Chris O. Cook, To Lose & To Pretend, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2008
In Chris O. Cook’s first book, called To Lose & To Pretend, published by Williamsburg’s own Brooklyn Arts Press, the poet creates a collection of poems that are perfectly suited for subway rides. The brief passages are at times funny, at times ambivalent, turning from contemporary cynicism to a world-weary romanticisim that lends itself to depicting the poignancy of everyday crap. That’s meditations on shitty summers and bad jobs, old girlfriends, and meaningless personal flailing, grasping at shreds of nostalgia-inducing pop culture names and places but ultimately only holding on to the feeling of loss.
Cook takes himself seriously in a sort of melancholic way, puffed up with his own emotions but with enough scarring humility to know that poetry is kind of masturbatory, such florid self-expression is fun and all, but its utility is always under doubt within To Lose & To Pretend. Meditative and abstract and yet inexorably tied to the details, real or imagined, of life, Cook writes in a way that both pulls in and pushes away. Take this passage from “Simony Says”:
This summer’s shaping up to be great
-ly like the last one — funny web animations & exhaustion;
John playing the fascist in front of strangers, replete with opera;
Scott rubbing his ass on the TV when a judge show comes on.
Ghostwise, I know John isn’t crazy, or at least not lying.
This is the guy who leaves whole bottles of potcheen behind my plants,
touched my arm & told me not to worry about the ‘60s so much.
Stuff happens to everyone and it’s not particularly special, but everyone’s mundanity is unique. Cook doesn’t try to make any grand pronouncements about the state of life or the state of love, it’s more like the state of him staring at a blank page, starting out the window and waiting for another moment to happen. His poems occur in thoughtful lulls, creating interior spaces that the poet refers to as blank, empty parking lots. The metaphor is appropriate for Cook’s dull eloquence and relentless infinity-mirror reflection. From “I Summoned Am to Tourney”:
The “blue van” was a myth, but that dream where I’m Hamlet
except the audience has it memorized & yells over me
was real — a real dream. It’s now officially a moral obligation to hate
people with talent. If I’d had the slightest idea that Girls
Gone Wild was a thing you could invent, I’d have invented it —
but you know, nice. Is this every struggle ever?
Literary becomes life becomes low pop culture, but it’s really all the same. Nothing is really worth getting excited over. Yet that doesn’t make Cook sedated — his written pace is skittering and smooth, rhythmic like a good pop hook or a stutter like rap. I’m kind of reminded of indie rock band The Hold Steady at times, name-dropping Iowa City and the “Last Thanksgiving Before Turning Twenty-Seven.” And that appeals to me. Yet for all the dirtying influence of pop, Cook is still a formalist. His lines twist around eachother and have a way of investing even the most nondescript details with a hard-edged, dry sparkle.
So it’s good reading for the subway because these small moments of not-enlightenment end up becoming chances for self-reflection. Like staring into a mirror and examining your own flaws and accomplishments and scores minutely, Cook’s poems know the interiors as well as the exteriors of things.
Chris O. Cook’s To Lose & To Pretend is available from Brooklyn Arts Press. I highly recommend it for the young anomie in your life. Give it for Christmas, if they care.