Poetry review: 24/3/21
SONIC WHITE POISE
by Patrick Cotter
Packed with tiny details that linger and demand close, careful reading…
“I know I’m having trouble making you believe this”, Patrick Cotter writes, in ‘1001 Estonian Nights’, punchline to his tale of how he met a little green man, stranded and alone, seeking direction to guide him back to the stars. But in fact his tale of a Martian yearning for home, along with the poet’s futile efforts to help, are all too believable: you accept and ache for them both. I’ve seen enough of men dying to know death is a taste/that visits them first on their tongue, he continues, accelerating away from the scene in panicked despair, having shown himself unable to help. These themes - of feeling out of place, outside one’s experience, awkward, incongruous, are returned to over and over, in Patrick Cotter’s third collection, Sonic White Poise, published by Dedalus Press. He takes metaphors and turns them into magical realism, heightening reality, transforming it, to illuminate his own absorbing, joyous way of seeing. We meet a dog who reads, eager to emulate his master by turning pages; but with nowhere in his brain for the words to go, he transcribes them instead into smells: Irish words, we are told, attract the barks of wolfhounds, the keening of Priests. It’s light-hearted, whimsical, packed with delightful, wry observations, all determinedly involving our every sense. Cotter is a story teller and a crafter of allegories.
Plenty of dogs on these pages, but other animals too: an anaesthetised mink round a woman’s neck, a sheep’s head in a butcher’s shop - the man standing behind his wife as she makes her transactions, paying “with token pounds and broken smirks”, while he stares into the sheep’s eyes:
his moist nose inches/
from her muzzle; his puzzlement in gazing
not as if he would eat but befriend, as if social censure
is all that stops him rending the sheep a kiss, stroking
her brow, missing an appreciative bahful greeting
lopped from the bodiless being.
The space between life and death, conscious and unconscious, is further explored in ‘Counterpane’, where a stuffed mouse lies on a windowsill, safe from the curiosity of next door’s cat. Is it a trophy, a memorial, a receptacle for a small creature’s soul? At least it need fear no further harm. Cotter takes a tiny moment and turns it into a meditation on humankind’s biggest questions, but makes it funny too: he imagines the sales assistant saying “ewwwww!” if he explained he wanted a frame for a dead mouse, when “Everyone my age while young would have said yuck.” It’s clever stuff, a joy to read aloud, rhythmic, melodious, packed with internal rhymes which force you to linger, afford each word fresh consideration.
For all his words are grounded in the corporeal, there’s a distinctly spiritual element to this work, ghosts and angels, Buddhist monks, although the ghosts want the radio left on, the angel rents herself out cheap, regretting that she’s only an apprentice, unable to help transport a dying man’s soul. Even the spiritual here is grounded, earthy, stinking of booze, pinned down by material concerns. Nor is art allowed to escape reality: in ‘Wounded Enough’, a sculptor tries to craft an angel sufficiently bland to please a committee: Everything must now display its wounds to reflect the vulnerable world. In ‘Mais Feliz’ a pianist tries to atone for being a neglectful husband, more devoted to his music than his wife, by gluing sandpaper to the keys, so he bleeds as he plays, and long after. From a lesser poet this might seem brash or obvious, but Cotter has the knack of making you care for his eccentric characters, feel their pain and dilemmas, hope for a gentle outcome.
The way people see the world, or don’t see it, forms the Greek chorus here: the particular, alienating paradigm each of us choose to make sense of the stories that rush at us. In ‘The View’ a homeless man carts a large wooden window with him everywhere, wanting “to stare at the world through a window he could call his own.” This has the advantage that his view can change, although his daily walks tend to circle about the same views, elm trees, swans, shops, mongrels. So desperately does he cleave to his window that when he stumbles and splits his head open he still manages to save the glass. Cotter notes but doesn’t judge the schoolgirls who gather to record the moment, “swiping at the horrid scene through their phone screens”. We all choose our own way to put some necessary distance between us and reality.
Subtle and thought-provoking, packed with tiny details that linger and demand close, careful reading, I enjoyed this collection hugely, and look forward to discovering other works by its author.
Review: Melissa Todd
SONIC WHITE POISE by Patrick Cotter
Dedalus Press (2021)
€12.50 – €20.00