When the Cicadas Return






Songs for the Extinction of Winter
Rob Cook
Rain Mountain Press, 2007

Wild fires burn in the French Rivera, torrential rains fall in Texas where clouds squat and drown the land, thousands of Lake Tahoe acres are aflame, drought destroys sixty percent of agricultural terrain in Romania, the wheat crop disintegrates in the Ukraine, forty percent of North America’s honey bees vanish, everywhere wildlife in peril. Climatologists predict that by 2050 snow will no longer be able to be counted on in the Northeastern United States. Water promises to be the filthy lucre of the future.
More than a foreboding, there is a consensus among many that our earth has already tumbled from the precipice into climate instability from which chaos is spilling. The planet-scale events are so awe-inspiring that they beggar the imagination. The word ‘surreal’ has been worn out as we grapple for language with which to express our reaction to the protean world we find ourselves in. And because the forces of change are simply too much we are unable to process them and we collapse back into triviality or the mediated or barely literate. From the title of his first collection of poetry Songs for the Extinction of Winter, Rob Cook stands apart in being able to channel the epochal.

When the light turns to stone
Nobody will notice

The dirt will have passed away

The man with the body of a northernJanuary has to hide far off
In his pockets

The world of this collection is one of lastness. There are no more crows to blacken the woods--/Only a weak voice where the horizon tried to heal, and the bittersweet knowledge that the poet is a witness to the dwindling natural order. Letters I’ve composed to the snow buried inside lobsters. Cook is a visionary, and his net gathers the macro and micro, sometimes in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. The richness of his metaphors is in stark contrast to flat internet-speak, the movement of instantaneous textual information. The same speed and nowness inundates our anti-poetic culture as if only by being in the most immediate of moments will we know we are alive as in the innumerable cell phone conversations about coordinates. “I’m on Second Avenue at the Bank of America ATM.” I crack open your cigarettes/and find a map to the clubs/that stay open through/the long nights of stone. The poet’s sense of place and time contains the hyper present and the primal, clubland and the Stone Age. And what happened/to the ape/who woke on a cavern wall/and still had the stone sky/To carve. Language itself is under assault and in Songs for the Extinction of Winter the syntax is textured, deeply layered and lush. The word world Cook creates is in opposition to contemporary abbreviated idioms.

On a continuum that includes the Elegiac Sonnets of Charlotte Turner Smith O’er what, my angel friend, thou wert,/Dejected Memory loves to mourn, and Janet Hood’s Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, Rob Cook creates his poems of mourning for species, eco-systems, alternate universes and friends. Even in these more personal elegies, the poet is melting the hyperkinetic, hypertech age of today with the traditional. He’s growing now/in the darkness Hopkins and Byron/ made for him are the lines that open his “Elegy for a Master in an Age Without Masters,” for the poet Ronald Wardall.

He’s going forward on storm intelligence, maps
he corrected for the pigeons
trying to cross the East River.

He stops to eat an Indian cloud.
He tells lies about his life
so God won’t find him,

that he led the grasses through
the abandoned dial tone of Montana,
that he swept floors while students

poisoned the mop water and janitors wrote
his poems.

Also nested within the larger songs of mourning is an extraordinary elegy for the poet’s cousin. In “Norwegian Deer Trails” Cook takes the solemnity of the form and breaks it before reshaping it into something still sorrowful but brilliantly whimsical and idiosyncratic. I look out the window at the deer leading daylight/back into the woods—/Followed all winter by their own/tracks, they must know where the wind sleeps/and which tree the snow is coming from. Those are haunting and satisfying lines but the poet doesn’t stop there.

Today on the phone to Norway,
my cousin’s voice ruined
by AIDS and the freezing long-distance,

I kept slicing carrots and zucchini
and mixing Dr. Sorge’s Blood Rejuvenation
Powder and Rose Hip Formula with apple juice

forcing the sludge down into my body
starved into the shapes of hypothermia
from three years
of nardil and low blood sugars,

the background tape of the homeopathic maverick

Even single-celled organisms
turn to wood after eating pizza.

Cook has a genius with titles that are almost one line poems in themselves. “Temp Work in Seven Atmospheres,” “Birthday of the Thirty-Five Gemini’s,” “The Gossip and Incompleteness of American Winter,” are three examples. The collection is divided into four sections, with Part One and Part Four containing the thirteen Songs for the Extinction of Winter. These are sequences that repeat and enlarge the themes of lastness and lostness, how the epochal and personal entwine. The images and voice of Rob Cook have been compared to that of Cesar Vallejo. It has been noted that the “difficulty of his poetry [Vallejo’s] initially hindered the international recognition it deserves.” Like Vallejo, Cook’s poetry might be considered difficult and the same sort of descriptive language applied to Vallejo’s work–“impressionistic, chaotic, even incomprehensible”—might be applied to Songs for the Extinction of Winter. Vallejo and Cook share the visionary eye, the quick surprise, vulnerability and often a quizzical playful tone that a child might delight in.
The moon made of cobwebs taken by wind/will hurt us, and soon. Yet there are differences, timing being one. Cook confronts not the Spanish Civil War but the deflowering of 21st century capitalism that had overreached to the point it can no longer be sustained, a time of ultra-careerism and self-promotion, a rankness where poetry exists to illuminate the poet. Vallejo labored in obscurity struggling mightily to elevate the poem not the “I.”

Cook takes up that struggle and makes poetic subject of the flattening of the individual into a consumer. For market shares, the feral world is being forced back everywhere. People in elevators complain, ”I hate it. Winter just isn’t me.” This is the poet for the age without masters. His songs are against platitudes, against slum megapolises, against crop depletion, against love depletion. In the saying and seeing of that which hasn’t been seen or told before there is extraordinary imagery and breathtaking beauty. There is a pause in the weather that makes you tremble/Because of its teeth that sound like the flawed whispering of deer.

Mitchell Denning








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