Rose Cook’s Sightings reviewed by David Cooke
Sightings by Rose Cook. £4. Hen Run (Grey Hen Press). ISBN: 978-1999690304
The title of Rose Cook’s new chapbook, Sightings, reminds one of Seamus Heaney’s 1991 masterpiece, Seeing Things, and, in particular, its long visionary sequence, ‘Squarings’. Moreover, the fact that Cook’s collection concludes with ‘Brigid’s Day’, a brief elegy for the Irish poet, suggests that any similarity may not be unintended. On closer inspection, one does detect an affinity between the work of these two poets and perhaps also that of Charles Tomlinson, whose first great collection was Seeing is Believing. However, to draw such comparisons is in no way to suggest that there is anything derivative about the poetry of Rose Cook or to diminish the brilliance of her epiphanies. Far from it, for Cook is a poet who can hold her own in the best of company and one whose unique way with words enables the reader to see the world in a new light.
In this regard, her title poem is exemplary and might be taken as a kind of poetic manifesto. It consists of seven irregular stanzas, each of which has the numinous clarity of a haiku:
Saw the whale flex its muscular back against blue water,
not far out, the shiver of a god.
Beyond the almost scientific precision of these lines I particularly relish her use of the word ‘shiver’ which, although attached grammatically to the whale, seems nonetheless to take on a subjective resonance. Each of the subsequent stanzas encapsulates perfectly, and with minimum fuss, a precise moment in time, culminating in the final couplet which has an imagistic precision:
Saw a line of washing tied high above a street,
several white sheets and a single red shirt.
In ‘While the Sun Shone Down’, which is brief enough to be quoted in its entirety, she shows how much can be achieved in a few lines with such seemingly effortless ease:
The black dog with a good-natured expression
ran the whole length of the strand. She had seen
a group of students arrive with measuring equipment
and wanted to check them out.
After receiving greetings and warm strokes
the black dog ran the length of the beach back to her owner,
running along the edge of the sea and smiling all the way.
What is delightful here is not merely the poem’s matter-of-fact anthropomorphism but the way in which the dog’s loping gait is captured by the leisurely syntax of the poem’s final line. In ‘Days of the Whale’ the poet focuses, with a hint of unease, on a less quotidian event, for the whale is a ‘big, blue, endangered creature / wild and deep as a dream.’ In ‘A Whale in My Window’ she hints at an underlying unity beneath the surface of things: ‘When you speed up the song / of a humpback whale / it sounds like birdsong.’ Elsewhere, as in ‘Moorhen’, her gaze is not drawn toward unwonted events but to those we might so easily miss:
Now they are in the nest together, adding material.
Once the reeds grow,
no one will notice their nest.
Cook’s tone is frequently, and commendably, understated. The opening line of ‘Watching them Dive’ could hardly be more casual: ‘The first thing that attracts me is the glide’. However, its concluding couplet has an epic simplicity that takes us back to the Anglo-Saxons:
At dusk, a cormorant flies home,
black, heavy outline against dark sea.
Moreover, where Cook does indulge in metaphor it is always to the point and memorable. In the same poem tern are compared to ‘a cotillion of tumbling snowflakes’. In ‘A Hover of Crows, A Muster, A Parcel’, light bouncing off the backs of crows makes them ‘bright as Lord Krishna’s hair.’
Like Jane Kenyon or Kerry Hardie , Cook has that rare ability to get to the heart things in a few lines, but she also writes poems in which she allows herself more scope. ‘The Language of Birds’ opens with a visionary stanza:
I dream I can talk with birds.
The conversation of birds is the green language
of angels, language of light, of Wing Makers,
Star people, who talk in whistle language to reach through.
Let me learn the nightingale speech.
A few stanzas later it comes home to roost in childhood memories: ‘Baby’s first word was bird. She said burb, / pointing at the sparrows outside.’ ‘How to Build a Wall’, appropriately enough, is composed in six quatrains. It’s a poem which, like Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’, has a metaphorical potential that it is more than the sum of its parts. It also has a Heaneyesque relish in the technical vocabulary associated with a traditional craft:
Begin again, forage for second lift.
Build then with company and a good heart,
place in more heartings with tumble and lustre,
brought for stability to friendship or wall.
Finally, lest one is left with the impression that Cook is merely a dispassionate observer of the natural world, there are poems here informed by more obviously human concerns. ‘Passiegata’ was written after the death of a friend. ‘Bloodlines’ is an affectionate portrayal of a grandmother which hints nonetheless at family tensions: ‘She brought iced buns, endured my mother’s / lukewarm welcome … ‘Conversation’ is a cunningly constructed poem in which an awkward conversation is set against the backdrop of some badly played music. These days there are many voices clamouring for our attention. It is to be hoped, however, that Rose Cook’s quietly elegant and beautifully observed poems will gain the discerning readership they so clearly deserve.