James Cook: From 'The Croatoan Song Book' 'If You Wish To Become an Owl, Movement I' (an excerpt)

(Mule Stable Gray)

“One day the demons of America must be placated. The ghosts must be
appeased, the Spirit of Place atoned for…” – D.H. Lawrence

Sources of creeks and rivers. Earth humid black and rich. On the river ahead not 
far distant. The wind was hard and against us. Passed through a broken country. 
Wood pumice stone lava. Mule stable gray…

They brought balls of cotton thread and parrots and spears. Maps rotten and
spoiled with rain, armor almost eaten through with rust.

(One day in the old times when we could still talk with other creatures)

Soon the news went around that the terrapin had killed the wolf and was using
his ears for spoons.

The spirit of absolutism is everywhere apparent. Shouting his name to the
echoing solitudes. Intrepid conflict with obstacles without. Because he had
thought he had seen a great beehive.

They take the form of stones full of living blood and flesh. The rabbit inside kept

                              a cloud in the shape
                                            of an old woman
                                            arms extended toward the moon

                               You, I’ve known you from old

                               hair full of fish

                               thighs a woven rumor of feathers

                                            & I’m out walking sleepless

                                            scribbled in the snowy margins
                                                           like an insomniac’s
                                            restless prose

                               on a street where I imagine
                                            ghost-horses haunt
                                            the weird cosmologies
                                                         of some kid’s dreams
                                            (no riders
                                                         just manes passing
                                                         behind black branches
                                                                        in tiny yards…)

                                                         (just apocrypha drifting
                                                                        off the city’s edge)

                                            & a moon up there
                                                          made of wire

                               while shoppers
                               go on shopping

                                            with dark coats

                                                          at Christmastime

Of the book rubb’d away
Of the lines of the sun and the wrist

                               the wounded schematic

                               to a muddy path
                               that disappeared down into the creekbeds…)

                                                                        By the persuasion of some of them we went
                                                                        into ye great river
                                                                                      that divides itself in 2

by flashlight light he recognized
the woods from his dream

where Anna left her dress
on the riverbank

                                            & where he’d gone looking for her

                                            out in the old incunabula

                                                                                      ( here is the great tree
                                                                                      we carved
                                                                                      our masks from )

                                            …sweated out the fever
                              in a room
                                            above a dusty hardware

                                                         & all of this was
                                            as a notebook
                              lost in a dream

                              & if you wish to become an owl
                                                                          yr little radio’s got

                              all these ghost songs

                                            & if you wish to become an owl
                              spell the movie of this forest
                                            with yr eyelids shut

            listen how water

                         shapes itself

                                        in the falling

                              & snow takes these figures
                                            into its secret

                              if you wish
                              to become an owl

                              sit in the swamp
                                            ten nights
                                                         to become an owl…

[NOTE. With "The Croatoan Song Book" James Cook makes his entry into the tradition & lineage of American epic poetry ("a poem including history"), the focus here on the "lost" Roanoke colony in 16th century Virginia. The notes that follow speak eloquently to his sense of time & structure. (J.R.)]

The Croatoan Songbook: Notes for Jerome Rothenberg


A prayer for & hymn to America.

A psychogeographical exploration.

An elegy. America as Loss, as Enigma.

DH Lawrence’s ‘one day the Spirit of Place must be atoned for…’

A work whose primary purpose is to exult the handmade, the homemade, the simply felt &
created object as against the mass-produced, the cheap, the homogenous.
Reclamation of language from above.

Affirmation also of the vatic function of the poet. Of his role as a conduit.
Of the poem, as well as the chair or the dulcimer, as well as America itself, as a manifestation
of the tension between the inner world & the outer world.

The Croatoan Songbook as a piece of American folk art, like the Watts Towers or
“The Cuckoo Bird” or an embroidery sampler.

Focus on the Local as a key to the Universal.

An attempt to map the ‘Dream-Time”, the Songlines of America. An attempt to
trace a ‘spiritual’ map of America through the contours of history, including
typically marginalized cultures, indigenous peoples, etc. in order to locate the
moment of essential loss.

A response to Robert Kelly’s imprecation in his book In Time that : “It is the true
annals of magical time that need to be compiled – or if not compiled then duly &
accurately transcribed at each moment, in overlapping palimpsestical overlays,
vast collages of magical time in the dark & light of which we will be able to
perceive authentically as in books of ‘history’, the true history of our race.”

The poem will consist of 32 movements, with each movement broken up serially
or composed of fragmentary gestures toward a lost wholeness.

A movement itself can consist of several individual sections or one long
section=fragments on a charged field of white space.
Picture each movement as a tectonic plate. The location where two plates meet
forms a tension which expresses itself as a geological event. The tension in the
poem results from this boundary. This boundary is also the boundary between
planes of experience, between cultures, between periods of history, between lyric
and narrative, between Phanopoeia, Logopoeia and Melopoeia.