Review of Corey Cook’s “What to Do with a Dying Parakeet”

by Scott Owens

Corey Cook
Pudding House, 2009
ISBN: 1589988299

I teach a series of workshops called “Writing Momentous Poetry,” by which I mean not poetry of great importance necessarily but rather poetry that explores and reveals the significance of particular moments in our individual and communal social, historical, and even fictitious lives. The workshops have produced a large number of outstanding poems from a wide range of writers. Although Corey Cook has never taken these workshops, he, like many successful poets, seems to have come to an understanding of the importance of focusing on moments without the benefit of the workshops. That understanding is wonderfully displayed in his chapbook, What to Do with a Dying Parakeet.

Somewhat ironically, what one is likely to remember after a first reading of Cook’s collection are two poems that seem to be outside the primary thematic and narrative flow of the book. “What to Do with a Dying Parakeet” and “Resuscitation Annie” are both quirky, original, and very memorable. And neither of them seem to fit in a book dedicated to the author’s grandmother and in which nearly every other poem deals with the speaker’s grandparents and other family experiences. These two poems do, however, dovetail nicely with the modus operandi of the other poems in the way they focus tightly on the details, imagery, and experience of a single moment.

“Resuscitation Annie,” the most surreal of these poems, uses the metaphor of a person trying to revive a CPR practice doll to make a comment on co-dependent relationships and how the “liveliness” of the dependent partner can only surface when the provider no longer fulfills that role:

She kept taking from me

and I kept giving.
I should have known better.

she had no lungs, no heart
to jump start. I finally gave up

and rested my sweaty cheek
on her chest only to be woken

by someone’s breath
on the back of my neck.

Similarly, “What to Do with a Dying Parakeet” has a bit of a surreal quality as two people consider the various ways they might euthanize their dying parakeet:

We could drop a rock on him,
drown him in the sink, poison

him with household products, hold
him inches from the exhaust pipe
of Mom’s running car.

Both poems focus on human incapacities and the moment of resolution.

To capture a moment in memory is to grant that moment value. To further convey that memory through words is to express a sort of reverence towards that moment. Of course, in memory a series of moments may coalesce into a single remembered event, such that instead of remembering every “Sunday Morning” individually, we construct a Sunday morning prototype that includes or represents details from years worth of Sunday mornings. This is the larger part of what Cook achieves in What to Do with a Dying Parakeet, where, for example, the poem “Spring” suggests not just the moment the speaker’s grandfather helped birth a lamb, but in a larger sense also how it feels to be in the spring of one’s life. This poem, and others, also suggest that the meaningfulness of archetypal moments such as “Spring,” “Thanksgiving,” and “Sunday Morning” are made not just by the cycles of nature, society or tradition, but as much or more by the particular actions of individual people: a grandmother “humming / above a sizzling pan, spatula clacking; or an aging family member who “sits and smiles, // smiles and laughs in front of the windows, the family / headstone an unyielding omen behind her bald head.”

Ultimately, poems such as these remind us of the importance of paying attention to the moment before us, of how fleeting such moments can be. They remind us, as Galway Kinnell does in “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” to “learn to reach deeper / into the sorrows / to come.”

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