Reviewed by Anne Babson
Many communities in the South have recently drowned in storms. Climate change engenders a need for Southerners to find a “new normal,” nowhere more than in New Orleans after Katrina. Peter Cooley, in his new collection, Night Bus to the Afterlife (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014) seeks this new equilibrium and finds some poetic answers to questions wrought by recent disruptions.
Much poetry in the initial aftermath of Katrina simply documented the enormity of losses, as did the poem “Debris” by Peter Cooley’s daughter, Nicole Cooley, another accomplished poet: “…a football helmet the face of a metal fan a sign: Demolition Alert….”
Inventory is the first reckoning for sudden tragedy. Cities where storms have hit—New Orleans, Tuscaloosa, Edmonton—begin to comprehend tragedy by simply making lists. So it may be with poetry. However, Katrina happened almost a decade ago, and both New Orleans and Peter Cooley have had time to reflect. After an initial shock, it becomes possible to imagine how one may survive despite all. In “To Christ Our Lord: September 2, 2005,” he writes, “Obviously, some great lesson is at hand, / Christ, which has escaped me yet. Rush it here.”
Christological imagery abounds in this volume of poetry, just as any visitor to New Orleans will find crosses, steeples, and mausolea. But for Cooley, who is a Christian, these images are not merely detritus from crumbling edifices but keys to unlock answers to large questions of theodicy. In “Adam After the Hurricanes,” he writes of the first man, fallen, who tells himself:
For my moment in time I will be calm,
Won’t I, black morning, you who came to me
After last night’s hurricane, who are dead
As I know life, your slate face like a grave.
It would be wrong, however, to classify Cooley’s work as symbolist. He writes like Wallace Stevens if Stevens believed in God, and his allegiances to the modern and post-modern appear here. This collection references Yeats and even Warhol, who imagined a telephone by which members of his pop scene might converse with God. Cooley reimagines this as a sign of impending death in “Telephone Ringing in the Afterlife”: “I know this pull, out toward oblivion… / Someday that pull will call for me—I’ll go.”
It would be wrong to read Cooley’s “new normal” as nihilist. Despite obvious devastation, Cooley finds a type of comfort, of joy, even, as we read in “The Third Heaven: August 30, 2005”:
Only one thing was clear: someone was in the room,
Someone larger than rooms and hurricanes,
Someone who shone brighter than any sun…
Now, years later, I still have changing sight.
Some may find such determined optimism in the face of real destruction problematic, but to embrace despair is a twentieth-century literary trope, and Cooley is a twenty-first century poet writing about contemporary matters. He opens the possibility of finding meaning in the tragedies that defy easy understanding—and this may emerge as the greatest purpose of poetry in our stormy era.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 3.
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