December 15, 2013

Postcards from the Terrible, Available World: A Review of Rebecca Cook's I Will Not Give Over by Marc Sheehan

Cover credit: Aldrich Press
I Will Not Give Over by Rebecca Cook
Aldrich Press (2013)

Reviewed by Marc Sheehan

Perhaps the main poetic mode of the last few of decades has been a detached voice—ironic and non-committal. In this neo-Ashbury school of poetics, the one great sin is to show emotion. The prose poems that compose Rebecca Cook’s first book, I Will Not Give In, adhere to a very different aesthetic. 

Some of its best poems are set in childhood or early adolescence. Their disquietude stems from the constraints and consequences of a blossoming intelligence and sexual curiosity confronting the world. Many of the poems contain a rural setting, but they are far from pastoral. Take the poem, “Millie the Model”:
“The knob on the old wringer washer is a bomb. I set it carefully.… I run around the barn and I’m almost safe. But no, I blow sky high…. The blonde woman with no shirt is smiling for the camera, her breasts full as milk inside the wheat field. Her belly is curvy, her jeans cut off at the knees….”
These poems don’t try to tease meaning or nostalgia out of an idealized landscape. If anything, the backdrop of rural isolation is analogous to a personal isolation engendered by an intense and painful self-awareness. Exploring that can cause an author to devolve into self-indulgence, but I Will Not Give Over avoids this. The poems create an internal logic that builds from image to image, making them satisfyingly cohesive even when they are portraying states of emotional or intellectual disarray. Additionally, there is the overarching narrative of growing older, of coming to terms (or not) with the world’s casual cruelty. For example, in “Black,” Cook writes:
“The bull’s ball sac is like the black knob of the sock darner and you’re sick on your stomach with it, knowing she slips the rubber bands around them, knowing they dry up and fall off.... You won’t eat it… and you find out that they left it hanging too long at the meat-processing plant, your pet steer’s body draining, the boy with his water gun washing out the clots, the blood pooling on the floor, festering.”
By foregoing line breaks, Cook manages in many of the poems to create a headlong rhythm, like the breathlessness of a panic attack. By plunging forward, the poems reinforce the emotional chaos, making the form of the poems feel genuinely authentic.

A number of literary journals with a focus on cross-genre writing and indeterminate forms have started publication in the last few years. This book lands right in the middle of that collective exploration. Most of the poems have some kind of narrative to them, reading almost like “flash fiction” pieces. Others are arranged more by image rather than action, making them read more like traditional prose poems. By exploring the common linguistic area between prose poems and flash fictions, Cook expands their forms’ possibilities. Mostly, she reminds poets of the necessity for writing compelling sentences—not just compelling lines—by composing such wonderful forward-plunging sentences as the one in “Yellow”:
“He held you down so tight you couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, couldn’t move, your mouth full of clover and it’s that you look back on, his body on yours, pressing down, his skin woven into you in that moment and sometimes you gather all that narrowing breath into your center until you’re almost there but then you’re just standing in your kitchen with the spoon between your fingers, stirring and stirring and then it stops.”
Throughout, some of the most intense pleasure emerges from reading such long, word-drunk sentences that seem to recall William Faulkner by way of Sylvia Plath or Sharon Olds. As noted earlier, the most successful poems in I Will Not Give Over are set in childhood or adolescence. Those poems have great tensions between personal innocence and worldly experience. However, they gain a different kind of intensity as the adult “I” ruminates on her place in the world and her complicity in its imperfections. For example, Cook writes in “Womb”:
“My moored womb thickens and bleeds, listening for the rattle of shells down the shoots, waiting, waiting, so full of regret I can’t stop hearing its muffled singing rising up from my middle, that echo ringing of birth, of water, of my sons’ faces slipping from me and into the world, into this terrible, available world.”
It’s that “terrible, available world” Cook does such a wonderful job of exploring. These are not poems that read as though they have had all the rough edges workshopped out of them. They are direct, vulnerable, lush; they engage all the senses. The collection is a terrific debut, one that suggests further, richer explorations to come.

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