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Book Reviews

Way Out West reviewed by Vermont News & Media

Look at the straight lines of a Mark Rothko painting or the splatterings of Jackson Pollack, and you know that this art won't expect you to linger on the lush folds of a garment as you might in a Rembrandt. If you see "Waiting for Godot" and you criticize it for not being "realistic" or not depicting characters with psychological depth, you're missing the point: the play deliberately upends those expectations. Halifax writer Wyn Cooper's new novel — his first — "Way Out West," too, upends expectations, guiding us to read it not as a simple, straightforward narrative, but rather as narratives juxtaposed against each other. True, there is roughly a chronology — a plot. Tyler is out west working as a lighting technician for a movie.


He flees the set. Meanwhile, Robin, a beautiful woman of wealth and addiction, has plunked herself down in Baker, Nevada. She goes out for a drive and bumps into Tyler. We surmise they will become a couple, but a kaleidoscope of unpredictable events unfolds, worthy of David Lynch or Hunter S. Thompson. Surprise — the producer pulls up in his impressive car and makes Tyler the director of the movie. An assortment of characters populates this desert landscape: Lou, a recently released nuclear testing employee who is convinced the government is ready to start secret nuclear tests above ground; his wife Sandy who is unhappy with Lou's investigations; Jim, who drives a 240 Z with a stash of drugs; and Sonny, a bartender with a lust for Robin and overdeveloped FOMO.


The book is set in 1983-84. For much of the novel, I thought Cooper wanted to sidestep the inconvenience of cell phones and internet: people can find out too much too quickly in contemporary novels. Only toward the end of the book does the timeframe really resonate. Further, without giving away too much, most of the book seems oddly out of time, but the end clicks into the conspiracy-permeated present. (I have subsequently learned that Cooper originally wrote the novel years ago. The novel's ending then may not have been planned, but prescient.)


"Way Out West" has some wonderful passages of writing, befitting a writer of five collections of poetry. In the first chapter (titled "Fire and Ice," recalling Robert Frost's apocalyptical poem), Tyler's "breath is a mix of granola, gin and fear." This whole first chapter is an existential tour de force: isolated man, climbing desert terrain, running from something (we don't know what exactly) toward the mountaintop, mind abuzz with the detritus of 20th-century living. Later, Robin is characterized by this passage: "all dressed up, isn't there somewhere to go? But she's already gone, and this is where she went." After listing various nuclear test sites, Cooper writes, "No Public Access, it says on the map, which blocks them in with dotted lines, as if they were meant to be cut out. We may have to yet: there's mustard gas in these hills, put there because it's nowhere, because it doesn't look like our planet."


At this point, friends and fans of Wyn Cooper, please kindly skip to the next paragraph (because he and they are probably tired of this story). In 1984 in Utah, Cooper wrote a poem called "Fun," collected in a book of poetry published in 1987. Of the 500 copies of the book, one turned up in a used bookstore in Pasadena, California, where it was picked up by two men working with Sheryl Crow, who right at that moment was stuck on a song, having lyrics that weren't quite right. She tried Cooper's poetry, added a line about the sun coming up over Santa Monica Boulevard, and, months later, unexpectedly, Cooper's work hit the zeitgeist with force.


That odd, unlikely sequence of events tied to "Fun" parallels the logic of this book (and maybe all of our lives?). A woman wanders into the bedroom where she used to live and at that moment, well, something unusual is happening. (And that's not the only intrusion of people into private spaces in this book.) Another woman happens to take a drive, happens to get distracted, and just at that moment her life is changed. Two deaths occur in the book: natural, or not? Can we know for sure? Serendipity plays a bigger role than our egos might give it. (But, a human hand, a wizard behind the curtain, may pull some levers. Can we know?)


Cooper's first novel is a bold experiment, daring readers to upend expectations and venture off into the desert with him. Although Cooper is your guide, you'll be on a solo trek through a blasted landscape. With imagination and a willingness to laugh in the face of adversity, who knows what you will discover?


--Gordon Dossett

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Way Out West reviewed in On the Seawall

Wyn Cooper, the author of five books of poetry, editor and songwriter, turns his hand to fiction for the first time with the short novel Way Out West. His writing races and leaps along like a hybrid of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, with crisp and entertaining dialogue, minimal exposition, and enough bon mots and pithy insights to fill a devil's dictionary.


Way Out West is 'way out' in the sense of pushing toward extremes. The novel was born out West when the author was a thirty-year old Ph.D. lit program drop-out. Cooper recently revised its 162 pages, originally set down at breakneck speed, or so one surmises from this roller-coaster ride. The tale opens from the point of view of a purposeful drunk, Tyler Dutton, who scales a frozen mountain near nightfall, only to lose his grip (which mentally seems shaky already) and tumble all the way down to — a highway! With his acquired stuntman skills (he is in Nevada working on a movie), he bounces off the hood of the truck of a devastatingly cool and beautiful woman. Talk about meeting cute. It's pretty much lust-turning-to-love at first sight, and so what if Robin turns out to be self-healing from substance abuse and other issues equal to or worse than his own. Booze and drugs understand each other. In this case, for the good — she's been clean for a year though aching for her enemy every day, especially at a certain blue hour. Tyler learns that being in love and striving to charm the girl work better than Naltrexone for keeping mostly sober. Not to give away too much of the plot.


But what plot, exactly? There's no lack of intriguing elements, including possible super-secret government bomb tests (we're in the cold war Reagan years) and mysteries surrounding the yet-to-be-named movie. There's the sudden death of the director, whom Tyler is improbably tapped to replace, and a weird uninhabited futuristic city built in the desert, Arcosanto, reminiscent of American artist Michael Heiser's City, a monumental sculpture formed of earthen mounds, geoglyphs and concrete pyramids deep in the Nevada desert that took more than 50 years to construct.


One begins to track the connection between these elements, though for the first part of the book they are as hard to pin down as a desert sidewinder. No matter. My occasional confusion didn't keep me from turning these pages with pleasure. Way Out West has all of these virtues while reveling here and there in improbabilities. (See that opening encounter.) The story itself, scene by scene, is cinematic (wait! Is this book the actual missing movie script!?) and mostly set in cars — we drive in and out of Arizona, Nevada and Utah in a few short weeks — and bedrooms and barrooms. In the end and for all its zaniness, Way Out West documents the struggle of two people grappling with their own demons so that they can confront the larger demon taking shape in front of them: a government conspiracy.


Perhaps you know that Cooper wrote the lyrics for Sheryl Crow's indelible 1993 hit, All I Wanna Do. It is sung by a girl sitting in a bar with shades drawn against the light, talking though not too much to the dude beside her, sneering at the bourgies outside doing their daylight rituals. Way Out West is drenched in this same louche atmosphere, served up sometimes by Sonny, a loser bartender with an attitude — "I been pissed on all my life" — who, near the book's end, has a gun and means to use it: "His invisibility, his perceived insignificance, make him perfect for the job. He doesn't yet know that he's somebody."


One of the book's most endearing characters is Sonny, full of desires and self-doubt, oppressed by an obese lesbian mother, while Tyler and Robin, the two leads — I think of them in that cinematic way — seem more from central casting with their tough tenderness, snappy quips and sexy romps. I'd have liked more particulars about the bad things they did or had done to them in their pasts, alluded to but never stated, perhaps on the horror movie principle that a monster in the fog is scarier than one you can see clearly. Or maybe they are streamlined in order to keep Way Out West barreling along in the present toward the future, all recorded by a camera on a crane or an eye in the sky.


I'll leave you with a taste of the pithiness mentioned above at the outset:


On an actress, flirting: "It's as if she's trying to find the one he wants, but he begins to believe that the one he wants is lost in the shuffle she puts herself through daily, trying to please the men behind the cameras … They're always there, even when she walks down a street in another country, alone, their eyes follow her movements."


After meeting the — perhaps — love of the hero's life: "He knew she was a city girl when she lifted him into the truck last night, one hand on his crotch."


Later in their romance: "When he asked her if she got lonely living here, she said she'd always been lonely, but it was easier here because at least she got to be lonely alone … She saw the look on his face and said, Don't worry, if I get too lonely I'll get a horse."


"The hall is too quiet, like all hotel hallways."


"If you learn too much and don't feel enough, you become a cold fish. If you feel too much and don't learn enough, you die." Montaigne might have given Cooper a high-five for that one.


--Kai Maristed

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Mars Poetica reviewed in Diode

An (Un)common Life: Wyn Cooper's Mars Poetica
Mars Poetica
by Wyn Cooper
White Pine Press, 2018

Reviewed by Virginia Konchan


"Be careful what you believe," Wyn Cooper's poem "Belief" begins. "Men on the moon, gravity." This understated, graceful, and hypnotic collection, Mars Poetica (Cooper's fifth), everywhere issues, through various means both rhythmic and incantatory, this same warning: use language with reverence and caution, for it is our only known stronghold in reality. Death, in this collection, figures as the only known finality, the country from which no traveler returns. But in this poet's hands, this is not so much a cause for grief, as it is celebration, considering, as he does, our participation in the earth's mysteries: foremost, the mystery of witnessing.

Cooper's estimable powers of witness are on display throughout: he tracks the imperceptible shifts between matter and spirit, temporality and eternity, longing and loss, with candor and brevity, and the results are often breathtaking. Take "Harvest Moon": "Harvest moon rises as I fall/ from grace, two stories down/ from the roof I built of pine/ and oak, pining for you now/ as I lie on the ground looking up/ at birds I mistake for planes…I hear their calls from here below,/ try to compose an imitation." This trope of call and response, as well as the position of the speaker as below, with the birds positioned skyward, resounds through the collection, which is as much an investigation of life here versus life "elsewhere" (Mars, outer space, the moon) as it is about the efforts to establish a connection between the two. Cooper captures the moments when language fails with uncanny precision, noting how sometimes "similes go astray,/ strut down avenues of glory/ unaware of their uselessness,/ trapped in a decade long gone."

But this is not a world of planned obsolescence—it is a world of futurity, of things made new, however cheekily in a poem like "The Next New Thing": "What's in the air for fall,/ charity or schadenfreude,/ a toned-down boho look?/ Please know I'm going/ insane with desire/ for the next new thing,/ style that won't come back." Amid these changing styles and seasons, of course, comes the poet's desire for permanence, but Cooper's metaphysical questioning, again, often takes the form of language play rather than direct statement. "This Train," in particular, is a poem beautifully reminiscent of George Oppen's poem "The Forms of Love" (which memorably ends, "we walked/ To where it would have wet our feet/ Had it been water"): "If this train I'm driving/ had brakes I wouldn't// use them, but it doesn't,/ so I can't, thus my hurried// journey inland, lush/ or arid depending on// which loose track I follow,/ which river I parallel// on two thin rails, nails/ in the coffin of a common life." These confluxes the speaker creates between landscape, language, and meaning are never forced: rather, they arise organically from the forms of the compact poems themselves. There is an aura, not of resignation, but calm, throughout this collection—Cooper is a naturalist par excellence slowly placing the earth's (and outer space's) vast compendium into categories, as a kind of bestiary. In a world with "no dock in sight," these categorizations are often unmoored from definition, but never from space and time. Indeed, the fact of how we are bound by space and time is seen, here, as a blessing, a ballast, even if the very fact of our human fragility (and the fragility of our ecosystem) often leaves us without answers: "Flames singe skin," says the poem "Abstraction," "no math explains that."

Rife with allusions not just to natural landscapes, but to exotic locales (Marseilles, Malaga, the Azores, Bahrain, Rio, Tehran), visual art (Rothko, Pollock), and cinema (Rosemary's Baby, then later, conceived as a series of directorial asides, in "Film"), Mars Poetica, while in one sense a book about interplanetary speculation ("My idea of galactic travel/ is a road through space"), is also very much a book in and of this world—the world in which we have our being. In this world, it is the great intangibles—the heart, the soul, the beloved—that act as life's compasses when the more predictable means of orientation (cardinal directions, gravity) are lost. The collection's penultimate poem "Starboard," in its entirety: "Wind rips hard/ from starboard// my boat lacks sails// lacks stars to steer me/ east northeast// where you my heart// still drift."

Rife, too, with sly humor ("Here in the postcoital economy/ no one can afford a cigarette") as well as haunting poems about the disappearance of text as a medium (in "Collected Works" and "Document"), one of the ultimate marks of this collection is the fascinating way it interpolates between self and other—everywhere recalling Rimbaud's famous assertion "Je suis une autre." From "Tread Lightly": "Look in the mirror, see someone else." From "Vectors": "Blood is everywhere,/ not just mine but everyone's"; and, lastly, from "My Idea": "My idea was to steal your ideas// until I became you." In a material world of earthly delights, in other words, there are objects (art, carnal almonds, "night rides to Hoosick Falls to shoot pool in pairs") to captivate our attention, but there are also subjects, and the dizzying whirl of subjectivity, to make meaning of our "sci-fi lives," and give it purpose and depth. Through formal means (the poet's mastery of alliteration, enjambment, and of end and slant rhyme is virtuosic), we finally arrive not so much at a place, but what Antonio Damasio memorably depicted as "the feeling of what happens": a reconciliation between the oneiric and the real. From "This Lightness": "as I step out today/ prepared for mystery,// history that happens by/ itself, nothing to dampen/ my spirit, my syrah,// my reverie."

Rare is the poet who can create poems that are equally image- and sound-driven—whether depicting earthquakes, the inhalation of breath, brash sirens, jackhammers, or the wail of coyotes, these poems leap off the page and into the eye and ear, creating a polyphonic welter that would be jarring were it not for the equal attention the poet pays to the alternatives: white space, solitude, silence. Learning how to "like being alone" is one purported aim, here, a notion as wise as it is instructive: one of the main themes of the collection is roads and what they represent (a way in, a way out), making the collection's final poem ("The Road Ends Here"), which takes place at a drive-in movie theatre, a perfect stilling of the raucous images and sounds (both noise and music) experienced herein: "It's warm and I can sleep/ here, drive away if asked."

This, indeed, is a poet who "know[s] how to get the hard jobs done": namely, the job of measuring pain, and measuring loss, yet creating all the same a place for contemplation and mysticism, of finding the words that will not just suffice, but enrapture and delight.


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