Friday, September 28, 2018

The Sound of Nature in David Cope's Invisible Keys by Hong Sun

The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems covers the poems of David Cope from 1975 to 2017, chosen both from his six previously published books, and from those written more recently.  From these poems of diversified subjects three underpinning traits stand out, i.e., a sense of history, an import of humanity, and a sensibility of nature.

First of all, to quote Wordsworth, “The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events.”  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.  In “American Pewter with Burroughs II:  Green is a Man / To Fill is a Boy,” for instance, “Greek warriors lean together, . . . fierce eyes intent on the battle to come, another battle.  /Sappho lamented such beauty one sees in faces like these, marching to war, full of high phrases, valorous tongues, /arms bristling with arms, killers with the faces of angels—/Sappho, who cried out to Anaktoria that her footstep, the light /in her eyes set her heart thrumming more strongly than all /armed killers others might sing” (p. 80).  Anaktoria is the name of a woman mentioned by Sappho as a lover of hers in her Fragment 16, often referred to by the title “To an Army Wife, in Sardis.”  In “Tender Petals for Calm Crossing,” “stone masons”—the talented Indian artist-workers that constructed Machu Picchu in mid-15th century Inca—fell victim to the conquistadors, “warriors cut down like corn on a day as crisp /as this, eyes turning skyward one last time, up to the light /as their blood gushes out on fertile ground, shining path /where arms & legs of the dead clutch & kick at heaven, /vanishing dreams of hungry ghosts” (p. 62).  In “Antietam” Cope sees, through the vision of his wife Sue, the battle in Antietam, Maryland on September 17, 1862 during the Civil War, with 22,717 casualties for both sides—the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history.  Crossing time and space, the poet combines the battle scene with the experience of Sue’s father, who was machine gunned in the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944-25 January 1945), the last major German offensive campaign in its western theater during World War II.  As a survivor, he would “wake up sweating— /wild eyes in the night— /the German officer he had to shoot, point blank— /those eyes, that cringe, /night after night” (p. 16). 

An ironic note resounds through “A Quiet Life,” which concerns a Vietnamese refugee family that the poet sponsored in the mid-1970s for immigration to the US. The titular quietness connotes a sense of Tantalus’ quest.  The way for the family to get out of Vietnam over the stormy sea is a narrow escape from death—“four people die,” even “in good weather.” The protagonist’s name Minh means “light,” but he sinks into darkness upon coming to the US for, among other things, “the Texans treated him badly” (p.3).  How could those home-bound Texans understand the kind of ordeal folks in Vietnam, as well as their fellow American G.I.s there, had gone through?  In “The Train:  Howl in Chicago,” written when Cope took the train to Chicago to teach Howl to his daughter Jane’s high school class four decades later, the poet recalls the memorable scene in in November 1969, with “Allen reading to overflow crowd, /Hill Auditorium, Moratorium Day, Howl singing thru the horror /of those days, bringing so many to tears at last after /friends dead in Nam, others come home with hell in their own minds” (p.106). Just as Larry Abrams, a friend of mine in St. Louis, shared with me his experience in Vietnam:  “I may have been shot by mortar attacks any day, but never knew when.  I destroyed all the photos I took in Vietnam as I never wanted to be reminded of it once I got home.  I lost a good friend before I arrived.  He was in the Army and was killed in combat.  I found out once I got home on leave before I went to Vietnam.  I asked the Red Cross to assist me in extending my leave before I went to Vietnam so I could attend his funeral as a pall bearer.  My leave was extended about two weeks and it was during that two week extension that Ben Hoa got hit during the Tet Offensive in February 1966.  I missed the attack because I was home, still on leave.  Ironically, the death of my friend saved me from being on base during that attack.  It was during that attack that many members of the unit I was eventually assigned to were killed.  Ironic.  The death of my friend may have actually saved my life” (12 January, 2017).   In “Party Talk,” Cope portrays “the severed Vietnamese fingers” (p.14), a reference that reminds me of the description by Dan Roland, a Vietnam War veteran and, two decades later, a classmate in my first doctoral program, of how some South Korean soldiers “would cut off the tongue from the corpse of the Vietnamese to hang on their buttonhole as a trophy of valor” (April 1990).  Similar cruelty and inhumanity are seen in “Emile at the Crossroad,” dream sequence involving a young man forced by Nazis to bury his friends, recently shot down by Nazi gunners, “his eyes now bulging in daily nightmare— /the helmeted gunner, machine gun spraying near-naked /bodies, writhing, wrapped in blood mists jugular spray /as they fall, corpses bulldozed into ditches eyes wide /in death, & he, standing along a ditch—he, spared to /finish the work—he, looking into the blue faces /open mouths disappearing beneath a wave of sand, /neighbors, lovers . . .” (p. 67).

It is with passion, honesty, a commitment to history, and an investment to be understood not only by his contemporaries but by generations to come, that Cope effortlessly pulls the reader in with his descriptive language on this journey with him through history.  In his correspondence with a reader whose nation had been victimized by one of those events, he wrote, “I hope my poem does at least some justice to the victims of the tragedy.  Some of the images (in the accompanying set of photos) are familiar to me, but some—those that are most horrifying—were quite new, as they didn’t get out to us.  Peace to you and to your nation in these latter days” (5 June, 2017).  In Cope’s words to the reader, “Those poems are, in my estimation, among the most tender and heart-broken pieces I’ve written” (6 June, 2017).  In “Fireball in the Clouds,” a poem written on the first days of the Gulf War, January 1990, “soldiers at briefings /describe mass murder in surgical /terms” (p. 38).  The poem juxtaposes two worlds which are distant yet close to each other:   the battlefield of human slaughter where “gassed Kurds & blasted Iraqis /mingle in the silent screams,” and the natural realm of the “tender springtime’s /sleeping buds” (p. 38).  Man can impose his superficial order on nature, but can never share the latter’s tranquil mystery.  Standing aloof from him, nature maintains its solemnity that takes a poet like Cope to decipher for us.  Just as Lao Tzu puts it in The Tao Te Ching, or The Book of the Way, “Nature says few words.”

Even peaceful time is not all that peaceful in Cope’s poetry as well as in reality.  “Ann Arbor” (p.9) is a poetic rendition of the student anti-war riots in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1970.  “In Silence” is a poem written for Cope’s cousin Dr. Ann Barber, who served in Emergency ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital, one of those hospitals put on 24 hour shifts after the 9-11 incident.  The tragedy is perceived through the eyes of doctors and nurses in the Emergency ward: “hour after hour /they waited in the ER, . . . /thru the open door, /beyond the shrieks & sighs /& the endless roar” (p. 66).

“Sierra Madre & North to Oregon” opens with a female narrator’s fantasy of the line of mountains on west coast of the US:  “imagine . . . the mountains beyond— /white smog’s too thick for us to see,” while she addresses the people in the future:  “you unborn /generations curled in liquid dream, I hear /your diapered squalls & aging sighs even now /here where my feet walk & yours will walk” (p.39).

It is with his poetic sagacity that David Cope sees what mise-en-scène in literary classics is sadly missing in the paleness of our own era.  His awareness of history in “Midsummer Night” triggers my memory of some of the observations that I shared with the graduate students taking my course “Shakespeare Studies,” while I perused with them A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  For instance, Hermia, caught in a romantic accident in the Athenian forest, “flails at Helena” (3.2: 298).  To describe Hermia swinging her arm at her childhood friend with the image of “flail,” an instrument for thrashing grain commonly used in the agricultural age, would be unthinkable in this postindustrial era.  But in his poem, Cope miraculously juxtaposes “vast yellow wheatfields & green corn stretching /beyond treelines at the horizon” with “nuclear power lines” humming “in forcefields from /tower to tower,” not forgetting to add to both with a master touch that “farmers herd cows” (p. 49) through such fields of yellow wheat and green corn under the nuclear power lines.  In “Chinese Calligraphy: T’ang Yin,” the poet brings out the drastic contrast between the dim reality and the idyllic past presented in the work of art by T’ang Yin (1470-1524), an artist and poet in the Ming Dynasty.  On the one hand, David Cope writes, “Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage— /a man surrounded by the immensity of trees, mountains & sky” (p. 11).  On the other hand, “coming in here:  /car horns, a small boy tried to strangle a pigeon, /throngs sat in the shade, wiping their brows, /taxis slammed on their brakes” (p. 11).  The same jarring clamor recurs in “Modern Art” while, ironically, “an old bum scratches his back beneath his coat, . . . /watching the furious drivers curse each other /in the cool, bright morning” (p. 15).

Such pieces capturing moments in history are reminiscent of those in the Confucian canon, Book of Poetry, for instance, “Yellow Birds” (Huang Niao), which is related to a brief entry in Chunqiu, or The Spring and Autumn Annals.  Confucius records tersely in that canon the event in the pre-imperial state Qin, the death of Duke Mu in 621 BC.  As elaborated by Zuo zhuan, or The Commentary of Zuo, another ancient classic, Duke Mu had decreed that the three sons of the Ziche family, i.e., Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu be buried alive with him.  Sorrowful for the three men of virtue, Qin people chanted Yellow Birds.’  Confucius edited the dirge into this poem with three stanzas, beginning with Qin people’s grief for Yanxi:

They flit about, the yellow birds,

And rest upon the jujube trees.

Who followed Duke Mu to the grave?

Ziche Yanxi.

And this Yanxi,

Was a man above a hundred.

When he came to the grave,

He looked terrified and trembled.

The two subsequent stanzas lament Zhonghang and Qianhu respectively.  Each stanza winds up with a four-line refrain bemoaning the tragic end of the three virtuous court officials.

Thou azure Heaven there!

Thou art destroying our good men.

Could he have been redeemed,

We should have given a hundred lives for him.

In addition to its historical perspective, the Confucian piece demonstrates a keen import of humanity, which also pervades David Cope’s poetry.  The concept of humanity (人文) first appeared in I Ching or The Book of Changes.  As a set of divinatory symbols in the book has it, “What civilization rests in is humanity. . . .  By observation, it is revealed that humanity constitutes the world.”  The idea is that the human forms a pair of couples, and thus enters into the family, the country, and the world at large which, in the last analysis, is the humanity, i.e. the culture.  In “Rainy Dawn,” for instance, Cope asks, “why think more of living, dying, /this rainy morn, & dream,” while “invisible sun & stars spin beyond /these clouds” (p.31).  But, ironically, all the time the poet is concerned about the human well-being, their “living, dying.”  In “Jane Marie,” he witnesses at close range the birth of his second child, Jane, by Caesarean section.  While his wife “Sue looks up— /the doctors cut /thru flesh wall, /fat layer— /still deeper— /their gloves redden /with her blood” (p. 32).  Thus the poet celebrates the miraculous creation of a new life:  “& now the doctor’s /hand enters her /abdomen, /the aide pushes, /pushes, /a blue head appears /wrinkled, angrily /drawing breath— /a howl /as the whole /blue body appears /cut & clamp, /weigh & check /& suck out nostrils, /hand her to /the father, me, /who sits amazed /as blue flesh turns /slowly pink” (p. 33).

In “The Rhododendron,” Cope quests for the gist of humanity, “who can say /what love is?  you take a friend /in hand & roar down blind road after blind road /wandering thru private rooms /in each other’s hearts, sailing thru whole histories /of pain & rage to find a quiet morning, /dew on the laurel leaves” (p.55).  On the other hand, in “Fran,” the poet records his early experience of bereavement at six: “Aunt Fran’s /husband & son Dutch, my older cousin . . . , a genius at 13, killed, /accident in the Rockies . . . /my first /memory of lives, faces swept away from my life” (p. 58).  The title of another poem “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” is a refrain in one portion of François Villon’s Le Testament, rendered in English as “but where are the snows of yesteryear?”  The poet takes off from the famous line, in a similar refrain fashion, to backtrack the life of his mother, persistently asking, “what became of the girl . . . ,” from “the sixth grader who skipped on sidewalks to French lessons /with Miss Meloche” to “the girl chosen from her dorm to speak to reporters /after Pearl Harbor, summoning words to guess the pain /that lay ahead” (p.72).  In “Last Look,” sitting with his mother’s corpse, Cope laments, “the room is silent, empty but /for the bier.  she lies, sheet /draped over her body— / she is so small in death— / the head tilted back, eyelids, /aquiline nose, cupid’s bow lips, skin /translucent, alabaster /yet still lovely” (p. 73).  In “Flight to Phoenix,” an elegy for his father, the poet chants: “in seat staring out window at clouds, /I look into my empty hands— /think of his face, my own a mirror /thru which I can see him /& in his, the pattern of my being” (p. 74).  It can’t be a coincidence that the word “empty” appears in the very beginning of both of these elegies, specifically, the first line in the former and the second line in the latter, but a master touch with which the poet brings out the bereavement.  For when our parents pass away, a substantial part of our life phases out, leaving with us an indescribable inner emptiness, an aching void in our heart that can never be filled up.  In “Crystal Lake to Beulah,” Cope recalls, “last week, I kayaked at dawn /on my childhood river, /spreading rose petals across /the water three years after /we spread my mother’s ashes, /below the spot where she /sat alone, to collect herself /beyond the wash of sorrows, /job & family needs—here /to hear herself in treetop /winds, in owls calling /tree to tree in the dark” (p. 94).  Furthermore, “In My Father’s House” is a poem with which Cope traces back, from fond memories of his father, to the remote pedigree of the family, “the mirror casts backward thru ancestors /toiling land, turning lathes, scripture ever in their hands” (p. 75).

Cope’s tender feelings are not restricted to his relatives; his heart goes out to his fellow poets likewise.  The book includes Cope’s lamentation of the demise of Kenneth Rexroth, whom he refers to as “another of my fathers” (p. 12).  In “Rexroth Gone,” he pours out his feelings to the dear departed predecessor:  “if I sit tonight in shadows, /the moon’ll be full, the crickets sing /sweet lament.  tenderly now, /this faint gentle breath to you, /Kenneth” (p. 12).  The title “‘the weight of the world is love’” (100) is the opening line of an early poem by Allen Ginsberg, whom Cope calls “my mentor.”  The elegy “for allen” recalls five shared memories, including meeting Allen Ginsberg after the latter’s public poetry reading:  “meeting backstage after Howl  & Kaddish Ann Arbor, /too tired to speak, no need to yakk, comfortable merely /to sit an hour in each other’s silent presence as /stage hands gathered props & instruments” (p. 51).  In “For Anne at 70,” a birthday salute to Anne Waldman, Cope bares his heart to the senior poet, “now seven decades on, now /the wise elder shepherd to flocks of /crazed poets, dreamers with fists of angst” (p. 98).  The phrase “crazed poets” is an allusion to a comparison made by the Athenian Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, “The lunatic, the lover and the poet /Are of imagination all compact: . . . /The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, /Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; /And as imagination bodies forth /The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen /Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing /A local habitation and a name” (5.1: 8-18).  

Due to his admiration for Walt Whitman, a latter-day successor to Shakespeare, Cope deliberately took service as a janitor in schools in poor neighborhoods for many years, largely in imitation of Whitman’s determination to be one of the nondescript people.  In “At the Croyden,” as well as the poem’s companion “The Invisible Keys,” old John was a reclusive widower that, over time, David Cope came to know and befriended when the poet would come to his building for weekend work.  Cope was serving as a janitor at an elementary school at the time—cleaning and maintaining the building—and that job wouldn’t quite cover his bills.  Thus, on weekends, he would supplement his income by working at The Croyden, an old apartment building in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  He was cleaning apartments and stairs for the landlord so that he could pay his own bills and save money to complete his education.  John was a lonely old man at the end of his life, and he got to know Cope by stepping out of his apartment to talk when the latter was working there.  The poet was a lover of blues and jazz music, and old John had actually played in some famous bands back when he was younger.  As Cope puts it in “At the Croyden”:  “he played everywhere, all these big joints downtown, /an’ he played Detroit, & up in Canada, too. . . . /he looks at his hands, palms down, fingers spread, /& looks back up into my eyes /& I see the invisible keys” (p. 20).  Turning his hands down, as he would to play piano, was old John’s expressive way of sharing both his love of the piano and his sorrow that he could no longer play.  “The Invisible Keys,” Cope’s elegy for him, celebrates his gift of helping people through their troubles, even if only for an evening.  Thus the poet’s lament rises from the piano to a guitar crescendo:

that guitar

out front all alone

burning away sadness & anger, unpaid bills

& careless loves,

burning a bright new fire     

to get them all to that coming dawn,

burning all desire


leaving them





at last.  (p. 25)

The whole section beginning with “leaving them” is heavily indented, the idea being, according to  David Cope, to create the open space, the “step-down” from the “sadness & anger, unpaid bills /& careless loves” to return to the quiet breathing that brings the audience back to its sanity, its sense of quieting the mind.  In our dialogue about such significance of the poem, he explains to me, “I’m pretty certain that I didn’t think of the space after ‘away’ as a stanza break—note that it isn’t as full a spacing as occurs after ‘his funeral’ at the end of the first section or before ‘somewhere’ in the third section; rather, this space indicates the opening to hearing one’s own breath.”  The poet stresses, furthermore, “The comma after ‘away’ and the space before ‘leaving them’ is a spacing indicator, and the entire ‘leaving them’ sequence is a clause dependent on the sentence preceding it.  The entire effect of the stanza (with single line break as part of it) should be music that gives voice to the storms inside the audience, so that they may be left with or reach the point of calm beyond their sorrows” (27 March, 2017).

The storm here and elsewhere, such as in “A Quiet Life,” “Two Hearted River,” and “For Antler, after the storm,” is typical of a keen sensibility of nature that David Cope’s poetry manifests.  Canoeing down the Two Hearted River, for instance, he exclaims, “even the heart /cannot fathom what stillness /rests in this plunge, why men /sing together like choirboys & /stop the gunnel rush & /lay the paddles down in the /whipping breeze where scarred pines bend /thru storm & sigh & rainbow’s end” (p. 56).  As the poet recalls, Hemingway’s stories were really instinctive for him—most of the Nick Adams stories took place in Petoskey and thereabouts, an area not far from his mother’s birthplace in Charlevoix, and as a teenage boy they spoke to him as being from his own world and the peculiar sexual rituals between young men and women.  As an adult, he canoed the Two-Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan all the way to the place where it empties into Lake Superior, though the geography of “Big Two-Hearted River” is more in keeping with the Fox River, which is the only river that flows within an afternoon’s walk from Seney, the town featured in the story.  “Yoopers”—the unofficial title that folk from the Upper Peninsula call themselves—like to say that Hemingway was hiding his fishing spots on the Fox by putting the story on the Two-Hearted River.

The “sound of nature,” in the words of the 4th century B.C. philosopher Chuang Tzu, is the highest realm of music. To apply to literary criticism the term coined by the Sage in his great Taoist canon Chuang Tzu originally in his comment on music, I find that David Cope is likewise touched by the sound of nature.  For instance, he is thrilled by the opening of the golden gate of a new day in “So the day begins.”  He is literarily a worshipper of such a glorious moment, “I sit, breathing in quiet rhythm, awaiting /the day's fire, the rising winds, /the waves slashing the breakwater, /thunderous, /gulls still above riding the winds, /searching, searching. /I stand & turn on my heel, /bowing in the four directions” (p. 105).  In “Alba:  The Sailors,” the poet employs the genre of old Provençal lyric poetry, which describes the longing of lovers who, having passed a night together, find that the hour has come to separate.  In fact, “alba” means “sunrise” in the Provençal language.  The poet is awe-stricken by morning’s solemn approaching:  “still no sun yet already the dawn waves fill far out with sails /headed out & away . . . /leaning to the window, he looks down at his /stirring companion, dark eyes & lips opening to caresses in first /light, & yet he is at once far away, looking backward at the /receding shore, bright day already rising /to meet dawn’s first rolling breakers” (p. 53).  In “Catching Nothing,” during his camping with Anne, his eldest child, Cope dreams of his paternal grandmother, Helen Cope, and then his father, waking up to “the morning after,” which “is calm, cloudy” (p. 47).  It is here that David Cope describes the glorious morning created by what Shakespeare calls the “sovereign eye,” a miraculous sight that the poet witnesses with Anne:  “the silent heron is still. . . . /even /our hearts beat like /hammers now, sending out waves of sound /over & over— /the breath /is a wind that /stirs up all the world” (p. 47).  In “Early Spring Morn Milwaukee,” Cope portrays “the eagle that flew low over Sue’s head /in Betsie River sunshine” (p. 89).  The poet’s description of the moment of daybreak is in a similar fashion as the canonical approach two thousand years ago in “The Morning Breeze” (Chen Feng) in The Book of Poetry:  “Swift flying birds in the morning breeze, /Lush and thick that northern wood” (鴥彼晨风,郁彼北林).  The Book of Poetry, as the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems likely composed in the 5th century BC, is one of the four ancient Chinese classics edited by Confucius, the other three being Book of History, Book of Rites, and Book of Changes.  In addition, the Sage himself wrote a history book, The Spring and Autumn Annals.  These constitute the five canons of Confucianism.  As Confucius said, “In The Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence—‘Having no depraved thoughts.’”  Confucius’ succinct summary also fits Cope’s poetry.  In fact, all the images in his poems discussed above serve the general purpose of creating such immaculateness, for it is through their pursuit of integrity and uprightness that Cope’s poems, like their predecessors in the Confucian canon, have produced the pure and the beautiful out of a cosmos of complexity and confusion.

To be exact, The Book of Poetry has 311 pieces. Cope’s current volume of 78 poems, though a quarter of the size of the canon, with its chronicle of history, concern for humanity, and consonance with nature, is likewise without depraved thoughts, and can be well expected to be as burgeoning and enduring as its millennia-old predecessor in the past and in the future.


Sun Hong Bio Note

Dr. Sun Hong is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Renmin University of China
and, since 2002, a Professor of Literature at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, an extension
of Loyola University, Chicago.  He has won many awards for the excellence of his academic
research studies, and has compiled an extensive list of books, translations of books with
commentaries, and essays in respected journals.  In recent years, he has taught Shakespearean 
Studies; Willa Cather’s Fiction; British and American Fiction; Modern English Prose; Modern
Chinese Fiction; Ezra Pound and Chinese Culture; Regionalism in American and Chinese