Reading Jane Cooper instead of unpacking

Perhaps because I’m unpacking my poetry books after almost two years of transition– only having a few that I brought with me (and that’s another story), and perhaps because of a need for a certain kind of order, and perhaps because the wind is blowing, I sat down in the middle of it all and read a few poems from an old favorite of mine, the book SCAFFOLDING by Jane Cooper. Here’s just one example from a woman Adrienne Rich calls “a serious and deeply valuable artist.”

IN THE LAST FEW MOMENTS CAME
THE OLD GERMAN CLEANING WOMAN

Our last morning in that long room,
Our little world, I could not cry
But went about the Sunday chores
–Coffee and eggs and newspapers–
As if your plane would never fly.
As if we were stopped there for all time.

Wanting to fix by ritual
The marriage we could never share
I creaked to stove and back again.
Leaves in the stiffening New York sun
Clattered like plates: the sky was bare–
I tripped and let your full cup fall.

Coffee scalded your wrist and that
Was the first natural grief we knew.
Others followed after years:
Dry fodder swallowed, then the tears
When mop in hand the old world through
The door pressed, dutiful, idiot.

I don’t know if this is my favorite poem by Jane Cooper, and wouldn’t want to have to choose. But this is such a wonderful example of her restraint, her passion, and her quiet, lovely way of speaking. The rhymes are there, but so natural and gentle that we almost don’t hear them.

I love how she tells us things without actually saying them. It’s a winter day. It’s cold and the leaves are clattering and as she takes in the day outside her window, that’s when she trips and spills the coffee.

And the German cleaning woman of the title becomes, in the poem, the intrusion of the world, the daily life, her own routine that seems crazy after the realty and the warmth of love. These things, and much more, are said with such grace and indirection. There’s a lot to be learned by reading Jane Cooper.

I love that there are always unanswered questions. Why does she say “stiffening sun” instead of stiffening leaves? Perhaps for the rhythm of the line, perhaps because the other would have been too ordinary. Perhaps the sun itself is acting upon the leaves, stiffening them, or perhaps the day itself is unbearably cold because it’s the day of her lover’s departure. Whatever it is, it’s interesting. Perhaps it’s she who is being stiffened by the sun, by the moment, the sadness she does not wish to feel.

Is it a real German cleaning woman? Or is it she, stiffened by the day’s event, the need for ritual, the refusal to cry, who cleans up the coffee, feeling like an idiot when what she really wants is for the day not to end?

Why the “long room”? Was it really long or did the room represent some emotional state? And on and on and on… Much to think about. I trust Jane Cooper’s poems. I know she knew what she was doing, that nothing was done carelessly or just because (Oh well…) she couldn’t think of anything better. As I said, there’s much to be learned from reading Jane Cooper.

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