe more deeply,

when each breath has a movement

and each movement a name – 

(‘Tai Chi’)

The poet concludes his journey with a positive vision of the self through a disenchanted, insightful and at times humorous reconstruction of his past. This is marked by a never ending curiosity that leads him to a rediscovery of the self in new shapes and colours.

Read David Cooke in Poetry Ireland

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