Rachael Mead Reviews Stuart Cooke

10 April 2017

In 2014, Cooke published a translation of George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle. It was an important and complicated work, which involved a multi-layered process of translation in terms of both language and media. The work passed from spirit being through a chain of storytellers, each speaking a different language, and passed from oral narrative enhanced by visual drawings on sand, through aural recordings, to textual representation. Considering the steps involved in the process and the impossibility of literal equivalence in any translation, it is necessary to accept that some obscurity in meaning is not only unavoidable but a caveat with which we should approach any translation. Applying this to some of the poems in Opera, particularly the long sequences, Cooke could be interpreted as approaching his writing of place as an act of translation. I believe approaching these poems with an openness to obscurity and appreciation for experimental methods of representation will allow the reader to fully appreciate these poems as revolutionary pieces of landscape translation.

Cooke’s deep respect for both Aboriginal and Mapuche poetry is embedded in this work. I must admit to only a passing familiarity with Mapuche poetry, primarily from reading the Poetry of the Earth: Trilingual Mapuche Poetry Anthology (Interactive Press, 2014), but even so, I sense the rhythmic strength and passion characteristic of Mapuche poetry echoing through the poems of Opera. Similarly, Cooke’s rich flow of imagery, sensuality and emotion feels reminiscent of Latin American poets, particularly Pablo de Rokha and Neruda. Cooke’s lines roll off the tongue with a sonorous ease and rhythm that belies how dense and multilayered they are on the page:

Americans on two-week holidays, visiting Latin AMERICA, the friendly people, aablaando espannyoll WITH Lateenos, happy, Christian Americans experiencing diverse CULTURES, fulfilling a number of goals, Americans with TALENTS, with internet companies, with research institutes, WITH cool dental surgeries and gigantic BEAMING smiles, happy to BE American in the faces of Latin Americans, happy TO be American happy to be, We salute you, Americans, we salute your LOVE, we relish it, we’re still living but we are THE lesser without it, we keep living but we’re the lesser without it, We keep living but we’re the lesser.

(‘An American Family Plays Frisbee at the Beach while on Holiday in Chile’)

Opera is an extraordinary collection, pushing the boundaries of how we think about and represent landscape in language. Cooke has long been preoccupied with how to pull multiple levels of understanding of landscape together in ways that honour the ecological, the historical and the cultural without privileging or silencing particular voices. While Cooke is rigorous in making stylistic choices that at times deliberately obscure meaning to fulfil his objectives, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading this collection. His work brims with sensuality, yearning and fertile imagery. Cooke experiments with exciting new forms of articulation – especially where he finds language inadequate to his vision. Opera is an innovative and significant book and I believe it will come to be considered a landmark text in the poetics of place.

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