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Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Known mainly as a translator of Russian poetry and as a reviewer of Russian and Irish poets in The Russian ReviewPoetry Ireland Review and other prestigious places, this is Belinda Cooke’s first full collection of her own work. Structured in four sections, three of them focused on specific locales (Ross-shire, Berkshire and Aberdeenshire), it consists of personal, inward-turned lyrics whose contexts are sparse and whose addressees might be friend, brother, parent, child, lover or even a ‘you’ that’s a complicitous ‘I’. Such an approach can be mysterious, frustrating, or a challenge, depending on the type of reader you are. Is the dedicatee ‘Steve’ the same paratextual ‘Stephen’ credited with the author and cover photos, and hence the same ‘you’ frequently associated with photography, and therefore, from the eroticism of ‘Stem’, a lover? But these pronominal ambiguities are generally finely judged. In ‘Take’, they help depict a rolling pattern of personal support, with the twist to the first person at the end:

[…] Dark night, unexpected 

at your door, you’ve lost

so much weight you say.

When the voice is lonesome

just come home you say – 

and you only once thirty years ago,

you know why I’m ringing…

just come home,

come home I say. 

‘We get no kicks on the A96’, begins one poem here, and these are confessionals, too, whose main confession is that there’s not much (willingly) to be disclosed. There are landscapes, moments listening to rain, listening to music, problems with houses, being apart from loved ones, going for walks, and the fine-tuned emotions and quiet epiphanies arising from each. If something does happen – ‘bad news’ is mentioned once  we readers aren’t made privy to it. Some similar lyric poets import drama instead from news stories or character-monologues. Belinda Cooke resists that, but rather flavours her self-appointed reticence with spicy hints – ‘It’s as if we were looking/ into each other’s bones’; ‘always just yesterday/ that I first felt your loved weight’; ‘I learn about intimacy the hard way’ – and prefers to listen than speak:

Talk to me, I will listen,

I will lean in close to that

dark that is yours alone […]

Meanwhile there are references to Rilke, Larkin and particularly Marina Tsvetaeva, whom Belinda Cooke is especially known for translating: otherwise-opaque phrases like ‘the packhorse dues’ can be illuminated by identifying their origins in her writings. The book, confusingly, has many unaccountable commas, misquotations, odd italicisings, lost parentheses and hanging quote-marks, among other typos. (Perhaps ‘Whitenights Park’, for this notable russophone, might be deliberate? But whoever are Wilhelmina and the Mainliners?) Nonetheless, such slippages don’t overwhelm the pleasures to be gained, especially in the more unguarded poems about youth which are the ones, for me, that make the book most worth getting hold of. A Catholic childhood nicely provides a ‘little box of imagery’, and those on young love, after all, are everything you’d hope for:

            Heavy and lovely

            the night we first didn’t sleep together

            but lay awake all night

            me like a madwoman

            who couldn’t stop smiling:

            ‘What’s so funny?’ you asked.

Guy Russell 20th June 2021

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