Star Struck by David McCooey
UWAP Poetry, 2016
At first, David McCooey’s Star Struck appears to be a collection comprising four sections, each self-contained and corralled from the others. These sections range from a series of lyric poems meditating on a ‘cardiac event’, to poems investigating light and dark, a sequence of eighteen ‘pastorals’ on pop stardom (and fandom) and, finally, two longer narrative poems. A quotation at the beginning of the pastoral sequence seems to hint at the collection’s attitude. From William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, it reads: ‘Probably the cases I take are the surprising rather than the normal ones, and once started on an example I follow it without regard to the unity of the book.’
This cavalier disregard for the ‘unity’ of the book suggests a lack of concern with overall coher-ence between the poems in a single volume. And yet, there are decidedly consistent threads throughout Star Struck, both thematically (time, light, memory, the knife-edge of comedy and tragedy, how ‘voice’ is inhabited), and also in terms of tone. A mood of what might be called premature elegy suffuses McCooey’s poems throughout this collection. His speakers frequently find themselves alienated, unable to return to old selves, and unsure of what to make of the world they presently live in. They recall the past with nostalgia and sometimes grief (and irony – the atmosphere rarely threatens to become moribund), and view the present with an un-settled detachment.
McCooey’s reader senses that they are encountering a self irrevocably divided from its former incarnation. This is reflected in the use of second person in many of the poems – it would seem that the ‘you’ being addressed is not a different subject, but a past version of the self, an idea McCooey references directly in ‘Second-Person’, where:
you enter the realm of the second-person singular, a new you to ghost the old, the one on the other side of a recalibrated life
The first section of Star Struck, ‘Documents’, presents the most literal rendering of this divided state. The speaker finds themselves in the midst and the aftermath of a ‘cardiac event’, and while at times they are able to find amusement in their distress (‘“I’m just labile,” you say, // and the doctor is satisfied. / You are speaking his language’) (‘Speaking the Language’), they nevertheless cannot help but reveal the terror that characterises this period of ill-health, with its moments of crisis and long periods of inertia, when the nervous system becomes ‘a shivering horse within you’ (‘One Way or Another’).
Throughout this sequence the speaker records with a meticulous eye and ear the physical envi-ronments, interpersonal interactions and thoughts that accompany illness and convalescence – at times, going so far as to arranging them into list form. A sense of the uncanny quickly emerges. It’s there in the ‘staring students’ who are ‘graduates / from The Village of the Damned’ (‘Music for Hospitals’); in the ambulances which are strangely unhurried, ‘state-ly’, rather than ‘rushed’ (‘One Way or Another’); and in the speaker’s sense that:
it is not Death in his outdated apparel at your doorstep, only your boss, doing the right thing. (‘Not to Disturb’)
For this speaker, death is omnipresent. As a result, the most blameless and familiar things now appear morbid; during the boss’s visit, even the biscuits are deathly ‘pale’, and the speaker refus-es to eat them.
Of course there is also a deadpan comedy in this that spikes even the most poignant poems. For example, the speaker mentions his wife ‘graphically’ describing the ‘harrowing scenes’ of the ICU (‘Intensive Care (ii)’) ‘so that you were both / gifted with that / pointless knowledge’. This reads as a dry call-back to a more sombre moment in an earlier poem, ‘The Point’, when the speaker’s wife jabs him in the chest during an argument:
There is a finger pressed against your breastbone, and left there, long after the point has been made.
McCooey’s speaker even finds gruesome humour in a male nurse, ‘excellent at taking blood’, who brags about his prowess as a hunter, showing off photos of himself ‘dressed in fatigues / with Apocalypse Now face paint’, the ‘pretty’ corpse of an animal sprawled across his four-wheel drive (‘The Hunter’).
The tone and preoccupations of ‘Documents’ herald what awaits in Star Struck’s subsequent sections. A reader has already become accustomed to McCooey’s fascination with light and darkness prior to arriving at the second section, ‘Available Light’, which announces this as its theme; after all, ‘Documents’ has given us the droll observation that ‘Hospital light, like any other / light, is rarely “lemon coloured.”’ (‘Cardiac Ward Poetics’), and presented the sun as it ‘performs its drawn-out / power down’ (‘Invisible Cities’).
Yet there is a particularly spectral quality to the types of light listed in ‘Available Light’:
the science-fiction lighting of deserted 7-Elevens; the out-dated starlight; a nightwalker passes the TV-blue of windows; a phosphorescent Frisbee muses on the porch;
The vistas presented in this section are often deserted, with any signs of life – lights, music, va-cant chairs on a patio, figures or cars viewed from a distance – more a reminder of the speaker’s sense of isolation than a comforting indication that others, and the potential for connection, ex-ists. Like ‘The Dolls’ House’ with its mise-en-scène of family members attending to their (dull, gendered) tasks in frozen solitude, the speaker’s world has become distant and static, the ob-served details of domestic and suburban life as strange as the descriptive titles of ‘Early Photo-graphs’ which comprise the section’s first poem: ‘Untitled (two women posed with a chair). / Use of ether for anaesthesia. / Valley of the shadow of death.’
The poems in ‘Available Light’ also remind the reader that it is almost impossible to consider changes in light (and the capture of light through the photographic image) without also consider-ing time; the two move in tandem. Even darkness itself, the speaker of this section’s final poem (‘Darkness Speaks’), acknowledges this:
One day you will wake up for good, and there I will be, at last.
Revisiting an earlier poem provides an opportunity to meditate on the interplay of time and light. ‘“Whaling Station” Redux’, presents a speaker who is forced to reconsider their earlier poetic rendering of a memory when ‘My late father’s legacy of 35mm slides, / newly digitised, undoes my poem, with three shots —’. The violence of the word ‘shots’ here seems particularly appro-priate, given the vast yet blasé violence of the images considered. The light stored in these imag-es, which becomes absent, ‘pure black’, at the whale’s centre, creates an occasion both for the speaker to reassess what he saw at the age of five (the images perhaps ‘darker’, literally and fig-uratively, than the memory) and to prevent his six-year-old son from seeing the same thing and this darkness therefore being handed on to the next generation. The poem’s conclusion, where the father flicks to a photograph of an Uncle ‘standing before the Arc de Triomphe’, is not an arbitrary choice of image; the Arc itself is of course another monument to the violent ‘industry of men’, even if it makes for a less confronting sight than the steaming carcass of a whale.