Across the many modes of David McCooey’s fifth collection of poetry, The Book of Falling, there is one compelling voice that easily fuses irony and lament: the voice of “the poet”. I don’t necessarily mean McCooey himself, but rather the idea of the poet mediating experience through poetic language. With twists between the epigrammatic and imagistic, aphoristic and descriptive, and narrative and conversational modes, this unifying voice relates both literal and metaphoric falls that are a measure of life and mortality.
This is a book in which satire and elegy are co-determinate and a flatness of tone can create an intense intimacy. Whether in the voice of Elizabeth Bishop of “Lives I” that begins the book or the elusive third-person accounts of M that close out the book in the sequence “Lives II”, we hear voices within voices. “Inside the Whale” from “Lives II” is a wondrous prose poem in which the conceit of Pinocchio and his father is entwined with ‘M’ and his son, creating an uncanny sense of that dynamic of distance and intimacy in which McCooey is so proficient.
The Book of Falling is like moving through an arrangement of lives. At its core are three fascinating photo poem cycles. “Redundancies” is a perfect counterpointing of photo and text – some of it found and reimagined – where the cold, brute architecture of the city emphasises the irony of comments about community, commitment and support. It’s so perfectly flat that the irony does a feedback loop and permits us to escape the pull of its grim reality.
All strong books of poetry confront readers. I am bothered by the “The Birds” which, in part, considers the idea of killing birds and maintains a neutral tone, with irony and pathos bound to each other to emphasise disturbance. It’s hard to convey how matter-of-factly powerful McCooey’s satire can be: it’s so particular, so involved in the “ordinariness” of life.
And then you get thrown by a poem like “Revolutions”, a kind of Robert Browning masterpiece that equates to the supposed escape of Anastasia Nikolaevna after the execution of Tsar Nicolas II and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. It is a sustained piece of voice poetry, in which the speaker’s pragmatic tone enhances the terror.
McCooey’s gift is his control of tone. Maybe he sums up his own poetics in the faux self-interview poem, “Extracts from an Interview”, which concludes with: “Q. What quality do you most admire in a writer? / Brevity, concision, and the avoidance of redundancy.”
Upswell, 100pp, $24.99
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