‘Sightings’ review: D A Prince is fascinated by the way Rose Cook controls the speed of seeing things in the natural environment

Sightings, Rose CookThe jacket is deep but not dark blue. The lettering is sans serif caps, white. The title is centred in large caps in the top quarter. The author's name very much smaller is at the foot of the jacket, also centred. In the middle is a beautifully clear but dreamy in mood photo of a seed head of some kind, with long white feathery trails.

Grey Hen Press (Hen Run), 2019  £4.00

The speed of sight

Seeing — that noticing of what’s around us — is something we take for granted. It’s a part of the totality of being aware. Rose Cook’s opening poem, ‘Sightings’, draws attention to the impact of sudden sights, where unexpected immediacy comes as a shock —

Saw the whale flex its muscular back against blue water,
not far out, the shiver of a god.

Saw a seal make her way along the shore,
head round and black, slow flippers, trawling a sea
pink with sunset. Saw it.

By omitting the ‘I’ and going straight for the verb, along with repeating ‘saw’ three times in only five lines, she gives her poem the equivalent of rapid jotting. This takes the reader directly to the visual experiences; they’re right before your eyes.

Yet the personal is still present in the two-word sentence ‘Saw it’. The ‘I’ is not just implied, but thumping the table. That ‘Saw it’ made me recognise how Cook gives foreground to both the whale and the seal. If you remove this sentence fragment from the poem, the two sightings are slower, more reflective; put it back in and you have two words that say, in effect, Me! Me! I was the one who saw it!  It was me! (My re-wording is clumsy but I hope it makes the point.) In two words Cook has condensed the knocked-sideways excitement and speed of seeing that makes the animal world vivid.

If the whole pamphlet were written with this intensity, the impact would be lost. What Cook achieves in Sightings is a demonstration of the various speeds with which we might see detail and action in the natural environment.

‘Dance’, for example, is a considered record of ‘whirling insect clouds’ that last all day.

‘Watching them dive’ lingers over the movements of gannets and tern as they dive for fish; here the act of watching is slower, allowing for comparison.

I began to think about the synonyms for ‘see’, and their differences: watch, look, spot, observe — you can add to the list.

It’s that snappy ‘Saw it’ that pointed the way.

D A Prince

reviewer from Sphinx


Review of ‘Sightings’ from The High Window

Rose Cook: Sightings

Rose Cook’s Sightings reviewed by David Cooke

Sightings by Rose Cook. £4. Hen Run (Grey Hen Press). ISBN:  978-1999690304

The title of Rose Cook’s new chapbook, Sightings, reminds one of Seamus Heaney’s 1991 masterpiece, Seeing Things, and, in particular, its long visionary sequence, ‘Squarings’. Moreover, the fact that Cook’s collection concludes with ‘Brigid’s Day’, a brief elegy for the Irish poet, suggests that any similarity may not be unintended. On closer inspection, one does detect an affinity between the work of these two poets and perhaps also that of Charles Tomlinson, whose first great collection was Seeing is Believing.  However, to draw such comparisons is in no way to suggest that there is anything derivative about the poetry of Rose Cook or to diminish the brilliance of her epiphanies. Far from it, for Cook is a poet who can hold her own in the best of company and one whose unique way with words enables the reader to see the world in a new light.

In this regard, her title poem is exemplary and might be taken as a kind of poetic manifesto. It consists of seven irregular stanzas, each of which has the numinous clarity of a haiku:

Saw the whale flex its muscular back against blue water,
not far out, the shiver of a god.

Beyond the almost scientific precision of these lines I particularly relish her use of the word ‘shiver’ which, although attached grammatically to the whale, seems nonetheless to take on a subjective resonance. Each of the subsequent stanzas encapsulates perfectly, and with minimum fuss, a precise moment in time, culminating in the final couplet which has an imagistic precision:

Saw a line of washing tied high above a street,
several white sheets and a single red shirt.

In ‘While the Sun Shone Down’, which is brief enough to be quoted in its entirety, she shows how much can be achieved in a few lines with such seemingly effortless ease:

The black dog with a good-natured expression
ran the whole length of the strand. She had seen
a group of students arrive with measuring equipment
and wanted to check them out.

After receiving greetings and warm strokes
the black dog ran the length of the beach back to her owner,
running along the edge of the sea and smiling all the way.

What is delightful here is not merely the poem’s matter-of-fact anthropomorphism but the way in which the dog’s loping gait is captured by the leisurely syntax of the poem’s final line. In ‘Days of the Whale’ the poet focuses, with a hint of unease, on a less quotidian event, for the whale is a ‘big, blue, endangered creature / wild and deep as a dream.’ In ‘A Whale in My Window’ she hints at an underlying unity beneath the surface of things: ‘When you speed up the song / of a humpback whale / it sounds like birdsong.’ Elsewhere, as in ‘Moorhen’, her gaze is not drawn toward unwonted events but to those we might so easily miss:

Now they are in the nest together, adding material.

Once the reeds grow,
no one will notice their nest.

Cook’s tone is frequently, and commendably, understated. The opening line of ‘Watching them Dive’ could hardly be more casual: ‘The first thing that attracts me is the glide’. However, its concluding couplet has an epic simplicity that takes us back to the Anglo-Saxons:

At dusk, a cormorant flies home,
black, heavy outline against dark sea.

Moreover, where Cook does indulge in metaphor it is always to the point and memorable. In the same poem tern are compared to ‘a cotillion of tumbling snowflakes’. In ‘A Hover of Crows, A Muster, A Parcel’, light bouncing off the backs of crows makes them ‘bright as Lord Krishna’s hair.’

Like Jane Kenyon or Kerry Hardie , Cook has that rare ability to get to the heart things in a few lines, but she also writes poems in which she allows herself more scope. ‘The Language of Birds’ opens with a visionary stanza:

I dream I can talk with birds.
The conversation of birds is the green language
of angels, language of light, of Wing Makers,
Star people, who talk in whistle language to reach through.
Let me learn the nightingale speech.

A few stanzas later it comes home to roost in childhood memories: ‘Baby’s first word was bird. She said burb, / pointing at the sparrows outside.’ ‘How to Build a Wall’, appropriately enough, is composed in six quatrains. It’s a poem which, like Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’, has a metaphorical potential that it is more than the sum of its parts. It also has a Heaneyesque relish in the technical vocabulary associated with a traditional craft:

Begin again, forage for second lift.
Build then with company and a good heart,
place in more heartings with tumble and lustre,
brought for stability to friendship or wall.

Finally, lest one is left with the impression that Cook is merely a dispassionate observer of the natural world, there are poems here informed by more obviously human concerns. ‘Passiegata’ was written after the death of a friend. ‘Bloodlines’ is an affectionate portrayal of a grandmother which hints nonetheless at family tensions: ‘She brought iced buns, endured my mother’s / lukewarm welcome … ‘Conversation’ is a cunningly constructed poem in which an awkward conversation is set against the backdrop of some badly played music. These days there are many voices clamouring for our attention. It is to be hoped, however, that Rose Cook’s quietly elegant and beautifully observed poems will gain the discerning readership they so clearly deserve.