Corey Wakeling Reviews Stuart Cooke’s Lyre

By | 12 May 2020

The reader might inquire about the one remaining discipline presumably most important for an ecopoetics that has been left out of the list of Cooke’s critical resources; that is, science. Perhaps this has been an element of uncharted terrain Cooke is the least qualified to extend into a creative practice. But, here in Lyre an additional effort to engage with the lexical units and networks that bring to attention the physical, perceptive, sensory and adaptive details in the life of a particular biome or creature has been mounted. An ecological assemblage not necessarily encyclopaedic in scope – twenty-six subjects in total, mostly fauna, but also flora and even geological and geographical ones, such as Pinatubo Volcano in the Philippines and Lake Mungo, of course, in NSW – Lyre wagers an entire poetic enterprise on the logics of Gaia, and thus aspiring to a mode of thinking alert to climate catastrophe.

The Gaia hypothesis presented by – but, of course, hardly the invention of – James Lovelock argues that the earth is neither Nature nor master-able ecosystem but a living thing demanding an animistic attention to every scale of this vast organism’s life to understand it. The Gaia hypothesis has been used by various philosophers and theorists such as Deborah Bird Rose, Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway and Ursula Heise in their different efforts to divest Western thinking from dualist, extractive, industrial, colonialist and anthropocentric modes of identification and representation involving nature. But Cooke, perhaps like Gary Snyder, Rose, Jed Rasula, Rothenberg or Haraway, also demonstrates a suspicion of the Lovelockian notion that humans brought thought to the universe. The most enjoyable sections of Lyre rally with the contrary idea: human thought is but a meagre window to a synaesthetic, immemorial self-awareness traded between micro- and macro-organisms making up layers of Gaia. The sand-bubbler crab, for instance:

             like continents
            yourm thoughts
           bulge before
          youm drop them
         and pass each one
        through yourm tiny scrum
       to where they rest
      and dry into a wedge
     of yourm melody
     a bevy of slick
    pixels, slicked
    up beads
   pebbled bells
  pocked and 
  dotted [. . .] 

For those afraid of the philosophical programme of the poet, those who would rather a poetry of birdcall that harmonises with the human ear rather than overwhelms it or indeed speaks through it to warn of climate calamity, I encourage you to look again at the sensory qualities of some of the above excerpts and disregard my inventory of less important registrations of a practice that proves accessible by way of many sensibilities.

In a mundane sense, Cooke is a kindred spirit of the popular Romantic poets, sharing their project of conjuring through poetry new experiences of earthly being. The philosophical and textual means may be radically and crucially different, but the intensity of an earthly attention is not; those who feel at odds with other practices informed by a long education in related ecological epistemologies will still find much that might excite them in Lyre’s poetry.

Indeed, almost teasing us with the paradox, the book takes the title of Lyre, the most Orphic, and thereby most Romantic, of totems to anthropocentric art. But as we have seen in Australian literature’s inquiries into the lyrebird heretofore, when an organism shows an ability to vocalise any complex sound coming from its biosphere, far surpassing an human effort of mimicry, we begin to dissolve the integrity of the Orphic model of the human as the cardinal poet–medium between terrestrial being and extra-terrestrial becoming. Indeed, Australia becomes the site of Orpheus’s fall to the immanent sphere of Gaia, or in the words of Cooke’s collection, from ‘lyric’ to ‘grunts and clunks’:

      a master art, a sound / unparted by sight, the		fount / of song, of structure
      an invitation to future, faked / by bowerbird w-	        hile youm bowerbird
      aeon-sent intrigue, softly calling sella can / me-	        w bird too, saw	
     crosscut / create an utterance, bottled mellow		rising clearer
    powered by dingo, flexed hush kinked / with b-	        ells and whips, warble gargle
    plains mapped with melody, sonority, link cat-	        le bell with kettle boil, youm switch
    to slim squeaks and trills like a triller / like a rill      	mirrored by the rim of a lyric
      drop through odysseys unfractured by seam /		into grunts and clunks, [. . .]

The care with which Cooke transcribes the kinetic and vocal expressivity of this wildlife stirs homeward longing in someone like me living abroad and no longer living among it. Here in ‘Albert’s Lyrebird’ we find minor examples of the technique interspersed among a panoply of other stimuli. But in other poems, most memorably ‘Magpie’, the transcription is so vivid that I am returned to Kalamunda and it is five in the afternoon and I am newly returned from school to my bunkbed sanctuary, feet on carpet, looking blankly at the sliding door, hypnotised by the music coming from the massive gum in the backyard that would not last my childhood, since huge winds brought the old tree down in the late winter storm of 1994 that damaged many of the neighbourhood’s houses, crushing our northerly fence. Somehow I am no longer reading this record of earthly relation but become transported there.

Read those transcriptions from ‘Magpie’ for yourself. To quote them would be to spoil one of Lyre’s many surprises.

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