’The Sound of the Rain, Elizabeth Cook
The Garlic Press, 2018 £6.00
Flogging a dead horse
Not uncommonly, you come across a poem — in a magazine, maybe — where the author has pushed a much-loved metaphor too far. The horse has been flogged to the point of no return, and sometimes the effect is unintentionally funny.
Elizabeth Cook never does this. Quite the reverse. She can take an image (fruitfully) further than I would have thought possible. You think you can see where she’s going, but then she adds a twist or an additional aspect, or switches to a new (but not entirely unrelated) image and you find yourself in an unexpectedly different place.
I found this entirely delightful, especially in the poems where the subject matter is death — and many of the poems here engage with that usually dark idea. Not so dark though when the dead, in their coffins, are ‘like broad beans, fresh-thumbed / from silky fur-lined pods’.
Or when the process of a man’s dying, slowly, is like lying ‘under a warm quilt, / and on that quilt a cat / treading continually, / each paw in turn sunk in / over and over, pressing and pushing, / making of him its own soft place, / a comfortable bed / on which to curl and sleep.’
I keep going back to ‘Folds’. This opens with the image of wooden hens linked together on a board (hopefully here is a visual representation). This serves as metaphor for a family – but such a strange family as the poem develops. They are in a square bed —
[ ... ] a row of heads on pillows,
— the narrow, hairless chests of the men
(all so pale I could not tell which
of their number it was that was dying)
Then Elizabeth Cook slips herself into the same metaphor (‘as I lay in my own small bed at the edge / of the pavement, wanting to stay snug’) before transforming a family death bed into something folded up ‘like a chequered picnic cloth’.
I can’t do justice to this poem. You need the whole experience of inhabiting the skilfully transforming metaphor. Something most unusual is going on here.
Michael Laskey ends his collection Weighing the Present more or less knowing nothing / was impossible, even heaven’ and this is territory that Elizabeth Cook explores with delicacy and good humour in several poems in this pamphlet.
There are no references to possible hereafters early on. Thomas Hardy gets buried on page 7 with his ‘most unsettled heart laid to rest in a tin’. It’s a true story told with a capital letter at the start of each line, exactly as Hardy himself would have done it.
In ‘The Candles’ the presence of death is just inferred from the poignant gap it leaves. Beautifully simple and simply beautiful: I would treasure the pamphlet for this poem alone.
The first reference to heaven comes in ‘Lift’, with a child writing a note to her late grandmother on paper ‘so thin / [ … ] that the air / would surely lift it, carry it aloft / up into the heaven she believed / was even finer.’
Adult uncertainties surface in the quirkily amusing ‘Quilt’, with a protagonist surprised to find himself in a state of ‘pleasant confusion’ on the brink of ‘preparing to sink in / to the welcome of what he had once called God, / or heaven, or something’.
In the next poem ‘Those who saw him rise / said it was as if / a giant jellyfish had floated up / and hung there / such colours, such waving softnesses’.
Apotheosis is achieved in the final poem, ‘The New’, when:
Everyone flips back the lid of a coffin
and climbs out clean;
or they’re like broad beans, fresh-thumbed
from silky fur-lined pods:
those dear blanched souls
with innocent rounded bellies,
naked and unashamed
as with beautiful washed feet they press
the unprintable turf of Paradise.
No need to be a believer to relish a vision such as this – one just has to thank Elizabeth Cook for putting such revel into revelation.