An (Un)common Life: Wyn Cooper's 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.