Lunar Drift by Marlene Cookshaw

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Let’s cut to the chase: Brick has been producing some of the best books of poetry in the country for a while now, and they do a fabulous job of presenting, distributing, and marketing them.  Lunar Drift (2005) is a beautiful book, inside and out. The blue crosscut image of an aged tree, with its dark cracks running from pith to new growth timber – whether petrified or merely transformed by lunar light into a cement urban moon dial – is stark and powerful.  The black end wrappers, fine paper stock, Sabon and Rotis fonts dignify, and grace the contents. Best of all: the contents deserve it.

Indeed, Lunar Drift is one of the finest books of poetry I’ve read this year.  The poetry is extremely well crafted: mellifluous, rhythmic, and rich.  Ms. Cookshaw sculpts her vernacular without making it a showy set of academic boilerplate, even when she takes on difficult set forms such as the sonnet or glosa.  We buy the voice and careful observation of everyday incident; enjoy the rueful meditations, without having to stretch to accommodate the syntax or diction. So the seams are taken care of: we don’t have someone showing off or placing her ego and technique center stage.  We can relax and warm to the poems as we contemplate our own middle age.  It’s a small, good thing, poet Raymond Carver might have said; not easy, but smooth, and as reliable as a good single malt scotch.

Meditations on the history and methodology of measuring, maintaining, and managing time; it doesn’t sound like a prime time ticket item, I thought, initially, but Ms. Cookshaw manages more than her iambs and syntax; she explores the paths by which we’ve turned environment into real estate, segmented and parceled out our days, and she teaches us how to slow down and immerse ourselves in the rhythm of our natures and place in nature as well.

The evanescence and attempt to capture and account for time is clearly a time-honoured theme, but these poems are deft and reach beyond mere melancholy; they achieve a kind of zen-like grace of acquiescence and acceptance of the mortal grin and revel in life’s little pleasures while we’re noshing at Yorick’s.

Many of the poems begin in consideration of the historical inventions of various timepieces and from the earliest moments of recorded history – from 4241 BC, the first numbered date, through the river reed, waterwheel, and bronze dragon to the Great Astronomical clock of Strasbourg, from Sultan al-Rashid to Ptolemy climbing with his brass instrument into the dark.  Yet these historical pieces surprise and delight in the way they wrest compound and extended metaphors from description and turn clever conceits into revelatory epiphanies, without ever becoming precious or self-consciously contrived:

… The further we withdraw from flux
the closer we clutch its measure, investing the intricate
works with sapphires, rubies, buying time, coining
privacy, inventing dislocation.
(“Pocketwatch” 26)


Then industry struck a deal with metal
and forged a mechanism strong enough
to ring the tower bells unaided.  And so
the jacquemart, representing human interest,

re-membered us, our sounding of the gateway
in the analemmic loop – that twisted orbit – between
the guiding palm of the sun’s arc and
the seductive compensation of the moon’s.

We gave up attending to the pulse of time,
turnstiled it, focused on our labour.  We left
unnoted the disturbance of the spirits of the air.
We left time to its own devices.
(“Stand In” 21)

Ms. Cookshaw’s collection is an ambitious work, succeeding in no less an enterprise than tracking the emergence of city states from clockwork mechanical and digital fragmentation of western consciousness, all the while that it seeks sanctuary in the rural, the langorous, the evanescent fragility of nature’s continuous refreshing aquifer and pulse beneath the concrete and steel.  Indeed, it is the closely observed poems of the natural world that delight the most, and the fact that the poet lives close to nature on the relatively unspoiled Pender Island supplies plenty of poignant moments.

I like the way this poet can jump from 46 BC, the Year of Confusion, when the calendar makers added days to the year in an attempt to make the signs of the seasons and agricultural almanacs synch up with the newly invented concept of time to the organic but mathematically precise pleasures of a solo piano improvisation of Keith Jarrett without missing a beat.  In strophe and distich, free verse quatrain and triplet; from nonce form to glosa, Cookshaw plays in the spaces between the grace notes like Jack DeJohnette plays the traps: no mere timekeeper, but a master musician and poet extraordinaire.  With this book, she tells our best bards to shove over and assumes the space of a consummate lover between the sheets.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB.  The most recent of his twenty works of poetry, jazz poetry performance, and creative non-fiction include a memoir, Riding On a Magpie Riff (forthcoming from Black Moss Press this fall), a children’s picture book in rhyming verse, Alex Anklebone & Andy The Dog (Bayeux Arts, 2005), a book of lyric/narrative poetry, Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Palm Poets Series, 2004)  and several collections of haiku, senryu, and tanka.