Cope, Karin. What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Pottersfield Press, 2015. 96 pages
- Persephone in Canada
Karin Cope, a poet, blogger, photographer, videographer, activist, and sailor works in Halifax, where she teaches, and lives several miles outside the city’s limits on a large property facing the ocean. Her first collection of poems, What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, is promoted on the back cover as the interweaving of, among other things, “melancholia and surrealism,” monologues that “become dialogues,” and “want ads and Facebook posts” that are “recycled into intimate domestic conversations,” which gives readers the impression of a postmodern assemblage of found poetry and texts that might tell us “where we are . . . gives us light to row by, perhaps long enough to sight an approach to the next harbor.” The description is accurate, as short conventional poems succeed amusing, elliptical narratives, which precede a well-crafted, self-administered interview, itself followed by a complex layering of voices in a long poem titled “Blind.” Cope is thorough about the influences and voices that inform her work, all of which are documented in the book’s notes. This proliferation of genres and sources is one of the manifestations of postmodernism, and nowadays it is prevalent, yet Cope’s collection of poems lends itself just as well to a less fragmented reading.
As poems rooted in winter, ice, and darkness herald a thankful ascent towards warmth and light, Cope’s implied persona in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat might well be that of Persephone, the maiden abducted by Hades, king of the underworld. Subjected to spending six months below earth and six months above, she personifies harvest or nature itself, retreating in winter to shoot forth again in spring. Despite its nautical title—a metaphor for our need to survive life’s precarity—solid ground is present in the poems as often as not, and speaker after speaker, trapped in winter, waits for sunlight to appear, for fog to disperse, for ice to melt.
What Cope makes clear from start to finish is that staying even-keeled in today’s world isn’t a given: the book’s title itself suggests that leaks and all kinds of brokenness are inevitable. The labour needed to avoid the shipwreck of a life is defined throughout the book, for the speaker in each poem cannot lie: life as we know it, life in a world gone unstable, where the weak keep getting more vulnerable, is as occasionally wondrous as it is, well, hard. The exotic delicacy of a “doe’s nose” and of “otter prints at the water’s edge” coalesce with cabin fever and disconnection. Cope, who hails from Ohio but has lived in Canada for a little over two decades, isn’t shy about adopting the tropes that have made Canadian literature what it is: those of Northrop Frye’s garrison mentality and of Margaret Atwood’s sense that our literature is above all about survival. Wintry, Nordic withdrawal leads to temporary madness, lurks on the periphery of several poems, attacks the speakers’ brain and tongue, leaves them and us waterlogged, wind-battered, and frozen. But none of this occurs without moments of euphoria and a will to—as William Faulkner liked to put it—endure and prevail, something that Atwood once deplored was missing from our literature.
What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, which I read here as a Persephone-like quest, begins with a poetic epigraph that refashions a friend’s letter to Cope written upon hearing that she was devising a book of poems. “[C]an we be patrons?” her friend writes, amused, as she proceeds to list a number of sensual requests: she would love to read poems about lines crossed unawares, picked berries and warm pies, meditations on music and chocolate. Cope obliges her patroness, but does it her way. No berries or pie here, no chocolate; instead she launches into a series of poems in a language at times less optimistic than that of her expectant patroness: that of a persona who struggles every day against the slow and worried sinking that life commands of those who try to escape the grind but find that it is part of the human condition.
Her patroness’ call for a poem about lines crossed without realizing it, for instance, generates an oddly satisfying narrative that seems culled from a news story or a state trooper’s retelling. It features three characters: Piper, his childhood friend Tek, and Piper’s wife, all of whom hurt and shoot one another dead or are shot over a period of roughly twenty years in one dumb, thoughtless moment after another as the law, which has the last word, comments on both their lack of judgment and its own impotence with a dumbfounding lack of self-awareness. Not once, however, does Cope sacrifice poetry and rhythm to the altar of the absurd. When, “for a lark,” Piper ties Tek to the hitch of his truck and drives off, “rivulets of stone rake [Tek’s] pretty face twenty feet of gravel rub him raw.” Cope’s ear is faultless. Likewise, “Unfreeze (not quite a valentine)” describes a domestic quarrel that takes place as the sea is “covered in ice” and cars are encased in “brittleness.” Incongruously, a chair is “flung down / bounces and does not / break.” Ice here does not melt; furniture fails to fracture and end the tension. The line between the quotidian and sudden violence is almost invisible.
Yet as each wintry poem files past our eyes, mind, and spirit, we begin to understand that Cope’s implied persona is on a quest of sorts, a poetic one for another horizon she can explore, one that will finally yield radiance, warmth, freedom, and desire. Her journey is accomplished cyclically, again and again throughout the collection. Darkness and light chase each other to the end as the imperious patroness’ wishes are minded, but always with an element of surprise. Where the latter asks for a poem about a “world in / black and white,” the embattled speaker offers a stunningly sensual poem titled “In the company of painters,” which lists the “names of colours,” insisting: “let us repeat them (Blue Phtalo, Venetian Red / Burnt Sienna).” Yet Cope nonetheless abides by her patroness’ rules in listing the phrases painters tend to utter: “(Gather your whites)” or “(Don’t scatter your darks).” As she knows, her persona’s very quest is etched in the blacks and whites of winter as well as in the colours of other seasons.
Persephone’s voyage into winter soon meets its mandatory initiation in the savagery of the subterranean world. In “Hurt birds (on the politics of blame),” perhaps the most startling poem of the collection, the speaker dreams of small birds huddled on a table. “I’ve been plucking feathers from their / wings,” she confesses. “I don’t know why I do it” (but we do, of course; it is because she herself is still forbidden flight from Hades, so why would others be allowed to fly off or flee?). She tries to blame the cat for her own graphic dream, as she half-believes she has been channeling its sadistic fantasies, but in a final moment of affecting lucidity, she forces herself to name her own heartlessness. This sense that we are all responsible for the pain that is in the world, which is a reflection of our own, is one of the lessons Persephone brings back from her cold underworld and it finds an echo in “Blind,” in which one of the many voices weaving their way through it cries out in a moment of terror as she attempts to rest, but can’t because news of the world assails her conscience. For a while, it seems as if staying afloat is impossible.
The poet’s patroness might be her guide through this mythical journey, even if her demands appear to be arbitrary. Still, they seem to remind the author’s persona of the difference between her immediate needs and her dreams of freedom from winter or from the necessity of survival. The invitation to a verse about chocolate instead produces “Pocket full of rusty nails,” a short poem in which the speaker’s drained voice hopes that on the other side of a pocket full of rusty nails and grocery lists that engender “mouldy pears” will be a different mouthful, “round & full” this time. Hope, then, is present, but for desire to dare speak its name, it must first confront the reality of daily routine and “endless lists of tasks.” In “When last I died,” an interview the author inflicts upon her poetic persona in the manner of artist Sophie Calle, the implied Persephone describes her life as one of established unemotional deprivation: “I wear others’ castoffs, and can hardly remember a new pair of shoes,” she states plainly. Survival isn’t a catwalk. Accordingly, she trains her mind against the longing that might weaken her endurance.
Anticipation, however, grows bit by bit. “Nothing lasts,” we are told, not even the cold or the wind. In another poem, the sun “comes and goes like emotion,” and in “When I last died,” Cope’s persona completes the interview by listing joyful estivate yearnings: “[p]eaches. The scent of dog’s paws,” for “desire is everything.” And suddenly, spring arrives and sparrows appear; Persephone is almost ready to emerge from her frozen domain. Earlier, she dares imagine the feeling as being akin to flying and competing with an eagle for airspace. ”I’d stare her down,” the speaker dreams, feminizing the eagle in a moment of sisterly bravado conveyed through one of Cope’s many happy enjambments, “I’m here: don’t bother me. Go / find your own air.” Cope’s persona suffers an important and defining setback, however, as she wonders what madness makes one forget that “with heat, comes fog,” and the sublime long poem, “Blind,” launches Persephone back into a Hades of fog, shadows, and braided voices, from which she finally arises on her way to transformation. Cope’s last poem, “When first you set out,” reminds us of her questing predilections but also of the lessons learned. “Why are some days so full of light?” she asks, now alive to the splendor of ordinariness, and “[w]ho cares about perfection?”
What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat provides us open-handedly with something we must all learn, the poet first of all: to be trained in the lessons of modest grace, of everyday endurance, of imperfect triumphs, of a beauty we may only seize in passing, instead of summoning it. Cope’s poetry reflects this hard-earned understanding. It is perhaps the secret to staying afloat, and it makes one wish to go back again, like Persephone into Hades, to revisit Cope’s version of winter and face it with greater fortitude now, the sinking back into the underworld of ice and waiting surrender at last.
2. Red Boats
I hesitated to add this second part to this review, but a more personal perspective on Cope’s work as well as on her reviewer might shed additional light on What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Hailed as a brilliant young mind with degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, Karin Cope was hired at McGill University to teach English in the early 1990s. But what happens when on the face of it you have it all, and then one day you decide to pack up and leave? In 1998, Cope did just that. At a crossroads in her life, she left the profession for terra incognita both professionally and geographically. She landed in Nova Scotia, where she began to write poetry, winning the Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2002, and engaging in a new life as a visual artist. She also returned to teaching, as Associate Professor at the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design (NSCAD) this time, where she mentors students in how to think about and write for the arts. This past fall, her photography and video exhibit, Flows (Given Water), opened at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax at the same time as What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat was published by Pottersfield Press.
In many ways, Cope’s poetry collection answers the question above—a version, perhaps of the question we ask ourselves at one time or another: what if there were more to life than this? What if I left my job and joined the circus or became a waitress at a diner in Reno, Nevada, or settled in Paris or a couple hours outside of Halifax and started again? And what if, instead of the perfect new life I’d hoped for, everything is as it was before, complete with victories and trials, except just slightly different? “Who can bear how winter clings and stops us / at the root?” Cope asks. “Colour is something memory finds / a gap, an aching loss.” And so what if, instead of acquiring a shiny new life, I unwittingly realized that living requires that we serve some serious time in darkness? What then? What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat is also, perhaps, about such meanders and turns.
I suspect this to be so because I know Karin personally. I was one of the doctoral students who registered and sat in her Modernism class in winter 1998, just before she left McGill. Though she was my teacher and I her student, we are of roughly the same age and became friends several years later as we began corresponding, her insights always vibrant and inspiring. Little did I know that, in my own way, I gave her pause for thought. It was a surprise to me that I feature in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat as her poetic “patroness”: “A poem about” borrows my words in an email I’d sent her upon learning that she was going to write a collection of poetry. She refashioned my “orders” into a poem that became her book’s epigraph. Perhaps the reason she did so is that my playful requests, very much like her poems, are wagers we all make as we create our path amidst corrupt governance, ham-fisted contractors, old age, the price of eggs, and Canadian winters. Every day, the choice is there: to sink or to stay afloat by reaching for bliss, affect, greater self-determination, principled conduct, love. Every day, something reminds us that we find ourselves through adversity as much as we do through pleasure.
Similarly, we all feature in Karin Cope’s “Red boat haiku”:
Thin skim of sea ice –
The small red boat rocks at dock,
Tethered to summer.
Karin may be partly wrong when she writes that “[n]othing stays; nothing lasts.” What characterized her in the years I knew her in Montreal and what characterizes her now in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat are the exact same qualities: a discerning mind, a gentle sense of humour, an immense generosity in providing the solidarity needed when there is little strength left to remain buoyant. None of that has changed, and our world remains buffeted by harsh winds. And so may you too find the spirit to tether yourself firmly to summer after you read Karin’s finely wrought words.