David Cope. The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems. Madison, Wisconsin: Ghost Pony Press, Spring 2018. ISBN: 0-941160-18- 1 and 798-0- 941160-18- 6. $16.00.
I first came in contact with David Cope and his poetry while a teaching assistant to Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 1980. Ginsberg was much taken with the poems that the then-younger Cope had sent him from the heartland. The poet Charles Reznikoff had just died and there was much to do with Cope’s poetry that struck Ginsberg as a continuation of the direct and clear objectivist style for which Reznikoff was known. I also saw up close that Ginsberg found some relief in the articulate, well-read Michigan poet. After all, once the Kerouac School opened in 1974, hordes of young novice writers descended upon Ginsberg and other Beat Generation writers at Naropa to create what at times appeared to be a kind of night-of-the-living-dead, unbeat, zombie poetry scene.
Cope was a distinct and singular exception to the poets that flocked to Ginsberg insofar as he had no intellectual or emotional affinity to the Beat notion of improvisational “First Thought, Best Thought” mind. “First Thought, Best Thought” was the phrase that Ginsberg used to describe spontaneous and fearless writing, a way of telling the truth that arises from naked and authentic experience. David Cope took exception to this methodology in favor of the basic tenets of Objectivist poetry, championed by early 20th century American poets Luis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Reznikoff, among others. As defined by Zukofsky, Objectivist poets were to treat the poem as an object, and to emphasize sincerity, intelligence and the poet's ability to look clearly at the world. This view of the world, as well as poetry, is the world of Cope’s sturdy compilation of selected poems, The Invisible Keys.
Fast forward to today, a good 100 years past the deposition of the Objectivist School. Today, we have more schools of poetry and poetics discourse than perhaps in any other time in history. We also have a president who does not distinguish between truth and untruth, who openly argues against “fake” media, “so called” judges, “alternative facts” and so forth. As Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA wrote in “The End of Intelligence,” a New York Times op-ed piece, “These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself” (29 April 2018, 1,6). You won’t find in David Cope’s Invisible Keys a universe unmoored from its objectivist foundation as you’ll find on any given day at the Oval Office. That’s a very good thing.
Another distinction between Cope, who Ginsberg first invited to teach at the Kerouac School in the summer of 1980, and most of the Naropa student poets with whom he would meet at this still relatively early juncture in his poetics journey, was that he was already living a blue-collar family life and working as school custodian. Perhaps there are certain kinds of objective reality that may be harder to ignore than others. Earning enough money to raise a family of four comes immediately to mind. Maybe Yosemite Sam (a name ascribed to Donald Trump by his biographer, Tim O’Brien, after the cartoon character) can get away with a life seemingly dedicated to overriding objective reality. But a janitor? It would be a cold day in hell before a clogged up toilet gets fixed by insulting it, calling it all kinds of awful names. And unlike the Syrian government, whose leader seems to enjoy chemical warfare assaults on his own people with relative impunity, mostly invisible custodians live their day-to-day lives exposed to a variety of toxins in oft invisible benefit to others. Cope was fully aware of objective reality when, in considering his legacy of blue collar employment, he used Whitman’s catalog technique to write the poem, “AP Wire Story: ‘Janitors at Risk’”:
For years I breathed spray paint, toluol, methanol,
xylene & hi-lo fumes under roaring fans
in the factory,
then coal dust in aging boiler rooms, pulled
hot clinkers & breathed the fumes,
diatomaceous earth, muriatic acid & chlorine
vapors 6 years at Lincoln Pool, breathed
asbestos in boiler rooms,
in tunnels & mechanical rooms across the city,
inhaled chlordane, wood dust, germicide
fumes, stone cleaners,
boric acid dust, ammonia vapors––almost my whole
adult life––exposed myself daily to
vomit, mucus, hair, congealed sweat, menstrual
blood, as every janitor does. Today,
meetings to save the planet
fill auditoria as janitors wheel chemicals for the
air conditioning right past
the door where
the speakers have worked themselves into a
righteous frenzy! [...] (42)
What David Cope’s catalog of real toxic substances signify is that while people in power, people with great privilege, people with enormous wealth and fixers may get elected as president of the United States throughout American history, the only silver lining in our current president’s language is that Trump’s post-truth misuses shine a light on everyone else’s awareness of their own communication, behavior, truthfulness of speech and written words. So the first thing for which I want to praise Invisible Keys is its dedication to facts, sanity, and to its dedication to the Objectivist Way.
Personally impacted by the horrific death machine that was the Vietnam War, as were many of his generation coming of age in the 1960s, Cope dropped out of college before completing his undergraduate degree after an antiwar demonstration in Ann Arbor turned violent and the police began busting heads, but not before studying at the University of Michigan with the African American poet Robert Hayden to whom he dedicated Invisible Keys. In the poem “Peace,” Cope recorded what that form of anti-war desperation looked like for those whom Vietnam was a living nightmare. He writes of one custodial coworker named Benny who “talks of piles of bodies, / corpses with arms, heads, legs ripped off”:
he speaks without passion,
regretting the wasted effort, the needless deaths,
yet he accepts his part in it,
still amazed people could live like this for years,
from attack to counter-attack
hiding in fields & ditches,
finding uncles & sons blasted to pieces
more often than children are born. (8)
Cope eventually dreamed himself out of the janitorial employment he done for 18 years to become a professor-poet for the next 22 years. That is, he taught Shakespeare and worked on curriculum development at Grand Rapids Community College after having previously cleaned the college’s toilets and mopped its floors. In his life, there were no shortages of improbable juxtapositions such as his unusual leap from janitor to professor within the same physical workspace. Here was a living blue collar working man who in his invisible, secret life as a poet was a voracious reader of history, a devotee of art, culture, film and music, a literary multiculturalist, and a person attuned to the natural world in which he reveled and later channeled its most healing and joyous qualities.
Dreaming holds a special place throughout Cope’s Invisible Keys and it is worth investigating why the word, or some form of it, appears again and again in his poems. It may have been that without dream activism, or acting upon one’s dreaming, as Martin Luther King demonstrated in his “I Have a Dream” speech given on 28 August 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that so captured the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Cope would have never made the leap that he did, the leap that ended the interruption of his academic career during the height of the Vietnam War and resulted in him entering the academy as a professor of Shakespeare.
It may well be with an Elizabethan eye that Cope also uses the word dream repeatedly in his poems for, like Shakespeare, dream is a central and dominating image in Cope’s poetry, encompassing at once the terrors of the irrational and the creative powers of the imagination, humanity’s deepest fears and highest aspirations. The Shakespeare dream world is peopled by ghosts, witches, fairies and spirits and governed not by reason, but by omen and prophecy, vision and daydream, coincidence and disguise. Shakespeare’s dream world is shown to be a key indicator of symbol and meaning, sometimes even a metaphor for the plays themselves. By the time of the late romances, including The Tempest, Shakespeare’s dream and dramatic worlds are virtually indistinguishable, and the vision of life as a dream achieves its fullest reality.
Consider how Cope chose to open his selected poems––with the dark incandescence of the poem “American Dream,” a vision of the raging hellfire that was as if the Vietnam War had been imported lock, stock and barrel to the homeland in a manner of brutality that we have come to accept for its numbingly raw cinematic portrayal of our own country’s pervasive shock and awe violent tendencies:
the house was all in flames,
orange billows bursting up into the sunlight.
FBI agents & police were laid up
behind walls, sheds & other building
armed with M-16s & rocket launchers.
the firemen were kept back.
the battle had gone on for some time
when the fire exploded thruout the house.
one of the bodies could be seen inside the house,
loaded with ammunition bullets,
the bullets exploding from the heat.
While the poem remains as raw today as it did at first reading in 1980––with its Objectivist realism, it’s Hemingway-like minimalist language, vivid cinematic accents and close-up detail, in the context of Invisible Keys, “American Dream” plays a part, as does each poem that follows, as a statement of meaning that says the essence of gesture is invisible, is symbolic. This essence of gesture depends on images and the ability of language to evoke the inner qualities of perceived objects in the absence of those objects.
Gestural images, portrayed as passing characters, parade across Cope’s poems. There’s a “crone [wheeling] a battered pram, empty” (“Abandoned Hotel,” 2), a “small boy [who] tried to strangle a pigeon” (“Chinese Calligraphy,” 11), a funeral cortege with “sun [shining] over the hearse, thru the windows/onto their laps where their hands are folded” (“Labor Day,” 13), an “old bum [who] scratches his back beneath his coat” (“Modern Art,” 15), imaginations of Civil War dead “where bodies were heaped up waist-high” (“Antietam,” 16), a “Sikh [standing] near the back of the room” (“The Liberty Bell,” 17), and a “neighbor’s hanging out his laundry” (“Alone,” 18).
While these characters make only brief appearances, one character in particular seems to haunt the mind long after reading this tender and sturdy selection––the old jazz pianist who “looks at his hands, palms down, fingers spread” (“At the Croyden,” 20). This aging musician who “played everywhere, all these big joints downtown, / an’ he played Detroit, & up in Canada, too. / he knew all the good numbers–– [...] looks back up into my eyes / & I see the invisible keys.” It’s as though Cope plotted his book in the context of a Dantean journey and the aging jazz musician is his guide. It’s also fair to say that the gesture of “dead, old John, premiere piano player, / found sitting up on his toilet after / 3 days not answering his bell” that begins the title poem of this collection marks an epiphany of symbol and meaning in its conclusion:
that old tune’s floating up
in a dingy hallway
one bare bulb hanging
& those keys’re
rolling, waves under fast fingers––
& two floors up
a woman sobs alone on rumpled sheets
on the floor, picture on her pillow––
in white, with a red rose––
hearing those notes
again, she’ll rise & look out at
the empty street,
streetlights going off in the
& she’ll remember an embrace, a
in a room like this, & sighing,
wipe her eyes
& fix her hair, who knows who
might turn up today,
toes still tapping to that old song.
(“The Invisible Keys,” 24)
The American poet Antler (for whom Cope wrote “For Antler, after the storm,” 74) has written of David Cope’s poetry that his poems are “Majestic condensed narratives, each a short story” and that to fully understand Cope’s achievement is to see this poet as “tenderness incarnate.” In his comments on The Invisible Keys, Antler also noted how Cope’s poetry transformed over time and celebrated the sense of change, of growth, from an “apocalyptic rebel youth” to “the bard of today invoking love and hope.” You see that both epic narrative compression and tenderness incarnate with particular clarity in the book’s title poem.
There is great density of poetic weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual in The Invisible Keys. There’s also the sense that Cope has presented a universe of poesy just as Pound suggested: news that’s stays news. There is an alignment with tradition and lineage that goes back through time across the span of these poems. While Cope’s allusions have heavy anchoring in Shakespeare and Dante, the comparative literature scholar and translator Dr. Hong Sun wrote in a 2017 review of Invisible Keys that “Cope’s poems collected here present a panorama of over two millennia of world history. They run the gamut of dramatic events from ancient Greece, through 15th-century Inca, to the world of our own century.”
With the pandora’s box of Trump as president unleashed on the world, a man who is a liar and who abuses words as much as he does people, this book of selected poems by David Cope reads like an antidote against all things authoritarian. There’s the complex, varied, subtle and richly multilayered poem “Tiananmen Square Sequence” (28) that zeroes in on China’s domination over its people. There’s “Fireball in the Clouds” (38) with its juxtapositions between the visible and unseen, the living and dead, woke and asleep “as / gassed Kurds & blasted Iraqis/mingle in the silent screams / that rend tender springtime’s/sleeping buds.” There’s “Ghazal of The High Plateau” (41) with its “one tiny yellow flower, an unearthly flower, nameless, a / crooked flower once signed to you by a long-dead sage. / this is the sign you were to wait for.” There’s the strange and surrealistic sutra-like historical poem “Catching Nothing” in which Cope imagines “the dinosaur bone collector, / efficient & ambitious, / whose skull is now some / professor’s paperweight” (44). There’s “In Silence” (65) that portrays the extreme calamity of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center by focusing on Cope’s cousin, Ann Barber, who was a doctor stationed at an NYC emergency room “expecting the onrush / of wounded,” but found “only the silence & / the realization at last / that none would come / thru the open door.”
Over the course of the four plus decades Cope has produced his body of work (1975-2017), his writing style began to shift away from the grit of Reznikoff and more toward a tender lyricism. As he aged, the blazing darkness of Reznikoff began to lift and something like the sweet honey variability of William Carlos Williams began to emerge. This shift in the poems toward a more pronounced compassion, one cleansed by the frustrations and angers of youth, comes into focus during his mid-life work most clearly with the poem “Tender Petals for Calm Crossing” (62), a poem that sets the stage for the elegiac poems of his later period:
along this silent path among cliffs thru terraced green
you’ll sing beneath your breath where the poet dreamed
his escape thru the clouds, where whole populations fled
to rebuild shattered dreams, hands in the moist earth––
stone masons who shaped the rock attentively, that it
interlock & honor earth that gave both seed & harvest
in the sweep of seasons––ghosts today, they wander here,
picking your pockets, to know what dreams you bring
to this place, what breath you leave among these rocks,
what song you gather in your backpack & basket of silence...
where arms & legs of the dead clutch & kick at heaven,
vanishing dreams of hungry ghosts. so you come, bringing
blessings & eyes to flush the tears that still pool in the world’s
grief thru all the rages of lost centuries, all the weeping sisters
crying for lovers who never appeared, all the lost brothers
marched thru barbed wire to death’s final anonymity
in the last burst they’d ever hear, minds turned inward
to their mother’s cries on the day they forced their way
into this light, compassion now for them all: that your dream
be clear when you come to this pass, I send you this wish
where tender petals turn, open in both darkness and light.
David Cope is a poet of vital occasions––“occasion” in its meaning as a juncture, “a place where things join. His poems bear witness to time beings, humanity dreams, invisible signs, traditions held fast and close. His poems are set to circumstances of which Cope bore witness. Looking at this first major retrospective of his work, The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems contain significant occasions in which the primary impulse is one of consecration, even if the arc traveled reveal a desecrated world strung out on destruction and suffering.
The finest example of Cope’s later work is “A Dream of Jerusalem,” a poem inspired by an installation by the Spanish painter and sculptor Jaume Plensa. Cope’s “A Dream of Jerusalem” appeared alongside Plensa’s Jerusalem (2006), an installation that featured 18 bronze sculpted gongs, each fifty-two inches diameter, at the Frederik Meijer Gardens of Grand Rapids on 7 November 2008. In comments on the process involved in the making of the poem, Cope wrote this rare and expansive discussion into and about his writing process:
“A Dream of Jerusalem” begins with my own associations with the city through William Blake's prophetic “Jerusalem”—the city itself as a metaphor for imaginative redemption—and through childhood reflection on Jerusalem as locus for both spiritual journey and holocaust, the latter including the Lamentations—the fall of the city, destruction of the temple, and the Babylonian captivity—as well as the slaughter of the population and destruction of the second temple c. 70 CE. as recounted by Josephus in The Jewish War.
There were also countervailing associations: Plensa's inscription of lines from the Song of Songs on the two parallel rows of giant gongs which with their sounding hammers form the sculpture. Song of Songs is a woman's book, a book of love and longing, and of the spiritual sexuality of love itself, and in thinking about the poem I would write, I recalled the woman's search and the famous refrain in 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4, which I rendered freely as “none may turn to Love until it descends in morning dew and in calling doves.”
While this line would become the refrain for the poem, I did not begin by thinking of it as such; in the initial composition, the line repeated itself in the 9th line-it just seemed to fit there—and it came up again as the final line of the poem. Later, I reworked a lot of the lines in the middle sections, largely for condensation of phrasing and for specificity of image, and in this process repeated the line as the 21st line, thus framing the poem up with two refrains at the beginning (lines 3 and 9) and two at the end (lines 21 and 27).
When I came to Plensa's notion of the gongs, this binary concept of stillness/action found its form in the idea of the shofar untouched and of the “presence that could in a soundless tomb shiver the dark with hammers, sound the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels turning across the universe & make seraphs weep.” Silence thus became the meditative center of the poem, a priori the “unheard music of spheres” which cannot be heard in a fallen age.
The last major association was the idea of the woman herself-in Song of Songs, fairly obviously a young woman in the prime of her youth—yet I also thought of her as the elder she would finally become, of Time itself. I had lost my own mother this year, thus the importance of the child reaching out to touch the mother's cheek, the bone where the mother's vision once stirred, and finally the ashes which “swirl in shining waves, sink into dark murk & are gone”—an image from the final ceremony after my mother's death, wherein my siblings cast my mother's ashes into the river where she raised us. The poem is thus the central poem in that sequence of works exploring my mother's passage from this life and my own self-discovery borne of that passage.
In the associations which come with my mother's passing, there is also the image of the “scattered bones chirping in dry day”—that astounding image from the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, wherein the voice asks the prophet whether these bones shall live (Ezekiel 37:3). The part of my mind that was revolving on the associations with my mother's death picked up on the chirping bones, an image I had previously combined with the notion of Christ as “the word made flesh,” turning the phrases in my 1993 poem “For Martin King”—“who sang the flesh made word that bones may walk.” The image returned here as a rebirth, as the city itself has been reborn.
All these associations were activated when I first encountered Plensa's Jerusalem; when it came to the composition, the words came quickly. [...] The work quite naturally fell into the pattern of long-lined tercets, a format I have been very comfortable with ever since my extensive interrogation of Dante's Commedia.*
“A Dream of Jerusalem” embodies Cope’s later-life poetics perception of the long and deep poetics history of “the great lyric dream,” a history of which the poet, upon the death of his mother, has this epiphany: “we are creatures made of words rounded by incantation / & the great lyric dream...” The poem continues:
in this heart shaped by words there is a presence that could
in a soundless tomb shiver the dark with hammers, sound
the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels turning across
the universe & make seraphs weep. yet there is the stillness of
the word, the child’s mind that turns to her mother & touches
her skin made of words: words that measure breath to be
shared as tender touch in passing time: brothers cry out
at the prison door, women sigh in their last dank beds, boys
turned men shoulder rifles behind dusty tanks. blood is the cry
thru a thousand cities. here there is silence: here light & form
where words ring the lovers together, here a dream of soft bodies
moving together, the dream at once the child’s cry & the mother’s
last gasp exhaled in fierce sunset as if none may turn to Love
until it descends in morning dew and in calling doves
here the desolate city, deserted temple, the lost tribe: here
the dream wrapped in words that round the breath in silent air:
here ashes that once were man, the bright dream & endless night,
here sun disc’s eternal round, silence, unheard music of spheres...
The enduring significance of the lyric impulse is central to “Dream of Jerusalem.” This lyric impulse––its essential compassionate nature––underlies much of the arc of Cope’s development as framed by The Invisible Keys. The application of the lyric to his art is also a signaling of the importance of the genre’s roots to him, as well as the evolution of meter and song, going back to the ancient Greeks, the classical Roman poets, the Chinese poets of the Songs of Chu collected by Qu Yuan and Song Yu, the 10th century Persian ghazal form, the 11th and 12th century courtly love poetry of the French Troubadours, the Middle ages Hebrew singer-poets, and Dante’s Vitae Nuova. I would argue that if it had been Cope’s mission to update and reinvigorate the lyric impulse in this era, he, unlike the president, can honestly say, “Mission accomplished.”
8 May 2018
*For Cope’s complete discussion on the making of his poem, “A Dream of Jerusalem,” and to view Jaume Plensa’s sculpture/installation Jerusalem (2006) on exhibit at the Frederik Meijer Gardens of Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 7 November 2008, see, http://www.poetspath.com/exhibits/cope/The_Making_of_Two_Poems/index.htm.
In regards to any head-scratching by readers wondering about David’s statement: “The work quite naturally fell into the pattern of long-lined tercets, a format I have been very comfortable with ever since my extensive interrogation of Dante's Commedia,” and the fact that “A Dream of Jerusalem” is formatted into quatrains, he noted in a private email discussion with the reviewer (11 May 2018) that “the poem was indeed composed on the dantescan tercet model reconfigured in vers libre, but I later modified it to quatrains, primarily because the long lines wouldn't fit in the space available in a printed 6 X 9 book."