A Strange Insomnia by Christina Cook

Reviewed By

Consistent with psychological waves of grief—shock, sorrow, and acceptance—Christina Cook’s A Strange Insomnia extracts wakefulness into three sections bearing the themes of threat, shadow and communion. These highly empathic poems quietly walk through the world with a subdued grace, yet bear a vigilance culminating as if in mythopoeic conversations on momentary grit:

I suppose I should

stop mourning my mother
and put a fresh coat of paint
on the mildewed doors. I know
my sons are not here

because it’s quiet
and easy to mourn…

it’s now my job to sweep…

from the stove where
just last summer she stood

baking the boys’ first strawberry
rhubarb pie.

There is a selflessness in this poem which evokes connection. A generational gesture of physical and pragmatic nurturing. This effortless compassion is relayed openly as Cook writes in response to witnessing a mother’s fragility:

…The Japanese screen of you
felt thin and opaque, your skin a fern-green veil

of herons in reeds. Your hyssop had ceased
to leak nectar, and so

had the asters along the well house
left their petals like confetti spread

over the low-cropped lawn.
The plume grass you’d planted that year

looked like egrets grown too sharply
out of the soil, their awkward angles and chaff

reminding me of the stent in your chest
the dirge that stung your veins.

In these poems, the twisting of beauty is made raw again and again. The twisting alienation grief imposes upon the speaker’s outer landscape is internalized:

…A swatch of vintage

silk landed like ash
on my fork. It was not
a butterfly but when I said
flight its weightlessness
was a killing field

in which I could not eat.
A snapping turtle with bullets
in her back hauled herself
across the clover. I knew
it would take her two years

to die, while hundreds
of day-long lilies lived out
their lives one quick yellow
bloom at a time.

Reading these poems, we learn there are secret turnings available through gesture; we learn “she who halves her life by death will find herself/the twin of many things.” The poems plumb the imagination by basking in spaces where tender memories remain raw, as in the poem “Lake Effect” where the speaker’s “sons poke black lily buds with desert forks, dissecting them on the tablecloth.”

The particular strength of the collection is a weaving of the poet’s ability to caress grief’s deep wound and simultaneously minister healing… “this coracle called sleep/and wake, white// egrets, gull-gray regrets… .” Cook expresses the two inexhaustible requisites of mortality: living without and living onward. Her unique reverie unfolds, page by page, to glimpse “between” what is gone, what is now, and what is inevitably coming. In “Dear Ghost” the narrator addresses her deceased mother:

I divided the iris
and hosta today, painted the hull of the old boat blue
before slipping it into the water.
I made a mask to disguise my face when passing in front of a mirror….

In “Benandanti,” Cook invites one’s inner witch to slip out of the sheen carrying one’s shadow forward to enter “a darkness….a place of straying.” The speaker is both witness and observer, irregularly eyeing disjunctions between beauty and the misshapen: “Indigo buntings burnt at the wick…” And yet, these poems also scrutinize the spaces in which death does not linger; from “Summer Requiem”:

…When I say somewhere

it is summer I mean
somewhere the memory
of summer has lodged itself

in the logic of winter,
and when I say snow I mean
that I placed a piece of berry

pie on the tongue of my child
to witness his first communion
with the sun.

Cook’s poems yield to love where love allows neither dissolution nor disappearance—love simply: m’adoucis, t’adoucis, s’adoucit… softly softens into a new portraiture.

Maureen Alsop, Ph.D. is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Mirror Inside Coffin. She is the recipient of several poetry prizes; her poems and reviews have been widely published in journals such as Mantis, Rain Taxi and Your Impossible Voice. She presently lives on a tropical island in the Coral Sea. More from this author →