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ARCHIVE -- CHARGEUSSE

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FALL 2011

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SPRING 2012

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Solidus Online



Christina Cook

Summer Music School in Antwerp, 1610

Religion feigned its release from the mouths
of unbaptized altos
one winged note at a time, while the wine
                                         was still cellared deep
in the pope’s uneasy soul.

Psalms spread open like hands
in prayer, you see
                             how sound bleeds steadily out
the memory of my summer spent sent away:

Body and blood in the afternoon
roundelays.
                                 Silver trays set out for ash.

When vespers ended, something centuries old
settled inside me,
                              insinuating
that a roomful of cardinals had peered
between the full lips of lovers for answers

to the larger questions about the pristine
nature of flesh
                         in the summertime grass
and the harsh purity of a single sin.

The music that surrounded me there
was a whittle of shadowy phrasing,
the pipe organist growing skinnier
and more
                than half naked by August,
                                                        in exile
from what can only be described
as a natural attraction to sugar:
                                               so crystallized,
                                               so unbearably
white. I remember drifting
through pale smoke, from one riff right on
through to the next,
                              singing in a slightly
lower key than he, slurring
notes as if almost out
of breath,
               as if my voice were waning

into the wasp-thin pitch of a hint whispered
by a robed man no less than
                                           two-thirds made
of every instrument I learned to play.

----------------------------------------------------------

Selling Books under Waterloo Bridge

I see you thumb through the quid-bin
books Rorschached with mildew
while the lamplit street complains
about the dim disheveled rain.
I’m the first to admit I never lived
a careful life: always tripping wires,
poking sticks in the spokes
of destiny’s three-speed Schwinn,
so it’s no wonder it wasn’t me you met
in some bookish corner
of your mind. Had I led a less
hazardous life (skipping smaller
stones, say, or chaining daisies
to milder breeds of dogs),
I’d have read more
into the black lace mold makes
meaningful to you here
in the damp London bookstall,
but it’s too late now
not to know we could never
have bridged the gulf between us;
with its smell of mothballs,
its utter lack of birds. Along the river,
rain. Your hands in your pockets,
your arm pressing my Paradise
Lost to your side.

-------------------------------------------------

Blue Nude

A woman’s back in blue tea ink.
A teak door,
                    left ajar,
and the wedge of light let in.

The way his eye defines her figure
defies the way
                       his fingers do,
with its hard horizon line

and point where all forms vanish as if
to assert
               what his canvas concedes.
He based her shape
                              on assumptions
and the reticent necks of swans.

Her indigo lips,
                        just barely apart.
The candor of her eyes.

He came to like the way she leaned
against
             the window,
the way she shaped his thought.

---------------------------------------------------

Kiss, Redux

Could any action be undone once, any filament-thin light
be reeled back like threads puppeting the ligaments
of his arm bound
                              around my waist by a love
of the life he was leaving behind – I was coy but also young,
and did not know death
                                       could be so permanent.

Last year’s rain still fills the birdbath,
though the finches have long departed.

Revealed over the slow shutter speed
of an antique Nikon:
                                 his sepia face framed in remembrance

of how his kiss would have tasted
like some honeys said to usher us in
                                                      and out of other worlds,

where white oleander blooms for bees who gather
and spread from bud to bud a lackluster sweet
sort of secretive death as old
                                             as honeycomb found in a tomb
and tasted one night
by two lovers who forthwith went out
of their minds.
                         The yellow finches have not returned
to the courtyard. My footsteps shuffle sand
around on the stones.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Thaw

Sleet’s glass daggers tore leaves off the trees.
A child, asleep in the frozen baneberries.
Why wasps hooped the haloed moon was never

resolved. Bloodclot clouds. Snow’s crust,
and soil’s slow mineral burn above
the black bodies of bears, while winter

kept shielding us from speech.
Sometimes it’s enough just to know the path
is not the path, so I set out

at dusk the day you left, time slipping
through a hole in my jacket pocket.
I hewed the face-high branches down

to find the bench we’d built from pheasant quills
and twigs of the off-white willow. In the morning,
something thawed. Spring came

some months later, and with it warmth
returned to my body: the first flock of kestrels fed
from the hand that used to be mine.

----------------------------------------------------------

In the Far Back Window

Swans spread their Chinoise wings and hiss
while lilies open their narrow petals

over your breasts
and blue-green algae blooms

in the shallow bay
of your clavicle.

Your memories keep giving pain a place
to ripple.

Same stone house. Same shadows falling
in the same late afternoon way.

You see now how the sun spreads
false rumors through the grass?

In the far back window
of your mathematically elegant

cut-stone home, a light has been on
for decades: a child waiting

to be born, watching the garden grow over
while scarlet birds keep pecking there,

periodically burning themselves
to ash.

-----------------------------------------------------

Notes on a Summer Storm

                                                       12:03pm

I let my sons keep swimming while dead branches fall
on their towels,

                                           while a night-like light turns the day
                                 plum black, as it will
                                                       years from now

             cast other shadows
                                across other days.

                                                       12:25pm

When at last lightning skates
across the surface of the lake,

                                                       the boys are draping their legs
                                         over the rickety porch chairs,
                             reading thick paperback books. They don’t notice

the juncos coming and going
through the tear in the screen

                                                       dropping seeds in the cobalt bottles
                                           lined up along the sill.

                                                      12:43pm

A drop of rain on my skin, no more
                                            than a spark sets fire to the sea.

The silk-gray fog fades.
The thunderclouds pass,
                                            leaving the sky
                                with a bruise the color of claret.

                                                      12:44pm

For an instant, light whitewashes the porch.

                                         The boys turn their pages. Wicker creaks.
                          The birds bring a blue back into the air.

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Finding poems in the farmer’s market and the Sunday New York Times
Conversation with Christina Cook
Ewa Chrusciel

What is the process of your composing? How do you start? How do you get inspired?

My process varies. I’d say I have three general ways in which my poems come to be born. The first is writing down the language that comes to me from life experiences, which could be as small as a trip to the farmers’ market or as traumatic the death of my mother. Of course, the farmers’ market will inspire one poem at most, whereas I wrote many more difficult poems about my mother’s passing. But for me, writing poetry is the lense through which I understand—emotionally and intellectually access—my lived experiences. It’s the way I make sense of the world around me.

The second way is from my weekly ritual of reading the Sunday New York Times. The writing is, needless to say, excellent, and the stories and images provide snippets of lives vastly different from mine. I troll for intereting language and novel ideas and play around with them until a poem rises to the surface. I love doing this because it takes me outside of my own lived experience.

The third way in which my poems come to be born is through writing from prompts, where I sit down and use a specific exercise to generate the raw material or first draft of a poem.

What was your first experience/encounter that triggered/spurred writing?

I can’t really remember any one experience that launched me into a love for writing poetry, but I can say it started when I was a child. My mother read poetry to me when I was small, then I started it reading it on my own, then I started writing it. I remember taking a notebook and sitting in the field across the street from our house, writing poems, when I was no more than ten, then doing the same at the beach when I was a little older, and so on.

What are some of the voices implicated in your poetics?

What an interesting question. I have two voices which I am currently trying to harness together. One voice is calm and quiet, uses few words, and is finely attuned to the connection between nature and human nature – I suppose you could say it’s Romantic, and shows how heavily I’ve been influenced by the nineteenth-century British poets such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge. The other is more playful and energetic, doesn’t shy away from writing long lines, and takes more risks with content.

How does teaching affect/inspire your writing?

Can I answer that question backwards? I feel that being a writer makes me a more sympathetic writing teacher. I know how difficult it is to find just the right word, strike just the right tone, use just the right level of diction, for example. So I feel like I’m in the same boat my students are in and I try to convey this to them.

How has the experience of translation affected your poetry?

Oh, translating poetry has had a tremendous effect on my own poetry, and for two reasons. One is that the French poet whose work I’ve spent so much time translating, Marie-Claire Bancquart, is an amazingly talented, accomplished, and unique poet. Because translating poetry is, in effect, starting at the point where the poet started and writing her poem in your language, I feel I’ve written her poems in a way that’s akin to tracing the sketches of master artists. So tracing the hand of a master has been a good way to hone my skills. To give just one example, I learned how M.C. Bancquart employs elliptical syntax in a way that surprises but doesn’t confuse the reader.

The other way translation has impacted my own poetry is, very simply, that I put much more weight on word choice than I did before translating. When translating a poem, I might think of as many as a dozen English words I could use to translate the French one. And which word I choose will have a ripple effect on the other words I will choose in the rest of the line. I now pay as much attention to word choice in writing my own poetry as I do in translating poetry. As a result, I don’t just let a word stay in a poem when I feel it’s “good enough.” I don’t let myself off the hook so easily anymore.

In "Summer Music School in Antwerp, 1610"
you write:

Psalms spread open like hands
in prayer, you see
                            how sound bleeds steadily out
the memory of my summer spent sent away:

Body and blood in the afternoon
roundelays.
                            Silver trays set out for ash.

When vespers ended, something centuries old
settled inside me,
                             insinuating
that a roomful of cardinals had peered
between the full lips of lovers for answers

to the larger questions about the pristine
nature of flesh
                in the summertime grass
and the harsh purity of a single sin.

I am drawn to the meditative side of your poetry, as if your lines were pointing to some Mystery. What's the origin of your spirituality? What does music have to do with it? What does research have to do with it?

Ahh, this is a complex, very interesting question. I was raised Catholic, and when I was young, maybe twelve or so, I left the Church because I lost my faith in it. The passage you quote illustrates, I think, the conflicted feelings I have about this: a considerable amount of pain was inflicted upon members of my family by the Catholic Church – by its doctrine and a couple of priests – and because of this I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for a long time. But I also miss the rich beauty of a Catholic Mass, the way its ancient rituals would take me, even as a child, to a deeply sacred interior space. Part of the inspiration for this poem comes from a time not so long ago when I went to a High Mass in Bruges, Belgium, which was delivered in Dutch and held in a gorgeous cathedral that felt like it reached the heavens. I don’t know Dutch, but I was awed by the sound of the prayers and hymns, as well as the smell of the incense and the sight of the vial of Jesus’ blood worn around the neck of one of the priests and kissed by a queue of congregants. . . this poem, hopefully, expresses the mysterious mystical beauty of the Church, but at the same time challenges the Church, questions its practices, pulls back the veil so to speak. Research can help situate me in terms of vocabulary and historical context, but music has much more do to with the way this poem, or any poem of mine, unfolds. I guess you could say that music is the sea on which my poems wash in.

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Christina Cook’s poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared and are forthcoming in a number of journals, most recently including Dos Passos Review, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review and Cimarron Review. Two of her poems were nominated for the Best New Poets 2011 anthology and her manuscript was a finalist for the 2010 Bull City Press First Book Prize. Christina holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a contributing editor for Inertia Magazine and Cerise Press. She teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College.