‘Staring at a Hoopoe’ David Cooke, reviewed.

Reviewed ByCarla Scarano

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David-Cooke-Staring-at-a-Hoopoe, reviewed

‘Staring at a Hoopoe’

By David Cooke

Published by, Dempsey and Windle 

ISBN 9781913329082, £10

Echoes of Eugenio Montale’s poetry ripple through David Cooke’s new collection. The hoopoe, ‘ilare uccello calunniato’ (merry slandered bird), with its long, curved beak and superb crest, is in the foreground on the cover page. Cooke’s poetry considers Montale’s perspective from his own point of view in a journey through his memories of life, which, as Kirkegaard suggested, ‘can only be understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards’. Montale’s profile is reproduced on the first page, just before this quotation. The drawing is from a famous photograph in which Montale is staring at a hoopoe. The picture refers to the well-known poem ‘Upupa, ilare uccello calunniato’ (‘Hoopoe, merry slandered bird’) from his first collection, Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones). 

Cooke’s collection has precise starting and ending points in the first and last poems that delineate the map of his journey. The journey remains imprecise in its acknowledgement of the risks that are implied in life. It is a fearful journey, a walk on a wire across the sky ‘from A to B … /between two buildings (‘Man on a Wire’). The only advice the poet can give to the reader is ‘So feel the fear and do it anyway’, which is repeated like a mantra in the first poem, ‘Feeling the Fear’.

Similarly to Montale, Cooke does not seem to find a final reason for or the aim of human life but only temporary relief in occasional revelations in the form of scattered memories that form compelling images throughout the collection and give readers a glimpse of possible solutions or a provisional exit by parachute into the void that surrounds us. The poet wanders about in search of a meaning that is never definite but remains transitory and fluid.

The poem that best reflects this view is ‘Staring at a Hoopoe’, which directly refers to Montale’s poem:

Caught in the moment,

there is no way of knowing

who might have blinked first –

the old man or his visitant,

the bright, crested

ambivalent bird. A few

scattered objects

implying a workspace,

the room is otherwise

unfocused beyond

the reciprocal stare

of two survivors.

The eyes of one are stoical,

but lit by a sense

that all is not determined.

The other’s are steeled,

impenetrable – the maligned

harbinger of spring

or a bird whose piping

mnemonic call

is like a final summons.

Cooke’s poem is unique in its ekphrastic engagement with the picture in which Montale and the bird stare at each other and, at the same time, his poem refers to crucial lines of Montale’s piece.

The hoopoe was notoriously slandered by some famous Latin and Italian poets. It was considered to be a bird of prey connected with ill omen. Since the time of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the hoopoe has been associated with the gory myth of the rape of Philomela in which her brother-in-law, the rapist Tereus, is transformed into a hoopoe that keeps chasing Philomela and her sister Procne. They are transformed into a nightingale and a swallow respectively. Ugo Foscolo describes the hoopoe as a ‘lugubre uccello notturno’ (gloomy night bird), and in the Old Testament it is considered unclean. In Montale’s work, the bird is ‘the maligned/harbinger of spring’, as Cooke clearly points out, in a fertile conversation between the animal and the poet, who are ‘two survivors’. They engage in a reciprocal observation in a state of suspension that signals a crucial moment in which Montale, and Cooke, finds temporary meaning in the void of the meaningless world. This is one of the main themes of Ossi di Seppia, and it is also present in the famous poem ‘I Limoni’ (Lemon Trees). It is the poet’s act of resistance against the ‘male di vivere’ (the ill of living) and forms an ephemeral moment of grace or of freedom from the alienating burden of life. 

Eventually, the hoopoe turns out to be a sort of messenger that conveys news of a ‘miracle’ that is not transcendent and is only an illusion. There is no divine reference behind it. The ‘miracle’ is finally ignored; it cannot happen and the unravelling future is unpredictable. Cooke subtly develops a similar view in ‘Staring at a Hoopoe’ via the ‘scattered objects’ and the ‘unfocused beyond’ and in the final lines of the poem. Echoes of this perspective are also present in other poems in the collection, such as ‘Two Rooms’, in which the artist observes the world from a threshold, and ‘Seville’, in which tasting a chilled gazpacho in a hot day is a ‘revelation’.

A sequence of poems on Gertrude Margaret Bell (1868–1926) is part of the collection and celebrates this brilliant Oxford-educated woman who spoke several languages and contributed to forming the state of Iraq while working for the British Empire. She was a successful, powerful woman whom Cooke seems to have chosen as an example of someone who demonstrated determination and commitment during a life that was risky and probably fearful at times but also rewarding.

Some of the poems in the collection have an interesting structure. They are composed of one or two sentences with short, sharp lines in a flow of enjambments that emphasises the rhythm and the sounds, skilfully merging content and form:

Her slow ascent

to the platform

effaces time – 

her flexing

grip on the rail,

the soft pad

of her step.

Reaching the edge

of the board,

she hesitates,

absorbing

its spring.

Heels raised,

arms stretched,

she senses

that this

is all that

she can know

of flight.

Her gaze

uplifted, 

her back arched

taut as a bow,

she breasts

the air,

craving its pull – 

a shift

in the elements

that may one day

release her.

(‘Swallow’)

The collection seems suspended in the void between an urge to commit to life, the awareness of its risks and the unpredictability of the future. The poet searches for a definite aim or meaning that is only temporarily attained in the experience of writing poetry, in ‘the warmth of a memory/released in a whisper of butterflies’ wings’.

Carla Scarano

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