Sonic White Poise, by Patrick Cotter, Dedalus Press, 82 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251843
Patrick Cotter’s latest book, Sonic White Poise, is his third full poetry collection, after Making Music (2008) and Perplexed Skin (2009). In the relatively long gap since the latter, he has played a major role in the development of Irish poetry as creative director of the Munster Literature Centre and through related involvement with Southword Editions poetry publications. On the evidence of Sonic White Poise, he has also been busy developing and honing his own poetry skills, including his extremely impressive technique and the deft employment of what Nuala O’Connor once described as his “vast and unusual vocabulary”.
The new collection is divided into four parts and the first, “Side A”, opens with a poem inspired perhaps by the author’s close observation of the Irish poetry and art scenes. “Wounded Enough” is a strong statement of despair at the impact of political correctness on artistic freedom in which a committee debates the options for a white marble angel sculpture,
. . . Would it be better with shattered wings?
The days of triumphalism are ended, belonging only
to history books. Everything must now display
its wounds to reflect the vulnerable world.
The sculptor, meanwhile, imagines an old-style angel free of the shackles of ironic modernity, “ready to soar away from all of this”. This chimes with Cotter’s own dislike of explaining or justifying his poems. When Sonic White Poise was published, the author wrote in The Irish Times (February 22nd, 2021) that in his ideal world, every poem is “consumed by an omnisciently insightful reader immersed in literary convention and non-convention”, and “the poet belongs to a priestly class whose liturgy is never questioned or justified, merely liked or disliked”. Obviously, he acknowledged, we do not live in such a world, and indeed, in the article he did explain some of background to the collection, including the reasons for the title.
The first reason for the book’s title was, Cotter explained, “to own up to [his] whiteness”. Cotter described how Edward Said’s monumental 1978 work Orientalism influenced his thinking, and how he chooses to identify as white in this book “to acknowledge that white is not the default colour of humanity”. Themes of white privilege and Occidentalism appear in several poems. “Dinka”, for example, comments on the white gaze in Leni Riefenstahl’s Africa portfolio of photographs; and “Prayer Service” recounts the poet’s experience, as a white Irish person raised in the Catholic tradition, of attending the funeral of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s late Turkish husband in a Dublin mosque. Another example is “The Isle of Langette”, which narrates an explorer’s journey to a “lost island of tongue eaters”. After the explorer stays as a guest of the island’s inhabitants for several weeks, his “wile and caution” are overwhelmed and he “[blurts] to the rapt inhabitants how [he] would tell the world / of the glory and detail of their recipes” ‑ an Occidentalist perspective that induces the mutilation he ultimately suffers at his hosts’ hands.
The second reason for the book’s title relates to the poem “The Discoveries of Thomas Fynch”, which is prefaced by a quote in German from Paul Celan’s poem “Espenbaum” (“Aspen Tree”). In Michael Hamburger’s translation the quote reads: “Aspen tree your leaves glance white into the dark”, and Cotter has described the Celan poem as aesthetically “totemic” for him. “Sonic White Poise”, in addition to its acknowledgement of white privilege, refers to the particularly loud rustling sound of aspen leaves.
Across the book’s four parts ‑ “Side A” is followed by “War Songs in a Time of Peace”; “Bestiary”; and “The Lee Road Codex” ‑ the dominant narrative and confessional modes are invoked to address multifarious themes, with many of the poems resembling well-developed short stories. “Homecoming”, for example, concerns a returned conscript dancing with his mother after her other two sons have been killed in combat; “O’Sullivan”, a poem title associated with the Irish language term súil amháin, meaning “one-eyed”, is about a photographer who photographs “just one subject: left eyes”; “War Games” is an affecting account of a sight “[so] rare these days”, namely “small boys playing at soldiers”; and in “Mink”, a woman “who loved to wear live mink” is eating hare stew when she responds to her mink “[snaffling] the hostess’s sapphire-encrusted peacock // brooch” by feeding the mink,
in turn ‑ brooch, fur, teeth and all ‑ to the same
greyhounds which had coursed and killed the hare.
The imaginative range in this collection is impressive, and the confessional poems, while less dramatic, nonetheless also possess a short-story quality: “Portrait of a Town in Economic Distress”, for example, recounts lovemaking in a derelict canning plant with its uninviting “hint of stark sardine”; in “Face” the poet comes across a female novice monk meditating at dawn in a California Zen monastery (“Was it pride or nonchalance // or the stern command of a shuso which had her / squatting here all alone . . .?”); and “Oisín” is a striking poem about becoming a father in which neither the birth nor the background is idealised: the child’s mother’s trolley is “shin-high in a swill of blood // and amniotic liquor”, and the poet reflects,
Somehow I saw it all leading to this:
the struggles with your mother
the scripted tears and slammed doors
the walkings-out and walkings-in
the candles lit and the prayers begun;
all to your father to be the first to hold you.
The assured colon and semi-colon here contain diction drawn from theatre ‑ “scripted”, “walking-outs and walking-ins”, and more subtly “slammed doors” ‑ which brings to the poem’s closing lines the connotation of a “bickering” Greek chorus:
. . . I cried God’s name
silent, inside my skull. Chaffinch song
bickered through the open window like a chorus.
It would be difficult to find an enjambment or stanza-break out of place in Sonic White Poise, or to fault the perfect pacing in so many poems. In “Song of a Maid”, the teenage poet is revealed to have been Joan of Arc in a previous life:
God appears to have forsaken me in this life:
I cannot ride a horse or speak French.
The closest I ever get to wearing armour
is my corduroy duffle coat donned on a turbulent day.
I visited an earl’s great country house so
I could touch his ancestor’s steel breastplates.
Now fourteen years old, the poet feels “time running / away like a spoilt dog”. The “spoilt dog” image is significant because dogs are a primary motif in Sonic White Poise. Dogs literally abound: “Portraits of a Single Soul as Different Dogs”, for example, is just that; in “The Hound Artist” we read of “the Buddha in canine form”; “The Pity of Dogs” meditates on “the canine nostril”; “Madra”, the winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize, is about a dog who read books but “had nowhere / in his brain for the words to go”; “The Fate of Dogs That Talk” describes the decapitated fate of a pair of “mouthy mutts, run-offs / from a Romanian circus”; and to conclude this non-exhaustive list, “Ghost Dogs” imagines ruefully that ghost dogs must miss smelling, lolling, and skittering about,
. . . with an acceptance
I’m developing as my hair greys
sitting in a municipal park
the sun’s oblique rays gilding
the silky, reflective, fragrant tresses
of even the most raven-haired beauties
to whom I am as invisible as a ghost.
Ghosts, like dogs, also haunt this collection, and many other animals besides dogs also feature prominently. One may be reminded by the collection’s third part, “Bestiary”, of the alpha-bestiary in a recent collection by another Cork poet, Gregory Delanty’s 2020 collection No More Time. Cotter’s bestiary includes not only several of the dog poems, but also “The Shrew”, “Cowshed”, “Lost Tiger”, “Mink”, “Peacat”, not to mention the dead mouse in “Counterpane” and the sheep’s severed head in “At the Butcher’s”. Unlike in the case of Delanty’s catalogue, however, Cotter is not expressly advancing a green political agenda — although he may be sympathetic to Delanty’s prefatory suggestion that the distinction between humans and other animals is less significant than is commonly supposed.
The memorable final poem in Sonic White Poise is “The Pebble Peddler”, about a man who paints, decorates, and sells pebbles (which decoration includes, naturally, the use of dog hairs!) The poem recounts how business was brisker “last decade / before the crash, before malevolence . . . sunk the weightless desires of everyone / you ever knew”. Now, people give him “austere looks” and seem to consider him a “sad old man”, but these same people,
. . . know nothing of the power
of my stones and I do not tell them.
I do not hawk. I do not squawk
out loud their qualities.
I merely sit quietly on my stool
of spalded birch and count
by the hour the dwindling custom
in these days of little hope.
To what extent this poem represents Cotter’s self-image as a poet, or is his perspective on contemporary poets and artists generally, remains unclear. What is clear is that he has crafted an arresting collection with many qualities, and hopefully the gap between Sonic White Poise and his next collection will be considerably less than the twelve-year one which preceded it.
Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Madrid.