Dennis Cooley: three new poems

As part of her introduction to an interview she conducted with Cooley for Connotation Press online, American critic and poet Lea Graham wrote:

Dennis Cooley’s poetry plays the field of the page. Nicole Markotić has written that his work “asks readers to question inherited assumptions about the inherited structures of poetry and the privileged inclusion such structures assume. He invites [us] to cross…myriad poetic borders…. The frenetic madness of the page is a roller-coaster ride, a poetry amusement park, and each word leads to the next line break twist, the next genre shout” (qtd. in Cooley xi). Yet, like the root of “enthusiasm”—en theos—this poetry leads us to the sacred. The play implies something very serious is in explorative process and procession.

Over the years, Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Dennis Cooley’s poetry collections (nineteen books and counting) have each shaped themselves around a central idea or theme, from the play and punning around the physical landscape of the prairies, hearth and home of his correction line (Thistledown, 2008) to his play around the histories of Manitoba outlaw John Krafchenko (a book heavily influenced originally by Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) in Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984; University of Alberta Press, 2002), to the exploration of his mother in Irene (Turnstone Press, 2000), and even to the Dracula-themed vampire poems of Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003). For Cooley, poetry is all about a very serious play. To consider the poetry of Dennis Cooley is, among other things, to reconsider space, as well as the vernacular voice, as he composes his “vernacular prairie” through twisting and turning the language, and utilizing as many bad jokes and puns as possible. In his infamous essay, “Breaking & Entering (Thoughts on Line Breaks)” from The Vernacular Muse (Turnstone Press, 1987), he writes:

I’ve been struck for some time how much formal departure disturbs readers. That’s not surprising, I guess, since it always generates uncertainties, but I don’t think the resistance—it varies in its outer fringes from panic to contempt—can be altogether excused. You find it everywhere: complaints about “mannered” phrasing, fretting about “unfashionable” (or “fashionable”) lining, querulous comments about “mere” technique or “flat” writing. Above all bad writing is “artificial”—this as a charge against art! What else can it be? The comments are hardly confined to novices. It’s been my experience that the fiercest resistance to any straying from left margins or lines based on simple units comes from people who should know better: editors, reviewers, and even—so help me—poets.

            This is unhealthy. When sophisticated people are saying these things, something’s wrong. So, whatever I say here, there will be some who choose not to understand, and who will cling to their position, left margins stuck up to the axles in mud, knowing that flexible lineation is gratuitous. Those who already know that unorthodox lining is silly, if not fraudulent (pretentious distracting self-conscious academic uninspired contrived ingenious fatuous derivative—you can extend the list, you’ve heard it before), those who would insist on a system of power that legitimizes their operations but invalidates others’, those readers ought to skip this piece. Others will know a lot of what I am going to say anyway. But I don’t know of anywhere you can find a simple statement on line breaks.

Cooley has long favoured explorations of prairie language and the jagged, staggered line as well as the large poetic project. In correction line, he composed the line as one to be reworked and corrected, as well as referencing the actual lines of correction that stretch across the geography of the prairies. As he wrote in the title poem to the collection: “it was at the correction line / they made their mistake / big mistake you might say [.]” Continuing a narrative of geographic surveys in poetic form, Cooley writes and reworks the terrain, fielding his lines from all points in, out and between his home points of Estevan, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Or, in another piece, referencing both geographic lines and the poetic line of Charles Olson, suggesting what would come next, to peer at what lay beyond the surface:

an O pening
of the   field

An expansive play of puns and train-of-thought sound play, his more recent abecedarium (University of Alberta Press, 2014) includes explorations through the history of the alphabet, references to prairie poets Robert Kroetsch and Andrew Suknaski, prairie histories, crows and what the ear hears, and poems that simply appear to propel narratively through and against the sounds of the words themselves. The references are rich and varied, such as the poem “a long funny book,” that opens with a series of riffs off Vancouver writer George Bowering’s novel A Short Sad Book (Talonbooks, 1977), which itself played off Gertrude Stein’s A Long Gay Book (1933):

I’m thinking of calling
                  this a long poem.
I’m thinking of calling this
                            a long funny book.
            Well it is.
It is when you compare it
                  to George’s. It’s not
            a comic book
& it’s not a cosmic book
it is a funny book.

George’s was not.
                                                You could tell
                                      it was.

            a short sad book.

I’m telling you George
                                                & it isn’t
            funny. Funny he sd
                                                            you shld
                              say that.
                                                                        That’s true
                                                                       that’s what
                                                                              I said.

abecedarium follows a trajectory directly back to his correction line, as Cooley wrote out geographic tracings, as well as historical and pre-historical tracings which furthered through the stones (Turnstone Press, 2013), a book that opens a play on the word, the image and the idea of the stone, writing “the rocks scraped by wind and snow / and by later arrivals / rivals for space,” and composing a space entirely constructed out of the semi-permanence of stone. Writing his way down to basic elements, Cooley has been methodically working through the development of language and writing, various ancient histories and prairie landscapes, and books and writers he has read and admired over the years, blending them all together in an abecedarium that works to explore the very idea of communication: written, spoken and archival. Since his first publications emerged in the 1970s and into the 80s, Cooley’s poetry books have increasingly appeared to be each composed and collected as a kind of expansive collage-work, writing his subjects from as many angles and perspectives as possible, allowing the final result to be a collaboration between an exhaustive poetic research and polyphonic mishmash that refuses to hold any perspective as singular, staid or solid. As editor Nicole Markotić wrote to introduce Cooley’s selected poems, By Word of Mouth: The Poetry of Dennis Cooley (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007):

For Cooley, innovation means breaking away from established literary conventions, or traditions. Stuttering, stumbling, sprinkling a plethora of line indents and breaks, tripping over confining institutions, ruled corridors, imprisoned language, barred windows, falling out and falling away, fracturing the old, landing prairie-flat on his face, hesitating, hobbling through the ruptures, limping towards a new rhythm.


                          hhnn hhnmn hhhnnnnnnnn 

train breathes hard
big black train
fleeing the sun sun
a kingbird at its back
beak at its neck

coal-black crow-black stiff-back
train is snuffling & sweating
on the way to oblivion

things have come
to a story state my friends
they have come & now they’re gone
me philip paul judith you yourself
one big mix-up one big bust

it is you might say appalling
now that a pall has fallen over
            i’m sorry to say
            all you dear readers
         if i could guess at all
would say well i am dead
certain what you long have dreaded
you will become pall-bearers as am i
velvet-lined to my husband’s anguish
black-gowned to love's end

                        please bare with us

we who would be at ten
                        dance & tender
hooks the three of us
                        shed every single thread &
bawling like cows in heat bear witness
            the shredding of rain & judgment

know your disappointment we are no longer
            here and you know that we are
not real though at times you think
            we were wish we would

not have to hit the road could
fall among thieves & publicans
splash the reed-infested ditches
              quanking with joy
why not wrap the string of water & fire
arm in arm come rejoiceful
stinging through the sheaves
              singing in the rye 

rye whisky rye whisky
we surely will die



the cat's in a snit                                 
                  & i
am too

                        terrible knit-picker
ripping the threads
from our throats

                              would be:
what i really would like
                                       to be
if only i dared

flop-eared mutt
lolling around
risking shame
risking refusal

throwing my self on you
slobbery for love

pretty sure i would be
getting all of it
just because
i am a pet
and just because
                                    i asked



when he (at the pulpit, phil)
land-locked sailor totters
looks as though he can
hardly keep his feet
wound in pallor & collar
grows peevish believes
we have had our fill

he ought to say
about sheaves & eve’s
whispery wet-ear speech
we shall come rejoicing

it is a revival meeting he leads
and the world surges at our feet

resist he says we must
resist all that is that is
vile and evil whatever
has fallen under a spell
possibly bedeviled
by hopes for spring
a cool soft mist
says we should revile
all things equally
fear rain fear water
fear slashing with green
it will only turn to rust

phil in the pulpit swaying
looks bewildered looks
out as if he were a horse
head-shy from being struck
a soldier shaken at réveillé
afraid he will come untrussed

looks for something to blunt
the very edges of what we dare
the surprise of light where it hits
and windows warp in blue and red
everything we might ever want

that's him all right old phil
o pro genitive to the end