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Photo poems and bathroom abstractions: in The Book of Falling, David McCooey offers a series of psychological snapshots


In a recent award jury, I once again found myself in a conversation about what makes a book of poems “cohesive” — that is, what makes it a book-long experience, as opposed to a one-poem dip, a chapbook dive, or, indeed, the narrative journey of a novel.

The jury agreed that it is not necessarily a theme that contains a collection between two covers. They can be structural features such as symmetries or contrasts. It can be a dramatic terrain of action and voice. Or it could be an experiment in technique and form that creates a conceptual sandwich.

In David McCooey’s The Book of Fall, much is made of the titular theme as the cohesive element. As well as the title, the blurb of the book, the endorsements, and the captions, all point to this conceit.

The content, on the other hand, says otherwise. In the rubrics and poem titles, and in the poems themselves, we encounter the great themes of phenomenology and time scales. McCooey repeatedly returns to ’empty times’: to the separation of humans from other animals, the detachment of voice and body, the disintegration of physical matter between past and present.

If I could choose an image to represent this shadow conceit, it wouldn’t be fall, but something more horizontal and glitchy.

Review: The Book of Falling – David McCooey (Upswell)

The best poems in The Book of Falling, and the most original and purposeful reason, are the three “photo poems” that take center stage. I want to focus on this before delving into the less compelling poems that flank the body of the book.

The formal and conceptual heaviness of the series of photo poems lies in their variety of media and style, and the unexpected combinations of meaning created by the interacting photographs and texts. It’s not a radical method, but it has a surreal sense of possibility that’s very different from the book’s narrative and imaginative poems.

The first series, Posing Cards, features photographs taken by McCooey’s father Wyndham. His archive photos are themselves poetic in their absurd, Forbesian juxtapositions: a funny group, including a guy wielding a gun; a man cave plastered with a sign reading “The Ass End” and a finger pointing at a memento mori.

Accompanying these fun compositions is a sober set of instructions for blocking a family portrait:

Place mom and dad
in the standard sitting position of mom and dad.

Then bring the kids.

The poet makes us do the work of making connections between these imperatives and the resistant images, between the tension of son and father, where McCooey’s established affinity for cinema, and horror in particular, comes into play.

Redundancies and Bathroom Abstraction use McCooey’s own photographs, which contrast in high tonal and stylistical contrast with his father’s raw eye. The photographs are high-mannered images of geometrically framed bathrooms and brutalist architecture, cool and restrained.

In Redundances, the uninhabited surfaces of reinforced concrete correspond to the robot language of found poems from corporate mass communiqués for employees during the pandemic. You know the sort of thing:

I want to assure you that we
are hard at work
to provide as much security as possible
possible for you.

Although McCooey gives no source for these, as a fellow scientist I am confident that they originate from university communications.

The images and text build a story about the withdrawal of real social personality, but it seems too easy to satirize these Orwellian placations without saying anything more about them.

Domestic areas

The Bathroom Abstraction series, on the other hand, is haunting – the poet addresses the subject of the poems in the second person, evoking his alienating experiences with bathrooms as psychological snapshots:

You think about the bathroom you went to after your bypass surgery. Cross your hands over your chest and apply pressure as instructed by the nursing staff.

These prose poems are more felt, more serious than those in Redundancies. McCooey puts more at stake here, referring to the fragility of bodies that are naked, sick, or meeting their basic needs.

The Book of Falling lives in the domestic spaces where these kinds of vulnerabilities often occur (and remain hidden). Even if bathrooms are not written about, the normal scenes of looking out the windows of the house, of bedrooms, of watching television or the weather have a similar quality of privacy and seclusion: anonymous buildings.”

This theme is captured in Lives I, the opening trio of poems. These dramatize the voices of three famous dead women as they move through imaginary space and time. They round out The Book of Falling’s palette, but they seem like an odd choice for an opening sequence. They are much more fully resolved and intricately composed than other poems in the book, which look small by comparison.

The concept might be a bit gimmicky; I wondered if Marilyn Monroe, if she lived in this century as McCooey fantasizes, would really only respond to the public coverage of sexual assault by saying, “yes: me too, me too”. But that is the prerogative of the poet.

Read more: Adam Aitken: A forensic poet with an obsessive determination

Resonant phrases

McCooey is capable of resonant phrases. He has a penchant for oxymoronic images such as ‘Honey and maggots’ or ‘the brevity of a bottomless sleep’. He is also capable of some clangers:

Meanwhile the bats in the ironbark tree

go into the air. Their breathtaking wings
have an extensive sound repertoire.

Why not just “iron bark” without “tree”? Are the wings themselves “breathtaking” or would that adjective better describe the sound they make? Surely the poet’s job is to describe the repertoire, not to tell us about it (nor to describe the sound of real bats as “bats in a horror movie”).

My taste is for the lighter tankas and fragments from McCooey. I enjoyed their freedom, the sense of the poet just enjoying himself with a bit of objectivist simplicity and not being too careful about well-thought-out things:

And as if someone uttered the trigger word,
rain begins without ceremony.

But it’s not “driving rain”;
it’s just sitting outside,

idling engine over the neighborhood.
It’s neither coming nor going.

It does not matter.
And then, like the end of a poem,

you look out the window,
and the rain has stopped,

the birds have returned, and the wind
has begun his invisible cover.

Other poems in this mode are lean, rather than pregnant with double entender or densely shimmering. In a full collection, they run the risk of becoming stocking fillers. A similar hollowness or slovenliness is found in the satires and elegies which make up a later part of the book; they’re not witty or dark enough to warrant their inclusion. Maybe they just needed to be pushed harder, over the threshold of sweet to the strange places McCooey reaches in the photo poems.

The final sequence, Lives II, takes an autofictional turn and might have been better than the opening set. As with Bathroom Abstractions, here McCooey drops the performative tone of the satires and the empty voices of the dramatic characters, going deeper into his own memory through third-person narration:

The movie is finished; the day is over. While his son talks himself to sleep, M sits by a window looking out at the street, the whole world trapped in the giant belly of night.

When I read The Book of Falling, I constantly wanted to go to the poems with a pen to remove the last lines and unnecessary punctuation at the end of the line, brighten up those bats, cut the flimsy poems. I wanted to restructure the laborious sections in a way that would frame the photo poems well, maybe alternate them, or add more, really claim their form as the statement of this book.

As a reader and critic, I teach myself to accept a work on its own merits; you can’t fail a book because it doesn’t live up to your own idea of ​​it. But McCooey is a mature poet and Upswell is a vital publisher; together they could have made this into something more robust.

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