Review of Divine Margins by Peter Cooley

Peter Cooley. Divine Margins. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009. 72 pp. $15.95, paper.

Peter Cooley’s latest book, Divine Margins, is a series of heartfelt ruminations during and following the year his parents died. At times, the book reads as a collection of aubades, where each morning provides the terrible and wonderful chance to conjure up the luminous memories of the past, and where the morning light is the liminal space in which the dead still populate the memories of the living. As the author says to his mother,

Mother, your voice: there is no word for how it wounds me.
It comes back as that silence you picked up the phone with always,
hesitant, plangent, dawn lifting back the night.
Mother, your voice, I only have it at first light.

—“Triptych: center panel always still unfinished” (12)

It is this liminal space that Cooley haltingly enters: a parent himself, he knows that someday he too shall be in the place of his own dead parents. As he tries to orient himself following his parents’ deaths, it is his own role as a parent that he returns to as he tries to make sense of his new world. As he writes about his own impending old age,

You are the person come to clean my room,
you are whichever of my three children
open the drawer here where this poem will go
in a few minutes when I’ve had my say.

—“One Certain Thing” (63)

The world of his poems is a world in which he both reaches back to a childhood when language seemed unable to express his full desires, and it is a world which provides a plenitude that he trips over as an adult. In many of the poems, he has to move beyond language to record the world around him, relying only on their sounds and shadows. What emerges is a world in which the television blares alongside references to Shakespeare and the persons of the New Testament. Other times, the only ways of connecting with the dead are through the routine of daily life and all its details. As he tries to re-create the comfort of his childhood, he writes of a trip to the supermarket,

Cream of wheat, brown sugar, I drop them into my cart,
no one but you knowing how little I’ve become,
readers, how little I need now since Mother’s gone.
Breakfast at the beginning, supper for the end of life.

—“Little Quartet for my Mother” (19)

It is in these moments we grasp the starkness Cooley does not have the language to tackle head-on.

Caught in the margin between parents who have disappeared and a family that he has created, Peter Cooley uses this space to probe how the living deal with memory and the future. The book is divided into four sections. The first deals with the immediate aftermath of the death of both his parents. The second section moves away from the raw emotion and takes on a more meditative tone as it views his world through the lens of various archetypes and through received stories, such as religious stories, trying to make sense of what he has experienced. The third section is a short prose section that compares a visit to the zoo as an adult to one when he was a little boy. He remembers this as the time he first became a poet. The fourth section then returns, refreshed, to look once more at the deaths that have led him to write this book of poetry. In all, the arc is of one who re-emerges, from the initial trauma to its distancing, to the ability to reflect upon it and put it into art and to see this as a universal human tendency.

There are a few—precious few!—moments where Cooley pushes through to something beyond a melancholic, ruminative voice. In “All My Tests Negative” he says,

I need a miracle before I sleep tonight!
This is what I get: high noon, grace the light
standing between parked cars, the hospital parking lot,
all my tests negative, here between the black limo
trussed up to impress in milky leathers … (45)

But this energy does not last, to the book’s benefit. This is a book of endings, and a book of morning light, the voice being one of the poet looking out, barely awake, moving in grief like a person underwater and uncaffeinated. It’s a meditative journey. Poems like “All My Tests Negative” hint at moments when Cooley might turn to engage with the others living around him, but these are largely unformed moments that only exist in the right now; this book’s strengths are the length and depth with which it plumbs the numbness, disorientation, lethargy and confusion of trauma, loneliness and grief, which Cooley does marvelously.

 

Andrea Janelle Dickens lives and works in central Ohio.