Poetry Today February 2015
Featuring William Cook
Critique by Anthony Servante
Just as Andrew D. Blacet represents the poetry of stream of consciousness, William Cook reflects the work of self-awareness, what the Romantic Poets called "sublime realization". Utilizing the form of a "journal" to capture his perspective, Cook escorts us through a prosaic journey "between birth and death", not so much "life" as the waiting period of consciousness as it develops only to die. Thus the title "Corpus Delicti", an allusion to a crime without the evidence of a body, or rather, a body of work without the evidence of existence. The book of selected poetry becomes that body, that proof of life, that self-awareness of being without beginning or end, or in Cook's words: "the realization of a truth about oneself...And this new knowledge of the soul — that there is no soul, no muse, no thinking heart . . . it is the worst truth I have ever had to bear". And so he shared his burden with his readers. It is our intent here to see how he does so in poetic deed.
If we read each of the poems as if they were each a breath the poet is taking and that each breath will lead to death, we can understand how William Cook has arranged his words for us to empathize with rather than understand. This is not a puzzle with one solution. It is more a prism with a sequence of colors leading to blackness or in this case the absence of color. It is more about the order of chaos rather than a "meaning" to life. We can call this empathetic reading a "subjective correlative", a personal reading unique unto each reader rather than a unified book of poems with a universal truth that we can all identify with. That is not the experience here. But allow me to delineate a bit to discuss the "objective correlative" from which I have altered my phrase to better appreciate its relevance and history given Cook's poetic rapport with the Age of Romanticism.
T.S. Eliot, poet and literary critic, developed the "objective correlative" in his criticism of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Simply, it is the evocation of emotion by its representation in the work (poem, play, painting, etc) or the corresponding "image" in the world to the word or symbol of the image. We write "my first puppy" and its corresponding emotion should be a nostalgically pleasant memory of one's own first puppy. And this definition worked fine for the Romantic critics, but today we must not trust to its universality. Not all people have pleasant memories of their first puppy. Some of us wept in terror when we were first introduced to this four-legged beast, while others suffered an allergic reaction. We understand what the writer intends when he writes of his first puppy, we understand the consensus, but we each have our own empathetic relationship to the term, namely, "I screamed" or "I sneezed" rather than I fell in love with the little critter. It is this personal correspondent with the image, rather than the intellectual understanding of it, that we call the subjective correlative. We want to find ourselves in the work, not the artist.
Corpus Delicti is a challenge to our emotions, not our intellect. To read it as an objective correlative is to detach oneself from the experience; to read it as a subjective correlative is to share Cook's experience with our own, for each individual consciousness is itself an object in the world just as much as a puppy or chair or poem. In Circle of Ouroboros, the poet points out this relation of the work to the readers,
And so the steps one makes towards the end
to quote a cliché
are aspects of the journey
the final destination relegated
to the ethereal realms of the unknown
the infinite possibilities that exist
outside of human consciousness (p 13).
To know the "unknown" is to know ourselves outside of human awareness, just as we understand Cook's realization of this "cliché" (that is, its universality). In New dawn prophecy, Cook expands on this alienating realization,
What lies outside the heart and soul is restriction
that leads an arterial bypass past life’s true intentions (p 14).
How does one come to know one's self? Alone, one can only know alienation and solitude, but via others (friends, poetry, art, etc), we find our humanity, our individuality among the multitude.
In Epiphanous vision, the poetry echoes the fallibility ("bullshit") of finding universal truths, whereas individual truths coalesce with others' truths,
nothing is as plain as it seems
when you put words to it
when you apply words to the world ...
perhaps of some consequence
to the greater scheme of things
(whatever that may be!)
‘truth’ that elusive quagmire
of common census
that many, can make one reality
and that it is without variance
indisputable . . .
bullshit!!! (p 17).
"Without variance", there can be no universal truth. We vary as individuals and it is with variance that we find ourselves rather than a "greater scheme" (an objective correlative to reality or the world).
Once William Cook has established this intent for the reader to experience, he delves into the workings of individual minds. In Terror is not my thing, Cook joins his experience with his readers, "It’s fear for all and all for fear" (p 22). In Dead Love, he is more specific in his emotive description, "My warm loving cadaver we are one, forever". The cadaver can be read as his lover or his own dead body, the vessel that his life occupies. This dualism (other and self) represents individuality as single being and collective beings, just as the reader and the poet become one through the "corpus delicti".
In Truth, Cook gives us a straightforward accounting of the universality of emotions:
Truth is: hunger
apathy/hope . . .
you want it to be.
I believe . . . (p 33).
The italicized "I believe" describes the poet's thoughts on "truth" after sharing with us those universal emotions that we all identify with in our own way (subjective correlative) while this belief also asserts Cook's own identity as its own subjective correlative. Very clever. Very forceful. Then in ironic reflection, Cook restates this truth in I who am no one:
I is nothing and
I speak for all of us when
I say that (p 34)
Ego is everything and nothing. All egos are also everything and nothing. But our collective empathy with this "truth" is the only truth we can realize. Much as the individual can be alone in a crowd, so too can he be the crowd. Cook teases us with this irony. Think of the illusion where the drawing can be seen as an old woman or a young woman. Which is it? Neither. And both.
The totality of the poetry of Corpus Delicti echoes that last sentiment, for the book is neither the work of William Cook nor our own reflections, but both. In this dark journal of self-realization, self-deprecation, and selfish irony, William Cook has given us the abyss that we stare into just as it stares into us.