Glass, by Emily Cooper, Makina Books, 42 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-1916060883
“The dreaded ‘full length collection’ is the very exemplar of poetry as commodity; a ready-made container waiting to be filled with the appropriate quantity of verse. Books of poetry should be organic wholes, not boxes of biscuits” – or so said poet and reviewer Billy Mills recently on Twitter.
There is much ambiguity as to the word or poem count at which a chapbook transforms into a full-length collection (of books published this year, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s To Star the Dark contains thirty-four poems, while David Butler’s Liffey Sequence contains twice as many at sixty-nine.) Much is up to the discretion of individual publishers. But is it easier or more logical for a chapbook to be an “organic whole”? Is a “miscellaneous jumble only constrained by a 64-72 pp publication format” (to quote Kit Fryatt from the same thread) more refreshing and exciting than a thematically unified short book? Should books be priced according to quantity of poems, so the reader feels they are getting an adequate bang for their buck? What constitutes an organic whole, and is being such even a desirable attribute in a poetry collection? Does it make it more or less likely to be reviewed? Any poet putting a body of work together will have asked themselves at least some of these questions, and while there is no definitive answer, Mills’s quote has got me thinking about boxes of biscuits – or at least the type that are beautifully designed objects containing a small number of treats (and no dusty pink wafers to go stale at the bottom). It strikes me as a reasonable analogy for Glass, the “debut poetry title” from Emily Cooper, and the publisher has neatly side-stepped the collection/chapbook division with this moniker. Glass itself, which exists as an audiobook and an e-book with audio-described cover, as well as a “deluxe, flapped paperback, offset litho printed on uncoated paper stock”, with an animated cover reveal on YouTube, feels like a multi-media event.
The division between poetry on the page and spoken word poetry, already blurry, has been further complicated by technology, and this multidimensional development, facilitating crossover between performance, art, film and text, is to be welcomed. In an overcrowded market, anything you can add to draw attention to poetry is worth doing, and Glass is both a digital entity and beautifully crafted object.
The small volume (15cm x 18 cm), which contains sixteen poems, is designed around the motif of an arched, multi-paned window, presumably a detail from the Georgian house in Donegal where the poet currently lives. The title poem, too, is shaped like a Georgian window. It extends over six pages, in landscape format, and is divided into two columns – one of which is concerned with renovations to the house, the other with photographic images viewed through a slide projector. Glass is window, glass is photographic plate, glass is almost the Irish for green, the colour of the poet’s eyes – glas; drinking glasses get smashed at Christmas, glass is as fragile as memories, as is suggested on the first recto of the book, where the arch is replicated in words, and the letters that make up G L A S S lie in fragments at the bottom of the page.
Great formal variety is on show here, from the ambitious title poem to the slippery two-page layout of “Dinner with Raymona”, which seems to echo the shape of eels slithering in formation, though the choice of placing the title on the right hand side when the poem begins on the left is confusing, suggesting a run-on from the preceding double-page spread, the prose poem “Notions About Sex”.
There is a tension between the almost deadpan language and the visually inventive forms within which it is placed, creating a compelling dreamscape.
The brevity of Glass suggests a thematic unity, but the logic behind the selection process isn’t pat: it isn’t houses, windows, or even glass itself; perhaps it is the inherent fragility of being – delicate and ephemeral as glass, as the first dropped cone of summer, or the eels that shimmy from the Sargasso Sea to “die on the deck of her father’s boat slammed hard against the wooden edge”. There is sense of ever-present danger throughout, notably in “Minotaur by Proxy”, in which “I slid down a slide and observed many hazards. Sharp edging / On the metal mesh constructions, low ceilings with no signs […] The constructors of the labyrinth had an awareness of safety / Which made their lax attitude even more significant […] No warning sign about seizures.”
The omnipresent threat does not prevent things from happening, or travels being undertaken, and Glass ends on an optimistic note with the poem “Incredible Things Do Happen”, which has the beautifully chosen last line: ‘apropos of nothing.’
Glass leaves a lot unsaid, and whets the reader’s appetite for more. Fortunately, Cooper has another work in the pipeline: a collaboration with Jo Burns on the theme of conversations between Marie-Therese Walter, Dora Maar, and Françoise Gillot, all of whom were lovers and muses of Picasso. I look forward to reading it.
Amanda Bell’s latest collection, Riptide, is published by Doire Press. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie