review by rob mclennan
Dennis Cooley's fictions: "love in a dry land"
For years now, readers have been waiting for Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley's long-promised poetry collection, "love in a dry land," after sections of it appeared in his selected poems and "the Dennis Cooley issue" of Prairie Fire magazine (1998). In 2006, Cooley released the poetry collection The Bentleys, not only offering up a section of the long-awaited project, but with the almost subdued acknowledgment that his previous collection, Country Music: New Poems (2004), is part of the same ongoing work. The question then asks itself, are these books to be read as separate and self-contained sections of a much longer work, or individual threads pulled out of what could be an eight hundred page manuscript (as he has suggested before, what his ongoing projects usually become)? Are there even any other poets in the country that work through such volume?
One of Canada's most important, yet under-rated poets, Dennis Cooley is the author of over a dozen collections, from early books such as Leaving (1980), to his Sunfall: new and selected poems (1996), and to the more recent Irene (2000), a second and revised edition of his long poem Bloody Jack (2002) and his vampire poems, Seeing Red (2003). His other works over the years include the collection of essays, The Vernacular Muse (1987), and the journal passwords :transmigrations between canada and europe (1996), and as editor, RePlacing, an anthology of critical pieces on prairie poetry (originally published as issues 18-19 of Essays on Canadian Writing; 1980), and Draft: an anthology of prairie poetry (1981). And of course, Cooley being humble Cooley, you can almost never find most of these titles listed on his other books; never one to announce himself, but let the poems do all the talking.
Dennis Cooley and his poetry emerged in the 1970s, a time in Canadian literature that seems not to get the attention that the 1960s received, being at the birth of the "CanLit" era, and producing all sorts of writers in the small press explosion such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, Robert Kroetsch and so many others that, predominantly, are still casting very long shadows, leaving a whole crew of 1970s folk doing comparable work somehow critically left behind. An important and essential figure, Cooley was one of the founding editors of Winnipeg's Turnstone Press, helped start the Manitoba Writers Guild, and worked for years on his own writing, mentoring younger poets, editing collections of and writing on prairie writing, and teaching literature and writing at the University of Manitoba, influencing more than a couple of generations of prairie writers, including Winnipeg poet Karen Clavelle and the late Red Deer, Alberta writer Birk Sproxton. His essay on the line break, for example, "Breaking & Entering (Thoughts on Line Breaks)," is one that some authors, like Montreal author Jon Paul Fiorentino (originally from Transcona, a suburb of Winnipeg), and Prince George author Rob Budde (another transplanted Winnipeg boy) swear by. As Cooley writes in his essay:
I've been struck for some time how much formal departure disturbs readers. That's not surprising, I guess, since it always generates uncertainties, but I don’t think the resistance—it varies in its outer fringes from panic to contempt—can be altogether excused. You find it everywhere: complaints about "mannered" phrasing, fretting about "unfashionable" (or "fashionable") lining, querulous comments about "mere" technique or "flat" writing. Above all bad writing is "artificial"—this as a charge against art! What else can it be? The comments are hardly confined to novices. It's been my experience that the fiercest resistance to any straying from left margins or lines based on simple units comes from people who should know better: editors, reviewers, and even—so help me—poets.
This is unhealthy. When sophisticated people are saying these things, something's wrong. So, whatever I say here, there will still be some who choose not to understand, and who will cling to their position, left margins stuck up to the axles in mud, knowing that flexible lineation is gratuitous. Those who already know that unorthodox lining is silly, if not fraudulent (pretentious distracting self-conscious academic uninspired contrived ingenious fatuous derivative—you can extend the list, you've heard it before), those who would insist on a system of power that legitimizes their operations but invalidates others', those readers ought to skip this piece. Others will know a lot of what I am going to say anyway. But I don’t know of anywhere you can find a simple statement on line breaks. (The Vernacular Muse)
To know Cooley or his work at all is to already be influenced. Step into the prairie and you can see him everywhere. Running away for days and days and the poem in his head writing constantly. Essential in the prairie, for whatever reason the influence of his writing seems predominantly tied to the boundary of the Rocky Mountains to the left, and the Canadian Shield on the right. What is it about the stone he can't surpass?
He had taken on board
The larger work that includes Country Music and The Bentleys comes from an exploration of the Sinclair Ross novel, As for Me and My House (1941), a book three years older than Cooley himself. This is Cooley working his own ekphrasis, working his art from art, just as Tom Stoppard wrote his brilliant play Rozencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead (1968) from the Shakespeare classic Hamlet. The poet Dennis Cooley working his "love in a dry land" out of Ross' novel, considered one of the classics of early modern prairie literature, could easily be considered an extension of Cooley's own academic work on Sinclair Ross, much more in the vein of being directly related to his academics than any other of his poetry. In his essay "The Eye in Sinclair Ross's Short Stories" from The Vernacular Muse, Cooley begins:
Consider secrets. Or discoveries. How central they are to the realist narrative, above all to the realist narrative of epiphany. And how hermeneutic such texts are, those that slide around some armature of illumination, how they ask us to enter into interpreting a narrative whose occlusion it is our part as readers to remove or over whose erasure we are to bear witness. Consider too that realism in its most conscious and often in its least self-aware formations, in many nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novels, sought the removal of illusions which stood in the way of the social good. Author as moral hero, bearing witness: this is what I see. Testifying that we might see. The indignant eye. The narrative of personal revelation takes a quite different though, I hasten to say, no better form. Both structures aim at eliminating error in forms of the hidden or the neglected. Realist fiction, whether psychological or sociological, commonly observes as its ethos the stripping away of illusions that perpetuate stupidity and injustice. Such narratives, especially when they are psychological, also suppose a stable essential self (as we saw in The Stone Angel) and further suppose that personal or collective change is both possible and desirable. It will not be my purpose to explore those points here. All realism, however, pretends there is a denotational object or field that precedes the connotational system and that governs it. This convention will enter into what I have to say.
It's interesting Cooley mentions secrets, as the narrative in Ross' As for Me and My House is almost built on a foundation of them, whether the reader is aware of them or not, and Cooley, in his own way, writes his long poem between the lines of Ross' unreliable narrator Mrs. Bentley. Just what is it about Mrs. Bentley? The garden she works to bring back to life after their infant child dies even became part of the framing around which prairie-born Lorna (formerly Uher) Crozier wrote her own poetry collection a few years back, A Saving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley (1996), writing
Not the music.
How is it Cooley catches the music that Crozier pushes aside? As editor and critic Catherine Hunter writes in her Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier (2005),
How do the gaps left in one work turn so differently into another? It certainly isn’t a new idea in Cooley's poetry, writing the collection Fielding about the death of his father, to Irene, writing the death of his mother, or his Seeing Red playing all the stories about the legend of Dracula and other vampires; all story ends up as a version, and even Cooley working his anti-narrative sprawl and collage is still working from the basis of initial narrative. He still works from the essence of story. As he wrote himself at the beginning of Irene,
I'd been in Germany that summer. 1990. Teaching Canadian literature. An adventure, it was an adventure. We'd thrown ourselves into it, travelled all over the place. It was a summer to dream of, a privilege beyond belief. We'd loved it, but we'd increasingly looked forward to coming home. And when we did—this would have been within a few days of getting back—my sister Lynn called from Estevan. Our mother was on her way to Regina for an operation. Cancer. It looked bad.
I'd been shaken, that summer, when I'd called my mother and her voice had sounded so shaky. And then the letter from her, Diane bringing it with her—the handwriting weak and wobbly.
The night Lynn called I dreamt of my mother in hospital and dizzying lights. We went to Regina. And learned my mother was dying. I wrote bits & pieces over the next few months, and they became the basis for Irene. I'd written a poem, Fielding, about my father's death years before, and now one about my mother's dying.
I wrote and revised and added pieces over the next few years and this is what I've now got. In the interim it's taken on some associations, connections with the Persephone story perhaps most obviously. It's fairly narrow in tone and voicing, but I didn’t want to fiddle very much with it. The book, like Fielding, is personal and close to me.
I wrote this because I needed to tell myself what it was to lose my mother. I didn’t want her to slip away, and I wanted her to be somewhere, something more than my memory. And I wrote because I wanted to tell someone, but I am not sure what it is I need to say or why I want to tell you.
An elegy. It's an elegy.
In an interview I conduced with Cooley a few years ago (published in Rampike magazine in 2005), he talked about the "love in a dry land" sequence as a whole, saying:
I enjoy working in sequence, I find it productive, the poems just keep coming. And I like that experience, I love writing. So much of the time I'm adding and revising-what potential can I tap, what re-tune? I'm drafting, making notes, and the manuscripts get bigger and bigger. As long as that is happening I don't want to abandon the writing or cut it off. This goes on often for years. Irene began in 1990 and appeared in 2002, seeing red began in 1989 and appeared in 2003, love in a dry land began in 1989 and I'm still at it in 2004, hundreds of pages later.
That and the terrible scatter of notes and versions. I have them all over the place and it's a struggle to find and compare them, see what I've got: what's the latest version, what other versions do I have, what notes, what have i used where? Right now I'm making an effort to sort through what I have and put it into some kind of shape. So there's that.
That and my obsessive revising. I come back to texts again and again, tinkering and tuning, there's always something. It gets to the point that I'm not sure I've got anything better when I make changes. It's different, but whether it's any better I'm not always sure. I tend to complicate the text in revision and I sometimes worry that it loses power. […] I'm generally busy too. I write a lot of letters. I carry a pretty demanding load in an English department, I teach full-time, edit manuscripts for others, I give talks and write essays, conduct workshops, do a lot of work on conferences and with guest writers. I keep journals and compile bibliographies. I also supervise quite a few graduate students, and this takes more time and energy than a person might suppose. I travel quite a bit too, doing these things. Much of this is going on at the same time, I'll have 5 or 6 projects actively on the go. Right now, for instance, there are 4 or 5 journals in advanced stages, a long set of metapoems and muse poems (about 250 pages), a bunch of essays (300 pages or so), love in a dry land (approaching 700 pages), another 800 pages or so of poems, a couple of other book-long series lying around or under development. It's crazy: there must be something like 2000 pages of developed writing, and I don't really know where I might take it or what to do with it.
Finally (if there is a finally) I'm a put-offer. I've put off telling you this, but I am, I'm that all right. I work hard but all the time I'm perennially the last person to get in an essay or a submission. The late dennis cooley.
How does anyone manage to work through such volume? An essential aspect of Cooley's writing is the breath; the breath, and the shameless pun. Cooley the outlaw, Cooley the dog you can watch run away for three whole days. Cooley's poems are never ones to keep to any part of the page, or any part of the margins, and do little of what a reader would expect a poem to do. In Bloody Jack, Cooley's outlaw poem of John Krafchenko, "Canadian outlaw" (with its obvious roots in, among other things, pure prairie vernacular and Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and the best example (up to that point) of Cooley's construction of the open collage, Cooley taunts history and the text itself, even as the text finally turns in on the reader, and on the author, as in the poem "high drama," where he writes:
KRAFCHENKO (recovered) Butt out buddy. It's none of your business. (Kraf & Penny begin to kiss. Defiant, then lost in it. Cooley looks angry & impatient.)
COOLEY NO, no! Can't you get it right? It says right here, look, it says: "But they soon feel awkward & pull away. Penny sighs." See, the stage directions immobilize you. The stage directions do not allow you to fool around. Now. Not now they don't. Not once I get here. It's too late then, you blew your chance. (They start to grope & nuzzle. Not listening.) Not now I said. (murmurs of protest) No, I mean it. Now. According to the script, Kraf, you get yr ass outa here. Then Penny is supposed to make a play for me. I wrote it that way. A clear case of textual authority. Of my authority. My authorization. So, way you go now, Kraf. I'll look after things from here on in.
(KRAF goes, looking back, doubtful. She turns to cooley, upset, her eyes large with dark. A crow calls, offstage.) (Bloody Jack)
What astounds is not only the breath but the breadth to which Cooley writes, working up to a manuscript that could be hundreds of pages long, and then back down to a size more publishable. In the issue of Prairie Fire called "the Dennis Cooley issue" (1998), there were a number of works-in-progress included that had yet to appear (with a few that have appeared since), including a prose piece called "the hospital (excerpts from a work in progress)," and some of the "love in a dry land" series. A couple of years earlier, Cooley's selected poems Sunfall (1996) also included a fragment of "love in a dry land," giving readers one of their first glimpses of the series, starting with:
gotten so that's all I think
Considering how much he has published so far, the fact that some of these collections live for so long, being constantly worked and reworked, seems even more astounding. In the same Rampike interview, he had this to say about his almost obsessive amounts of writing, while discussing his journal passwords: transmigrations between canada and europe:
But, listen, everybody does something like this. We all are engaged in writing our lives, all the time. Forget the high-powered arguments about this (though they hold, I'm sure). But in the most basic and obvious ways this is true. We tell about what happened at work, we talk to ourselves, tell ourselves what we should have said when some prick was abusing our dog, rehearse what we will say when our kid gets home, imagine how we might speak when a charity calls, admire or envy the way someone has spoken about being hard-up, store up a good phrase we heard at the pub, save it for the right occasion. Whatever. We write and rewrite our lives all the time. We're in constant rehearsal. What is it to be in love? We've got an idea-we've read a few books, seen a few movies-and we ourselves have a go at the script.
And then, more generally, I'd say, yes, I am constantly writing, and that activity is a defining one for me, is central to my life.
Still, what is the essential difference here between Bloody Jack and "love in a dry land," writing story over story, whether fictional or legend? What are the differences between taking particular kinds of material and overlaying, overplaying? Reissued eighteen years after the first edition was published by Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press, Cooley’s wild Bloody Jack is an expansive text, and even moreso the new edition, rebuilt from the previous version, adding twenty pages from the original manuscript as well as new pieces. Cooley’s poetry, by very definition, is not only celebration, but distraction, rife with bad jokes, various shifts and vague histories, and has through the process of over a dozen collections of poetry, become what is meant when one refers to “prairie poetry.” “In this book Cooley is toying with / us, if he is not, in fact, merely / playing with himself.” Held still at the edge of the genre, Bloody Jack works through collage, in crossword puzzles, letters, lies and misdirections, notes of complaint, love poems, folk songs, and more. This book is sometimes about “Bloody Jack,” the life of John Krafchenko, a notorious Manitoban outlaw. Other times, Bloody Jack is the determination of the open form, a long essay unto itself of how a piece should be built or even shouldn’t, wreaking havoc with the reader with page after page of disassociative text, changing the voice and speech of each piece, depending on who is speaking.
Warden Morris, who declined to be interviewed, is reported to have favoured life sentences for those that have now slipped away into the prairie vernacular. He expressed deep consternation about the lessening of standards and violations of protocol, wondering whether cooley might be involved in the assaults on erudition and good taste. (“jail break, update”)
In either version, Cooley, through Bloody Jack, extends the work of David Arnason’s prairie poem Marsh Burning (1980) and the outlaw collage/fiction of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), as well as umbrella texts such as the multiple books of bpNichol’s The Martyrology, or Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes. In it, the authority is as much absolute as it is deliberately obscured. There is no one version because there is no single story to tell, but many. In Cooley’s open form, pieces fit because the author says they do, because they are included. In Bloody Jack, Cooley works the range of the outlaw journal, of Krafchenko and his beloved, Penny, writing and being written. Glancing from a series of fragments into a further inevitable. Beginning the book with Krafchenko’s death by hanging, the volume works in scattered reverse, reading in past tense. Cooley tells the story from the inside out, with both reader and writer already aware of its certain conclusion, although not its end.
Working all sorts of spacing and text size, Cooley's Country Music lives up to its title, writing a music across the page of the prairie country, and around the story of Mrs. Bentley, making the poem larger than the story of the story between her lines; Dennis Cooley writing his own Estevan, Saskatchewan (where poet and Cooley mentor Eli Mandel was also from) and Regina, writing in large letters on the page below the arrow, "[insert words here / dear reader: fear not / your favourite tune]" (p 136). Throughout the text, each fragment begins with an ampersand, staging and paging each breath in a different score. Instead of being delineated by individual poem titles, the "new poems" work as a long, continuous flow; his "new poems" become, simply, "poem," as he writes:
It's one thing to write poems using the book as your unit of composition, but how does one work multiples? There are certainly enough who've worked it, the idea that simply refuses to let go; even as one book is built another begins. bpNichol did it in a few places, including The Martyrology, and the four volumes that included love: a book of remembrances (1974) and Truth: A Book of Fictions (1993), Steve Ross Smith his four-volume fluttertongue, with the distinctions between each sequential unit being very clear. With Cooley, he seems to revel in the uncertainty and blurring/blending between the two (so far) volumes that interweave into this unknown and unseen whole. For his "love in a dry land," it's as though Cooley has broken down the threads and themes of Ross' work and pulled it apart, through the self-questioning of Mrs. Bentley, their marriage and her husband's own infidelity; "love" becomes the larger project as the inevitable next step after the constructions of Bloody Jack, and Cooley's own multiple book project. With the way Cooley creates, the question remains if these books are linear in their construction of side-by-side book units, or slices out of a growing work-in-progress that could never actually be finished, but instead abandoned. Knowing Cooley, it seems less likely that Country Music: New Poems is love in a dry land, book one, and The Bentleys is love in a dry land, book two, but that each work slices out of a project that has been built as a longer, singular unit, perhaps never to be seen as a whole? As Cooley has even said, who would published an 800 page book of poetry? Who would even read such a thing? Are they carved as individual slices or part of a larger, longer sequence of sections broken down as books? Just how long might this finished (or abandoned) project be, once all the books are done and said? What does Cooley mean when he ends the book The Bentleys with this small fragment suggesting closure; is he being playful, deceptive or completely honest when he writes:
when all is