Not everyone knows the sun moves around the Earth. To prove it, simply extend a line between the two largest stars in Orion. It will take you to another constellation, Pegasus. Draw another line between the winged horse’s brightest stars, and you’ll find another mythological tribute, and so forth. Find one constellation, and you can find them all. In this way, the hunter, the dog, the bear, the goat, and others can always guide us because Earth is the center.
From time to time, a random star appears which seems out of place.
To the old ones, Mars was the star that wasn’t supposed to be there. One season it might be seen in Virgo, in another, Andromeda. It is to that capricious planet that Wyn Cooper writes his song full of “something we didn’t know / before: how words mean things / we didn’t know we knew.” His poetry, “slantwise” and “streetwise,” is a conversation that isn’t supposed to be there. And yet it is, and like Mars, poetry is there to show us that we are not the center of life, that ego by itself is caricature.
Cooper generously implicates himself in this puzzle. In “The Kind of Rain” he writes, “The kind of rain / that makes you want to direct / a French film, maybe star in it, / cigarette in hand in Marseille.” When we are at the center of our own shot, what we imagine to be voice is merely cartoon rhetoric. Cooper’s “Plaza de Toros” is less merciful. The matador — Earth — is clearly not the center of the arena:
The latest from the stable is that the bull you plan to face
wants nothing to do with you. He feels you are below him, that to
slice you with a horn will shame his family. This information was
gleaned from the marks he made in the dirt, the quick left, the long
right. If you wish to send him a message you need to get down on
all flours and convince him you’re worthy…
Cooper doesn’t ask if there is life on Mars, rather he’s obsessed by the strings that connect us to distance like existential moorings. For him, Mars is just the planet at the end of the tunnel. The main thing is the tunnel, the string, the line. It’s in the way “a destitute man / with a castoff guitar / writes a country song” and a passerby records it so that “his song is heard / by a boy in Tehran / a guard in Korea / a barmaid in London.”
Cooper is that destitute man in “Viral.” His poet friends must be sick of the old story of how Sheryl Crow turned one of his poems into the pop hit “All I Wanna Do.” What does the destitute man do after being famous for a few minutes? He “starts gathering bottles / for their deposits, / cigarette butts for what they might have left he / might use, his muse.” He goes back to looking for Mars. Throughout, Cooper relies on lifeboats, cars, and trains to pass through voids which try so hard to sink him. In “This Train,” the poet’s ghost writes “If this train I’m driving / had brakes I wouldn’t / use them.”
For Cooper, a line of poetry represents tenacity and rope, and although this book is a compendium of forms and shaped stanzas, he’s best at tying sailor knots in a couplet. These were the poems which I went back to again and again, ones where he uses associative thinking to resist the urge of a poem as a finished thought, but relies on a couplet’s brevity as a stanza, and some connective devices like anaphora or spiral logic, to keep his associations linked. Every poem is a hundred butterflies, but Cooper keeps them flying in formation. In “My Idea,” he begins:
My idea of heaven is a road
that winds and winds toward home.
My idea of a car is not a car
in a showroom, polished and still.
My idea of galactic travel
is a road through space.
Roads and tracks and rivers and tunnels and waterways are synonymous images in Mars Poetica –“Watch the river flow in two directions, / one that leads to the sea, one to me, / where I wade, and wait, thirsty.” And in “The Loneliest Road in America” he writes, “why this highway — endless and dark / a zigzag line — across Nevada.” The drive is always at dusk, the tide coming in, the river going out, what he calls the “hour between dog and wolf / howling and howling — where is my darling?”
There are a lot of ways to prevent poems from drowning in their own book. One of them is to keep it shallow. One of them is to keep the blood up with a little action — careening trains, gunplay. And another might be simply to embrace the compound time signature of the ocean, its waves coming in long low1:7 beats and finishing with a splash of crotchets and quavers. Cooper is no stranger to sound checks. He and Madison Smartt Bell have a barnyard combo that rosins up from time to time. Cooper’s “low bar light” in “Death of the Cool” can refer to either a drinking bar or a bar of music notation. And it’s fascinating to watch him use his rhythm skills to keep a difficult suicide poem afloat in his “How Silent the Trees”—
How the hell are you, I want
to ask but can’t — you’re dead.
How hard the snow fell,
how slowly it melts.
How to tie a knot big enough
to choke the wild pain.
How to listen carelessly
to words used carefully.
How answers to questions
often contain no answer.
How to wind a watch
so tight time stops.
How silent the trees, how
loud the shots of hunters.
In “Vectors,” Cooper ventilates about the hole in his head: “Blood is everywhere… spilling down the stairways in waves, / through gates no one thought to close.” The hole in a heart is also a hole in the head. A hole in the head is a hole in the sky. A hole in the sky is a highway to Mars — the star that’s not supposed to be there.
As often as not, it’s the gunshot that’s not supposed to be there either, like when Cooper’s friend makes a mess of his brain with a gun. Cooper is too curious to dwell on the wounds. He reports the pain, peers into it, drops a penny or a poem into the pain and listens for it to hit the bottom. His “Death of the Cool” describes the sonorous pings which echo back: “The trumpet glistens / in the low bar / light, sends furtive / signals to the bass / and drums, a guitar / that sounds like / gutters might / if they were tuned / to a station / devoted to loss, / sounds so severe / no one seems able / to make them / stop.”
It’s as if an exit wound can turn someone’s head into a flugelhorn. Go ahead and moisten the reed. Everyone is welcome. There aren’t any bouncers at the door, just a sign written across the whole Cooper night, saying, “No Cover,” and “No Minimum.”
Barrett Warner is Poetry Critic at Riot Material. Mr. Warner is the author of three poetry collections: Latitude Zero, Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? and My Friend Ken Harvey.