canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Singing The Flowers Open 
by Allan Cooper
Gaspereau Press, 2001

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook.

This, Allan Cooper’s 11th volume of poetry, is, in many ways, typical of the last generation of Canadian poets and their spiritual and intellectual interests in the human relationship to the natural world, in Eastern philosophy, aesthetics and religion, and in modernist aesthetics and free verse. Being an Eastern Canadian, Cooper’s work also shows more local yet diverse technical influences: Alden Nowlan’s colloquial, lyrical-dramatic poetry; John Thompson’s imagistic ‘ghazals’; and the prose poem, which seems particularly ubiquitous among Maritime poets; perhaps because Robert Bly is a practitioner, and this American poet’s early and long-time championing of Alden Nowlan’s poetry earned him a sympathetic audience; and Bly’s ‘work on men’ was most resonant with this generation of ‘unfathered’ male poets.

Singing the Flowers Open is as full of echoes as it is suffused with light, an image in the vast majority of poems. The Apollonian metaphor has the usual associations of clarity, understanding, revelation, grace, health, truth, transcendence and totality:

[A]t the banquet table of the light,’s possible for all things to come together at last, full of laughter and watery sound, a tone that rises half in this world and half in the world that lives in the air.

(“The Banquet Table of the Light”)

The collection suggests the invitation to this table comes through the difficult, lonely but ultimately rewarding engagement with imaginative creativity, including love, the latter acknowledged in poems about Cooper’s daughter and father, for example. Both the aesthetic and erotic experiences imply an at least imaginary realm of wholeness and union that may need us as much as we need it:

Is there something that feeds on us? What if all our creative acts are dark ciphers for a language we know nothing of? Do our words feed the white and black angels of the air? Do they feed the hundreds of beings whose forms of light we can hardly begin to imagine?


This sanctity of the imagination and the dark, self-sacrificing struggle toward the light is Rilkean, and we can clearly hear this German “Santa Claus of Loneliness” (as Auden called him) in poems like “November” (above) or “Life”:

XXXXWell, then, what
of this body and its history of sadness
and loss? Didn’t we overcome them
for a while? If a voice spoke
we didn’t hear it. It was something
about music, the sky sweeping low
in late afternoon
with a secret it wanted to share.

The tone, imagery and ideas in these examples recall specifically Rilke’s masterpiece “The Duino Elegies”. The idea that the imagination can redeem us is convincing, emotionally and spiritually, until that idea is pressed into practical service, as poets are tempted to do, unfortunately, out of righteous anger. In “Ethiopian Father Bending Near His Child,” for example, Cooper indulges this wish that poetry make something (really) happen: “If somehow this poem could stand up and shake the doors of vaults, and all the loose change from banks and corporations could roll into the consciousness of wheat.....”. Here ideology usurps imagination, however noble the sentiment.

Other and, for English ears, more obvious influences can be heard in Cooper’s “Hoeing”, another prose poem (quoted here in its entirety):

XXXXMy father must be thinking of me now, for I feel his syllables moving beneath me like a river. In the dream he is always holding a hoe, his pipe smoke drifting among the alders. “A storm must be coming,” he says, but it is not the storm that carried him away - a storm filled with light like a seed, a storm that had never known such loss or anger.

XXXXSometimes he follows me home from my hoeing. He’s been at work here, his elegant hands worrying among the seedlings.

XXXXIn the twenty-seven years I knew him, I cannot remember him lifting his voice in anger against me. And yet when he died how I raged against the earth, as if that act alone would make him rise, wholly, from the dead.

Unfortunately, Cooper’s prose poem pales beside its thematic and metaphoric models: Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”, “Follower”, “The Ash Plant”, and “The Call”, and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”. (“Hoeing”, incidentally, is unusually narrative and lean in imagery when compared to Cooper’s other prose poems, which are, generally, the most imagistically dense of Cooper’s work in the collection.) Another poem, “The Cricket”, echoes Robert Frost’s sonnets “The Oven Bird”, “Acquainted with the Night” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

There’s that cricket again. His voice
in the heat of the day seems urgent,
but at night grows more relaxed.
He knows the cold is coming,
but his song has something more
important in it. He has appointments
with the night and the day.
Issa loved crickets, and no wonder:
they were his friends, and he knew
how to let down the secret veil
between their two worlds. The crickets say
the cold is coming, and the inevitable dark.
If only we could sing until we die.

“The Cricket” and “Life” are from the most accomplished of the sequences in Singing the Flowers Open, “A Voice that Rose Like the Wind” - free verse poems, for which the closest analogy to formal verse is the sonnet. Not that these poems fail form: the elasticity of the structure Cooper uses tactfully here is the key to these poems’ success: they are what they need and can be in their form, rhythm, metaphors and, particularly, diction. Here’s another representative poem from this sequence:


Desire is something the body knows,
and hunger. But what happens in the chest
when we wake to the cool of dawn
and hear birdsong? Doesn’t every
cell of our body remember
the first morning, Eden, apples
shining on the bough? The body turns,
and a few warblers come up,
and the raucous calls of jays and crows.
What are they saying?
What do they want? The day opens,
with joy or heartache to follow,
but first there is song.

Despite the tragic origins and consequences of creativity - loneliness, bewilderment, loss and sacrifice - there is a lightness of touch and tone in Singing the Flowers Open, a willingness to treasure the light, as evidenced in the fleeting “Privacy Poems”, “White Sands”, and the delicate, bare sequences “Old Roses” and “The Day”. Here are a few lines from a part of “Old Roses” that may serve as an example of the technique in these sequences:

This old ache in the heart
I’ve carried with me

since childhood:
you know how it is

when someone who loves you
passes through you

with barely
an acknowledgment.

These gentle, simple, slight, humble, grateful poems have moments of great emotional power and help balance the tragic undercurrents in the book, by showing how the slightest of images and experiences have redemptive power. If the weakness of some of Cooper’s prose poems is their occasional tendency to merely describe, the danger in some of the almost “haiku”-like sequences is sentimentality.

The most poignant and perhaps unique work in the collection is Cooper’s translation of Lin Chu, a young Chinese poet, in “Fifteen Poems from Thresholds”. As Cooper acknowledges in his brief preface to this translation, these poems remind a reader of ghazals. The language and tone are unproblematic (suggesting a successful translation), and the work further developes the themes of the Singing the Flowers Open. It is the emotional rawness of these poems that is their virtue. Here’s an example:

Listen to me a little longer. Stay, if you can,
a little longer. I’ve made a bed for you inside my chest.

There’s something in me like a water glass
that trembles slightly when you walk by.

One tone of your voice, and I wonder where I was.
Before I was born, it’s certain, you were there.

I saw your face first when I was a child; all my life
I’ve been slowly moving toward you.

The little river spills itself into the sea. Meet me past the point
where the cormorants tangle over the carnage of love.

My reading of Cooper’s book may imply that it suffers from a lack of originality, but it can be argued that Singing the Flowers Open is significant for two, general, reasons: on the one hand, the collection is representative of Maritime Canadian literature (and certainly its images evoke our eastern landscape); on the other hand, the book is polyphonic in its allusions and echoes, cosmopolitan in its formal references. It is important that Canadian poetry re-sound with ‘foreign’ masters like Heaney, Frost, and Rilke and engage with ‘foreign’ forms (like the ghazal or other (quasi-) Eastern aesthetic forms): this is how a national literature finds itself at home in an international context. Cooper’s success is in working eclectic traditions while maintaining a distinctive voice and coherent metaphoric vision.

Geoffrey Cook is one of TDR's poetry editors.







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