From Imago for the Fallen World, by Matthew Cooperman and Marius Lehene, 2013
by Victoria Brockmeier
Imago for the Fallen World,
by Matthew Cooperman and Marius Lehene,
Jaded Ibis Press, 212 pp.
Early in Matthew Cooperman and Marius Lehene’s collaborative masterpiece, Imago for the Fallen World, we’re told that “a fresh look and a fierce listen induce a lump in the throat.” (11) Certainly the case when the object of one’s attention is a work like this one. The book’s substantial 200-odd pages integrate Cooperman’s meditative, paratactical prose poems with Lehene’s photography, watercolors and collages; many of these last include both photographic and watercolor, or water-altered, elements. The pages have neon yellow shading toward the gutter, making them seem to glow, or seem to have been faded, but faded somehow by brightness. The page numbers are in yellow, too. The particular yellow they’ve chosen is the intense yellow that puts the Y in CMYK (cyan, yellow, magenta and black “the basic colors of printers” ink), and its presence throughout the work suggests the semi-private, provisional character of a proof. These elements and a lot of white space make the book feel like an object in a way that books rarely do, planned and designed and constructed rather than merely written. It feels like a work in process, too, not because it’s short on polish – quite the opposite in fact – but because the space it creates invites us in as conversational partners, or as fellow travelers.
Each section feels like a gallery installation through which the reader/viewer moves, with the text and images serving as complementary phases of this richly multimodal project. In some cases, the relationships are explicit, as with a panel that includes a heron attempting to swallow an oversized fish and a blue-green orb that might be an eye, a planet, or a sun across from poetry referring to “Position: swans-who-mate-for-life-in-flight; or heron-with-its-gill-net-full” and “Cataract: of the eye, in the gun, over the falls,” (53) but most pairings are more numinous, Cooperman’s poetry and Lehene’s images refracting into and through each other, gaining in complexity and scope. Armed soldiers arrest kneeling captives, surgeons in an operating theater work on a patient, groups of people appear to argue, or interrupt one another, or gather on a beach, or sit crowded and silhouetted in a boat on otherwise empty water, while the poems work through the problems and possibilities in community. The book bodies forth an aesthetics of connectedness, from the paratactical (in the text) and collage (in the images) methods to the phrases and images that refract throughout its course, both verbally and visually.
Despite the title’s usual usage in entomology (referring to the final stage in an insect’s metamorphosis), Imago’s focus isn’t on metamorphosis or finality. It’s interested in change, particularly the social and ecological effects of human activity, but not precisely in metamorphosis; it wants us to confront loss and endings, but as phases within ongoing processes rather than experiences of finality. It ruminates, it inquires, it holds judgment, in many cases, in suspension, but it’s not afraid to assert itself: “Plea: Emperors, Emptiers, let us see your pockets,” asks “Still: Policy,” before reminding us of “grade school classrooms in shabby trailers, shame and mutiny, from poisoned sea to poisoned sea.” (74) As stringent as its tone is, though, it leaves us on a razor-edge between critique and affirmation, asserting that “the end is only the beginning, we are closer than we think.” (74) Closer to the end, to the beginning, to each other, to something else; the word holds on to its range of possibilities, both better and worse, without ever dissolving into indecision.
Imago seeks to elucidate an image of the world we have, for the world we have; it bases its critical interventions in an ethics of affirmation: poetry and art matter. The senses matter. Kindness matters. Politics matters. Human action, for good or ill, matters. This marks a turn particularly from Cooperman’s previous book, Still: Of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move, a project of which Imago is a continuation – indeed, most of Imago’s poems are titled “Still:” something, and they carry on a form Cooperman established in his last book, a kind of self-similar serial structure where lists are stitched into sets to make longer poems, and the poems into a series that extends now into multiple volumes. They give the impression of defining their terms, including the central verb/noun/adjective/adverb still, but often spin out into imaginative or loaded strategies. “Still: will not be televised,” to give only one example, draws from both these domains, telling us about “that God: monofecism, full of shit, our father who Hail of Burton, the mouth saying might, the month in Storm. Later, the years of an actual desert.” (45) It’s a swift, agile poetics that blazes with edgy political anger, but keeps its gaze focused steadily on living human experience.
The poems in Coopeman’s last book seemed rooted in a state of shock, the denial and anger phases of grief, where Imago leans toward acceptance, after a manner – it doesn’t shrug off social injustice, manipulative media, environmental degradation and its other targets as though they’re okay, by any means, but it suggests that we can still inhabit such a reality, connect with each other in it, and maybe even improve things. Imago refrains from prescribing solutions, but it manifests a strong interest in problems as things that ought to be solved rather than treating them as ineluctable, immutable afflictions. The form has evolved, as well; the constituent lists have become distinctly organic, their elements bound by principles that belong to intuition, inspiration, or implication. “Still: Surface” gets a lot of mileage from such complexity, offering, “Slide: a 2-D manifold as boundary of solid objects; a coordinate patch of hours on the International Dateline; a neighborhood isomorph in the budding skate park, your arms in my arms in the hammock.” (76)
Imago looks beyond our social ties, too, to address humankind’s environmental impact. Many of Lehene’s pieces recur to themes of urban construction and decay, alongside natural images like the heron, and the book’s sections are separated by a series of epistolary poems by Cooperman, each headed “_____ Planet.” Dear Planet, Beloved Planet, Battered Planet, Honored Planet, Dishonored Planet – one could imagine a whole range of loosely Dickinsonian addresses filling in that blank. The speaker has a stark sense of scale: “By the time you get this,” he begins, “I will be gone, dust in the eaves.” (37) Later, he wonders, “why is war such a hard on?” and relates how he thinks “this darkest thought in the final night sky.” (92) Like so much in Imago, these poems turn toward possibility as willingly as they confront the tragic; the speaker confesses that “I feel jagged and dystopian,” but even then wonders, “We are spinning, no doubt, but aren’t we spinning somewhere?” (129) In part, this sense of place and agency seems to come from an appropriately contemporary relinquishment of order; one of the letter-poems notes that “To say everything’s slipping is to imagine there were once gears.” (164)
In addition to unfurling a bit of Imago’s telos, the “_____ Planet” poems include some of its loveliest prosody. The last finds the speaker questioning his passion (and it is a passion, in both the amorous and the erotic senses) for the planet, and suggests, “Perhaps it’s because you are beautiful, the color of soul and the sea. Mirror ball, I still have a crush on you as you will inevitably crush me. I like it hard. High Seductess of Horizon and Valley and Precipice, I constantly want to climb on you, into you, to go out to you like a boat on an open sea. . .” (167) – ellipses in the original – and closes with the wonderfully evocative statement, or challenge, “I’ll see you a distant queen.” (168)
About the Author:
Victoria Brockmeier’s first book of poems, my maiden cowboy names, won the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize and was published by Truman State University Press. She’s at work on both critical and creative manuscripts, and she edits the poetry journal Lumn.