Proving Nothing to Anyone
Publishing Genius Press, 2013
$15, 86 pages, Print
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
Astronomy is so much older than the invention of the telescope. Naked observations of stars, tides, weather, and the length of night and day only required an eyeball and a serviceable retina. Today we might call this way of studying the cosmos simple, or understated, and based almost entirely on slight impressions of inscrutable paradoxes. It was a lot like Matt Cook’s poems in Proving Nothing to Anyone. Cook gazes at nothing with an upper Midwestern death stare, juxtaposing hundreds of two dimensional moments as if it were possible to still create myth from the horizon, even a horizon a few feet away from his face.
Maybe science will smirk at Cook’s marvels. How do you count all the stars in the sky with this sort of abstracted voice? The ancients used a pipe about an inch in diameter. They counted the stars visible in the hole, aimed the hole at eight or so points in the night, applied some trigonometry, and recorded a number later confirmed by Hubble.
The scientists have recently been busy proving that poetry means empathy and empathy means connections between reasonable differences. Fuck science, Cook seems to be saying. In his poem “The Dry Cleaner Calls Up” he writes:
The cartographer essentially wants us to get lost.
The restaurant supply store might as well be a secret
Society as far as the hound with the droopy ears is concerned.
The hair dresser apologizes to the poet, but the reverse almost never happens.
Plainspoken poetry has a weakness for subject matter to make it interesting. Not so with Cook. His conversational style doesn’t contrast with subjects so bloody and terrible that there is no other way to write about them. His poem about raindrops, called “Conventional Raindrops” reduces his speaker’s world to the monotonous everyday: “You’re a conventional man walking down / An ordinary street with a questionable haircut. / An ordinary woman broke your conventional heart. / Questionable skies are giving way to conventional raindrops, / Thoroughly average raindrops, raindrops that are hardly worthy of your attention.”
Cook’s raindrops are worthy of attention. Aren’t all of us afraid of being unremarkable? Cook targets a point the rest of us overlooked: Blink and you miss the shooting star. The hero of “Conventional Raindrops” is the reader, or someone the reader impersonates, just as Cook impersonates the speaker. He colors his few images such as “Dirty little birds the size of doorknobs are living above the drugstore” with analysis-in-series reminiscent of The New Severity:
You’re a second-rate man living under an assumed name in a first floor apartment
But it’s a nice apartment and the windows look out on the park.
Other than the windows looking out on the park,
Things are generally wrong everywhere.
Your shoulder is malfunctioning.
You’re running low on contact lens solution.
You have a full head of hair and you’re unemployed,
But you could pass for a bald man with a job.
Cook’s genius is to demonstrate how unremarkable sameness still produces the chameleon. One is bald, with a full head of hair; another is both feather-winged, and a doorknob. It’s a paradox we too easily dismiss as we try to get away from the numbing sameness at the root of our high-concept, un-diverse lifestyles. We are employed. We are not employed. We are mythological flight. We are knobs. Our bodies are cars, sometimes broken ones. Our gasoline is contact lens solution.
This is very personal poetry without being confessional. Cook doesn’t dress up in a costume and wink at the reader. When he tries to pull back one curtain with a simple tug, the whole stage crashes down. Instead, he aims his tiny circle into the big dome and shows us what he finds there. The conservatizing influence an MFA can have on a writer is pleasantly absent. Instead of paying attention when the teacher said, strike a balance between the concrete and the abstract, Cook must have gone bowling.
There is a certain comedy to Cook’s totally limited omniscience. Too often, the laughter is really crying, and the suppressed laughter is really suppressed sobbing. Not so with Cook, whose laughable moments are in fact laughable. This predicament can lead to truly beautiful turns, as in “Something Beguiling” or “My Wife’s Car,” two poems that dropped me to the ground, poems which could not have been written by anyone else. But it can also lead to the hysterical, as when the speaker notices a woman lean back and unwittingly catch her hair on fire. He doesn’t want to tell her right away because he has almost finished telling a story. Cook seems comfortable straddling the gorgeous with slapstick. He neither spares truth when a joke can be had, nor does he go for the laugh when beauty is knocking. Only seldom does he perhaps wrongly use his witty touches to get out of a poem he so patiently stepped into. At no time did the comedic lines feel like speed bumps interrupting the poem’s energy.
Cook is not “just a confused man with high blood pressure / warbling under the telephone wires” but he at times plays one on the television show of these poems. It would be nearly impossible using such a distinct cloying tone in so many poems that Cook would not at times caricature his own voice. Sure, here and there, that happens. The risk of it is greater in his briefer poems that needn’t develop a scene for the reader to witness, but I found these to be very minor lapses. For the most part, Cook delivers on himself, a mid-career poet—this is his third volume—bringing a very curious mind to everyday occurrences in the vein of William Carlos Williams who tended only to praise without asking questions. In Cook’s longer poem, “Not Hitting a Road Worker,” the poet concludes:
The sign says ten thousand dollar fine for hitting a road worker.
As though you need an incentive not to hit a road worker.
I always thought not hitting a road worker was its own reward.