Staring at a Hoopoe
by David Cooke
49 poems, 68 pages
Publisher: Dempsey & Windle, 2020.
To order: Amazon UK
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The first thing to note about this latest collection from Swindon-based poet, editor and publisher, David Cooke, is the striking picture of the hoopoe. Like the cuckoo, its name is onomatopoeic, an imitation of its soft, far-reaching song. One of the most extraordinary facts about this exotic looking bird is that if you happen to hear one before wine pressing, it is meant to foretell a good vintage. Seeing one on the front cover of this book gave me a good omen about what would follow and I was not disappointed for Cooke delivers strong, intellectually satisfying work that is both accessible and rewarding to the general reader.
From a literary perspective, the cover is a reference to the well-known poem ‘Upupa, ilare Uccello calunniato’ (‘Hoopoe, joyful slandered bird’) by the celebrated Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Montale’s profile is reproduced on the first page from a famous photograph which shows Montale staring at a hoopoe that has landed on what appears to be his work desk. Those who have an interest in philately may know that the Italian postal service introduced a postage stamp bearing this image back in 1966 in celebration of the centenary of the poet’s birth.
The hoopoe makes its debut in the opening villanelle ‘Feeling the Fear’ and then reappears in the philosophical titular piece which is Cooke’s poem in memory of Montale. Here, the hoopoe is described as a ‘harbinger of spring / or a bird whose piping / mnemonic call / is like a final summons’. This ekphrastic response to the picture in which poet and bird look as if they are trying to out-stare each other is full of quizzical ambivalence. Indeed, the hoopoe itself is described as being ‘ambivalent’ which is an apt description given all the different things that the bird stands for when viewed across different cultures.
In another ekphrastic poem, Cooke responds to Van Gogh’s ‘La Chambre à Arles’ by painting an alarming picture of disintegration as the walls of the artist’s refuge collapse one by one leaving him exposed to the outer elements and that cornfield where ‘a handful of wind-tossed birds / seem to be holding their own.’ In the companion piece to this poem, ‘On the Threshold of Eternity’ - Van Gogh’s ‘Old Man in Sorrow’- Cooke paints an equally chilling picture.
A sequence of poems on the traveller, archaeologist, linguist and cartographer, Gertrude Margaret Bell (1868-1926), forms the middle part of this collection. Bell was one of the first women to be educated at Oxford University where she obtained the best history degree of her year. Fluent in several languages, including Arabic, she played a significant role in Middle Eastern politics and contributed to forming the state of Iraq while working for the British Empire:
Breaking bread with tribes,
she crossed conflicted sands.
She spoke their tongue
and understood what lay behind
their words. Surveying skies,
she measured miles.
She haggled for supplies.
And when their land became
their country, she was lionized.
As a former Head of Modern Languages at a comprehensive school, it is easy to see why Bell would have appealed to Cooke on the linguistic front. The fact that for a lot of the time she was engaged on a journey into the unknown must surely be another reason since it chimes so well with the uncertain trajectory of all our lives from which some things are only ever understood with the benefit of hindsight. Cooke reminds us of this when he quotes Kierkegaard’s epigraph: ‘Life is understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards’.
Aside from Montale, the poet Philip Larkin often comes to mind when I read some of Cooke’s poems. A bookish man (he was the Librarian at the University of Hull), Larkin was not only a celebrated English poet but also a jazz enthusiast and the author of ‘All That Jazz’. Cooke’s collection sparkles with tributes to many American jazz players in this collection, not least, Charlie Mingus, Horace Silver, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. They too, were risk-takers, improvising on everything that life threw at them, defying convention, believing in themselves and their art, whether it was Silver pioneering the hard bop style of the 1950s, Mingus driving forward the concept of collective improvisation or Pepper staging all those comebacks after his personal battles with drug addiction. In his poems Cooke catches something of the personality of each of these jazz ‘greats’. Here’s the opening of ‘Mingus’:
to accept his place
the violoncello politely
for a bow-tied
only the bass
Despite the emphasis that is placed on making something of our lives, Cooke is all too aware of our impermanence. This is particularly apparent in poems such as ‘In Père Lachaise Cemetery’, ‘Locks’ and ‘The Girl in The Picture’. In the latter, the permanence of the Parthenon is set against the fleeting beauty of the girl whose youthful features are being captured on camera by her boyfriend. The Parthenon is ageless but the girl’s beauty, along with the photograph, will fade over time.
It is fitting that the collection should conclude with ‘Man on a Wire’. Here, Cooke shows us how life is a balancing act, one that is not without risk, but, as he says in his opening poem, we have to ‘feel the fear, and do it’. This is where the collection comes full circle and, like all circles, it is a symbol of Cooke perfecting his art:
Man On A Wire
When he looks back on his life
he will see that the best of it
was a journey he took from A to B
on a wire between two buildings –
his every breath a distillation
of what it meant to keep your nerve
and hold steady, each muscle
braced and quivering like the wire itself…
Taking risks along life’s journey is at the core of this collection. Whether it’s about one man’s attempt to swim across the Niagara River or the risk of the splendours of Venice sinking beneath the waves, Cooke makes us hold our breath as we navigate our way through his poems.