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Behind the Page: Dennis Cooley on departures

For years I had written about the wayward, mysterious, and vulnerable body. Sometimes it appeared in anguish, sometimes in petulance. Often it behaved in comical ineptitude or recalcitrance. One book, Bloody Jack, ended with a playful passage on the appendix—the book's appendix and Cooley's very own, at that point intact. The body figured in yearning and desire and joy. Always it was wondrous. One whole book, soul searching, played with the mind-body split in our culture. In another poem,"at night Cooley listens," the body protests against Cooley's mistreatment and takes its revenge on him. I was always on the side of the maligned and neglected and miraculous body.

Then one day the fascination with the body slammed up against a surprise and the body—my body—broke out in full rebellion. An exploded appendix in 1995 delivered me to the hospital where I languished in fever and hallucination and nightmare. Voices spoke to me—very clear and distinct voices—about the composition of the cosmos, and impossible and unnerving dreams of what had never happened in my own life over ran me. The world was running down, on the verge of extinction, and acrobatic figures swung through bottomless dark trying to mend it. A man pretending to be a painter walked through a door, wiping blood from a cloth he was carrying. Another man, a stick man, leaned terrifyingly over the hospital bed, jerking and flailing. By all odds I had become mad. A case perhaps of how close poetry and schizophrenia can be.

When I was finally able to sit up, the heels of my hands were sore from lying on my back and my vision had blurred. I clumsily wrote as best I could a raw record of that time—memories of the heat and grinding that went on and on in gritty textures and dust; anxious and impossible dreams about parents and grandparents and friends and family and colleagues. The paranoia was so festering I suspected just about everyone of neglect and conspiracy. The dreams, if they were dreams, (increasingly?) included visions of water, green and glowing plants just up there, up the steps that weren't there; noted the sweetness of air blowing over rotting snow in spring, thoughts of my wife's family home where I might find refuge. As I hunched over the scraps of paper on which, clumsy and weak, I wrote as best I could remember what had happened. I had no idea in what order most of the events had occurred and I had no pattern of them in mind. This was in February.

By that fall I had begun to construct a book. It would be a long poem, I thought. It would be long and disjointed and multi-voiced to reflect the experience and to situate it as a postmodern long poem, if poem it is. I wrote up more notes on how to think about the experience and how to present it. Over the next many years I worked on other books, but I kept coming back to the manuscript, dipped in and out of it. I kept adding passages, constantly revised what I had, moved parts around. Gradually I became aware of larger and more varied contexts within which I could amplify the story. I wrote still more notes, drafted more pieces. I drew in information that seemed apt and exciting—stuff about the appendix (Houdini's notably); the chemical constitution of the body; the swoops and loops of the earth, the moon; the rhythms of agriculture (much of it as a time of dissipation and decline); the story of human evolution; the amazing mechanics of DNA; stories of my own family and childhood. I made more notes, drafted more passages, revised practically everything. The manuscript got bigger and bigger.

I knew from the start that the poem would not be simply narrative. It would gather a conglomeration that had drawn into the gravitational pull of the event. A lot of the later inspiration and information came from Bill Bryson's astonishing book A Short History of Everything and, still later, Diane Ackerman's An Alchemy of Mind, a poet's memorable account of our strange brains and bodies. The writing quickened with a larger sense of what had happened and what could be said, what removed, what altered. The events, I began to see, were thickened with circles and whorls and cycles and descents. I recognized the reassuring sense of a bird in a tree, grew more aware ofthe acute feelings of desiccation and thirst, and I began to edge toward where those details might take me. As I reworked the material it became less medical, less obsessive. I happily took up new leads, including what I had written outside of departures, and sometimes before it. I wanted to lift the weight of a sweltering and oppressive state that clung muddily to the initial notes. The poem steadily became more embedded in larger patterns. At the same time it became more lyrical, more meditative, more extended, more personal, more comical.

In the end (which is to say, at the time when I had to let the book go) it became apparent that I would need to jettison a lot of what over the years I had gathered and hauled into the manuscript at one time or another. Now, twenty years after the event, shortened and more focused, the poem tells of the vulnerable body as it passes through the world's stubborn alchemy.

Last modified onWednesday, 20 April 2016 13:53

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Turnstone Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund, and the Province of Manitoba through Manitoba Culture Heritage, Tourism and Sport.

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