||A Review of: GabrielĘs Wing
by John Lofranco
Allan Cooper opens his collection, Gabriel's Wing-yet another
beautifully made book from Gaspereau Press-with a single poem that
sets a rural and nostalgic tone. "The Driftwood Man" is
an exemplar of concise simplicity. Eastern influences are apparent
from the start:
The potatoes grow
in neat rows
beside the brook.
That was years ago.
Cooper's has moments of brilliance, but only when he sticks to
Spartan simplicity; any attempt to philosophise sends the poem
tumbling into meaninglessness or clich.
A first book often feels rushed. The poet wants to get his or her
work out there, and so sacrifices sober reflection for momentum and
energy. This appears to be the case with Alan Cooper; while austere
with his lines, he might have thought longer about the quality of
For example, Cooper commits the mortal poetic sin of writing about
cats. This is not to limit the subject matter for poetry; however,
whenever cats are concerned it seems the poetry becomes irrelevantly
domestic. This frightening trend seems to have left the parlours
of little old ladies' poetry circles and has planted itself, like
a big fat tabby, in the poetry of older, established Canadian poets.
(The cutest cat moment I've seen comes in Robyn Sarah's poem
"Bounty": "No, look - here comes the cat,/with one
ear inside out./Make much of something small.") Meanwhile,
Cooper doesn't content himself with one mention of cats in the
incredibly ineffectual "The Best Days" ("It's when
the cats are content"). "Small boy and leaves" also
has a cat that "jumps out of the leaves/and onto the boy's
shoulder", and in "Faces" we "can't understand
why/the cats left." Perhaps it was the poetry.
This feline fetish is a shame, because elsewhere, as in "The
Shed of love", Cooper's poems are simple, word-steady, and
taut. Here's the second stanza:
There are faces in senior's homes
folded with light. One smile
and they smile back at you,
dissolving the ballast
of anger and grief,
from this world
to the next.
In "Honeybees", a longer sequence of couplets that link
through enjambment (they're not quite ghazals but do have that
detached ghazal-like quality), Cooper's simplicity allows the broader
impression of the poem to settle in on the reader. This quality is
especially poignant at the end of "The Night Heron":
I need to ask you this question:
when you say "love,"
why do you weep? Now,
you mean everything to me.
Cooper has purchased the pop-song clich quality of the last line
with the innocence and intensity ("I need to ask you")
of the previous ones. Despite the "I", it is the absence
of an overbearing, editorialising voice that gives this speaker
credibility. In "The Night Walker's Poem", however, it's
as though he's trying too hard to attain Zen, with vague pronouncements
that fail to be profound: "I don't think I was meant to come
here/it just happened." Isn't effortlessness the point of Zen?
And, while I'm asking rhetorical questions: Why is it that poets
think that by being vague ("some messengerthey're determined
to be somewhere elsesomeone's expecting us") they can gesture
to a vast body of untapped meaning?
If I may mention another pet peeve: as meaning is not implicit in
cats, nor in grandiose notions of vagueness, it's not likely to be
found in simple, one dimensional adjectives like "small".
For example, in the first of "Two love poems", instead
of saying "this is the small farm of love," it would help
to show us how small. The second of these is small enough, though,
that the poem speaks for itself:
Love is the unformed haze
rising through the poppies
and the eyes, weeping, see it.
In "Small boy and leaves" we have the same problem: small
seems to be the default setting-surely the poet has a greater
vocabulary than he is letting on.
Sometimes good poets write bad books. This is clearly the case with
Allan Cooper's Gabriel's Wing, as amidst all the vague, small, cat
poems, there are some gems-"Honeybees", "Hope"
and the final poem of the first section, "Green Ears of
There are openings to the other world through the
of wheat. Haven't we always expected this?
Especially when the rain falls in slanted bars
across the open sky, the opened heart.
For hearts, like wheat
are meant for bending.
How much can we take?
"Bring on the wind," whispers the wheat.
Again, it is the isolated simplicity that seals the deal. We are
made to feel like we've heard this wisdom before, but, thankfully,
we are not told where. The transposition of heart and wheat is
natural, and as a reader, my heart sang along to the wheat's
challenge. When the poet has us whispering along with the wheat,
that's the "something" we've been looking for.