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“A Radiance of Attention”

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001
The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed. By Jane Cooper. W. W. Norton. $23.95.

Jane Cooper’s latest book is cause for celebration. This new volume includes all of her previously published work as well as poems hitherto not available in book form. Although she has been writing for 50 years and the issuance of this book coincided with her 75th birthday, her work has never gotten the attention it fully deserves; however, with time that will surely come.

Cooper’s accomplishments as a poet who could write in the traditional forms were clear with the publication of her first book, The Weather of Six Mornings, (1969) which includes a sestina written on a bet, sonnets, complicated rhyme schemes, a poem that could pass for Yeats, another one for Thomas Hardy. It won the Lamont Prize and announced that here was someone who understood poetry’s mysteries: that form keeps emotion manageable and that the flow of the poetic line depends upon its musical cadences, what she calls, so aptly, “the tension between song and speech.” Here, as well, was someone safely enough rooted in the world to look not only backward and inward, but also outward, so that in her later years she would write poems as amazing as “The Green Notebook,” “My Friend,” “Seventeen Questions About King Kong.” And, not least, here was a poet who had the courage to wait until the work was right. She addresses this in an essay in her next book, Maps & Windows, (1974), called “Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread,” but I am not sure that’s the whole story. Cooper sets a very high ethical standard for herself, as poet and human being, and I think she knew, at the deepest level, that she could not publish until she was satisfied with what she had done.

Marching to her own drum was not new to her. Unlike most women from her milieu in the 40’s and 50’s, she never married, nor had children. She taught fiction, then poetry at Sarah Lawrence, where she was an inspiration to a multitude of devoted students for 37 years. Though a spinster (in the common parlance of those years), she seemed determined “to spin,” as a character in an English novel once put it. Poem after poem addresses, fearlessly and with sometimes heartbreaking clarity, the rapture of sexual love and the memories and sorrows that are the aftermath of such love; how such love can nurture and hurt, yet also endow one with insight or wisdom, as in “Obligations,”

Here where we clasp in a stubble field
is all the safety either of us hopes for,
Stubbornly constructing walls of night
Out of the ordered energies of the sun.

With the same gratitude I feel the hot
Dazzle on my eyelids and your hand
Carefully opening my shaded breasts. . .

. . . What extreme
Unction after love is laid upon us?
The act itself has built this sphere of anguish
Which we must now inhabit like our dreams,
The dark home of our polarities
And our defense, which we cannot evade.

Since early childhood, Cooper also had to cope with an immune deficiency and was never free of the uncanny sensation that death hovered nearby. She writes about it in her brilliant story, “The Children’s Ward,” and it runs through poems like “Practicing For Death,” “The Faithful,” and “The Weather of Six Mornings” to the later, astonishing “The Flashboat” and “The Infusion Room.” Yet awareness of death often gives one a heightened mindfulness of the ordinary joys; Cooper’s best poems come from her “radiance of attention,” requested in “Rent”:

If you want my apartment, sleep in it
but let’s have a clear understanding:
the books are still free agents . . .

I don’t want your rent, I want
a radiance of attention
like the candle’s flame when we eat,

I mean a kind of awe
attending the spaces between us—
Not a roof but a field of stars.

Thus, she can describe a child furiously building one play house after another with rare sympathy. Or remember her parents with a vivid, poignant exactness, or convey both a marvelous jauntiness and a deep understanding of the ravages of the Depression during her Southern childhood in “Wanda’s Blues”: “Wanda’s daddy was a railroadman, she was his little wife./ Ernest’s sister had a baby, she was nobody’s wife./ Wanda was the name and wandering, wandering was their way of life.” Or suddenly address her mentor, Muriel Rukeyser, juxtapose opposites in “Hotel de Dream”: “relish yet redress / my sensuous, precious, upper-class, / unjust white child’s past.”

By 1984 and her third book, Scaffolding, death has been kept at bay for so long that what another poet, Mark Doty, has called the “joy of ongoingness” has taken over. No longer is she, as she describes someone else, “balancing [herself] like a last glass of water”; her delight in her lengthening life allows her to let go, giving us more of herself, her humor, her gift for friendship, her love of architecture and domesticity, her capacious interest in the world and its literature. And, she takes greater risks. The later poems are less formal, often have longer lines, and address the world with a searing honesty, as in “The Blue Anchor”:

. . . All these years
I’ve lived by necessity.
Now the world shines
like an empty room
clean all the way to the rafters. . .

To live in the future
like a survivor! . . .

—never forgetting
the wingprint of the mountain
over the fragile human settlement—

There are many riches here, but for me, the two greatest poems in Cooper’s oeuvre are “Threads” and “Vocation: A Life.” Here Cooper brings that intensity, which Keats said was “the excellence of every art,” to new heights. Based on Rosa Luxemburg’s Prison Letters to Sophie Liebnecht, Karl Liebnecht’s wife, “Threads” evokes the extreme tension between Luxemburg’s enforced solitude with her political activism. She consoles herself by reading natural science and making observations of the birds, the plants, the insects, the trees and sky. Woven through these are memories, visions (even of her own death), plans, her ideals, and her bewilderment, as when she says:

. . . Fragments of the established world
flame and submerge, they tear away. Day by day
we witness fresh catastrophes Strange
how most people see nothing, most people
feel the earth firm under their feet when it is

Here the reader feels, with a painful sharpness, Cooper’s love of nature and humanity, and—her own awareness of the inexplicable way time shapes our lives.

When she taught fiction, Cooper told her students that time is the unseen character, and in the longer poems she moves “through time in a way that a lyric cannot do.” Nowhere is that more evident than in “Vocation, A Life,” subtitled “Suite Based on Four Words from Willa Cather.” The four sections, “Desire,” “Romance,” “Possession,” and “Unfurnishing,” (the last a reference to Cather’s “The Novel Demeuble,”) reveal the growth of this wonderful writer by looking at her prose with startling freshness and maturity. So intimate is Cooper’s knowledge of this work that one can feel the two women conversing, trying to fathom how one creates art and what such a life is worth:

When we try to sum up a lifetime, events cease to
just as, in the end, a novel’s
plot does not matter

What we came away with was never written down
Vibration, overtone, timbre, a fragrance as distinct
as that of an old walled garden . . .The text is not there
but something was there, all the same, some intimacy,
all that is needed
in a vigorous, rich speaking voice

[Your] secret?
It is every artist’s secret. Your secret
was passion

Then Cather’s words, which express Cooper’s striving, as well: Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness.

If you believe, to return to Keats, that “poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject,” then this collection with its distinctive, strong, dignified voice will continue to engage and surprise and comfort for a long time to come.

*From a 1995 interview with Eric Gudas. Iowa Review. Number 25, Volume one.


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