Chaos is the New Calm by Wyn Cooper. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010.
Reviewed by Timothy Mayo
Ezra Pound’s maxim, “make it new” has been one of the major governing principles of American poetry since he uttered those words almost a century ago. If poetry is meant to delight, one of the ways it succeeds at doing this is through novelty. In that light one can read the poems in Wyn Cooper’s new book Chaos is the New Calm as declarations of independence from an older, more predictable logic of how poems often progress to one where the unexpected turn reigns. These poems move along at an energetic pace often progressing by plays on words and a kind of free association logic or, to put it another way, a sort of “six-degrees-of-separation” type of logic between both people and things:
. . . so great half
the people think they really have
a king, making him Half King,
the name of a bar in Chelsea
owned by a friend of a friend
(“The Half King”)
Chaos doesn’t strive toward some emotional, thematic or narrative arc, and this makes the collection at first appear chaotic. In keeping with this appearance of disunity, Cooper has ordered his play on chaos by arranging the poems alphabetically. What does seem to unite this collection, however, are Cooper’s formal experimentations with fourteen lines (all the poems in the collection have fourteen lines) and the myriad of stanzaic ways he can organize them, depending upon the content and tenor of each poem. Rhyme often plays into his formal considerations, though many of the poems stay away from it.
In the poem “European” the differences between two disputing travelers on a train, both of different nationalities, are reinforced by their shoes. As the poem progresses from the dispute to an observation about each traveler’s shoes, to emphasize their differences, Cooper also shifts the poem’s relaxed rhyme scheme into a more rigorous one to reinforce the differences and contrast between the two travelers:
There’s no room for your kind
says the man next to me.
His eyes stare at the floor—
our shoes are countries.
His boots are Italian,
mine loafers from Spain.
His glare’s Sicilian,
my tongue is in pain.
NATO holds us together,
two birds without feathers.
As I mentioned earlier, what often propels the action in these poems are word plays and a sort of associative or interconnective, “six-degrees-of-separation” type of logic. A good example can be found in the poem “My Future.” In the poem a liveried courier delivers the speaker’s future to him by way of a “cheque.” In so doing the courier bows so low the speaker is not sure he will be able to stand back up again:
but he stood me a stout and more
in a pub of some repute
just up from where I sit
with a quill and write missives
that will come to you by way
of the silvery man who delivered
my future in a spackled envelope
I watched his brother make
by hand the year before
in the town of Amalfi.
However, if I were to pick one poem which articulates Cooper’s main and deepest concern in this collection, I would pick the last poem in the book, “Weave,” not because this poem moves in the ways I have been describing, but because what Cooper writes about in the poem seems to be an ars poetica of what he is attempting in this book:
From the Mosque the muezzin calls
through speakers on minarets,
sounds that weave down every alley,
that find me where I lie
and lure me toward another prayer.
I stay in a slum, don’t bat an eye
when people cry at the door.
I can’t close it on those
who wonder why I’m here at all.
I follow directions when they’re given
in language I don’t understand.
I watch the Turks as they converse,
watch their hands weave the air,
how they tell their stories here.
Cooper is not at all a confessional poet. Although many of these poems are likely to have grown out of direct personal experiences, the treatments of family and friends are restrained. I bring this up because he has dedicated the book to a close friend of his, the late Liam Rector. There are also a number of poems dedicated to him, but one in particular comes to mind, “Devices.” Rector was a man of style and fashion, as well as a towering intellect, a very fine poet and a moving force in the poetry world. A brief background might help to fully appreciate the understated-ness of this poem. Liam Rector was among other things a bon vivant who embraced the pleasures of life, good wine and drink, rich food, fashion, tobacco and great poetry. During the course of his life some of these pleasures helped contribute to a massive heart attack and on-going heart condition, as well as a death-defying bout with cancer. Whether or not he was suffering from a recurrence of any of these heath issues, they certainly hung over his head, and if nothing else, Rector was a man who always wanted to be as much in charge of his own destiny as one can. So in keeping with that on August 15, 2007 he chose his own exit:
Out of roiling darkness,
the unruly starkness
of what you didn’t do,
comes news of what you did:
worse than I expected,
your neglected self
left to its devices.
I miss you already
though you’re still here,
flaunting your style,
your demeanor calm
as the day I met you
under an umbrella borrowed
form a London hotel.
“Devices” is as restrained an elegy as one will ever read, and it is from that restraint that its power comes. Cooper just casually slips it in—in alphabetical order, of course. It is this type of writing which adds an otherwise easily overlooked subtlety to this book.
Nonetheless, if I am to level a criticism against this book, I keep wishing more of the poems were not as emotionally restrained as many of them are, and that some of the associations which turn these poems did not reach as far for their clever turns and instead had a tighter, more developed logic. The two together can sometimes result in making some of these poems sound a little too pat, but then poetry isn’t just made up of metaphysical conceits and heart wrenching self-revelations. Cooper’s poems are like closely held cards—almost all aces.
Tim Mayo's poems and reviews have appeared or will appear in Atlanta Review, 5 AM, Poet Lore, Poetry International, Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac, among others. He has been a semi-finalist for the “Discovery”/Nation Award. His full length collection The Kingdom of Possibilities (Mayapple Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2009 Brittingham and Pollak Awards and a finalist for 2009 May Swenson Award, and he was recently named a top finalist for the 2009 Paumanok Award.