- Why Should We Read and Study Cooper?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The Form”
- “Desert Roses”
- “After Rain”
- Analysis of “The Form,” “Desert Roses,” and “After Rain”
- “The Clearing”
- Analysis of “Winds,” “The Clearing,” and “Sunflower”
- “Bending the Branch”
- “Ghazal. In Memory of John Thompson”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in 1954 in Moncton, NB, Allan Cooper is a poet, musician, translator, and publisher – and another of the province’s writers who is not widely known. He studied literature at Mount Allison University under John Thompson, whose influence is discernable in Cooper’s first book of poetry, Blood-Lines (1979). That collection exhibits both an inherent musicality and a fascination with time’s imprint, each Cooper’s trademarks and each reflecting the style of the Tantramar poets. His work also shows the influence of the Chinese and Japanese writers he has translated into English. Many of his poems are set in the small seaside village of Alma, NB, on the Bay of Fundy, where he has lived since 1991. An editor of the journal Germination from 1982–91, he founded Owl’s Head Press in 1985 to publish writers who were out of the literary mainstream. He also served as the first President of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.
For a much more detailed biography of Allan Cooper, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- As critic Joel Butler attests, we read Cooper for the excellence he brings to the Tantramar project: “Like other New Brunswick poets emerging from south-eastern New Brunswick and Sackville’s Mount Allison University, Cooper’s poetry entices the reader to devote attention to minute natural or human-made manifestations that provide revelatory truth. A mouse, ants, pine needles, spiders, a clothespin, lichen, a honeybee, an abandoned insect shell, and wild blueberries each attract creative attention, revealing significance transcending their physical dimensions” (New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia). In other words, Cooper continues and refines the eco-poetic project that Alex Colville, John Thompson, Douglas Lochhead, and Thaddeus Holownia brought to Charles G.D. Roberts’ Tantramar.
- Additionally, Cooper’s work illustrates how transportable a literary aesthetic is. Even though Sackville and Alma are not far apart, Cooper nevertheless brought a specific poetic attention from one locale to the other, showing that it is not landscape alone that makes a tradition but rather the poet’s approach to landscape.
At the side of the road,
there rises a form
almost human –
eyes like tiny stars –
its young hunched down
among freezing ditch grass
until the carlights recede,
the frog’s slow croak returns
and the sounds of small feet
invade the roads.
All round me
the grey stalks of last fall’s
goldenrod and fireweed.
Inside I feel
a core of grief
still as a grey slug sleeping beneath stone.
Surely Christ must have felt this
as he sat alone
in the desert, meditating,
weeping among thorns.
And then he looked up
leaves like tiny lizard feet
opening on the branches
of the desert roses.
We walk to the garden where the old rhubarb flourishes.
New leaves on trees; my mother’s long dress lifts in wind. She
bends over rhubarb, the tall, thick stems, the leaves like umbrellas.
She says she has never seen it so rich, so green – as if someone
My father dead three months now. He turns a clod of earth,
watches an earthworm disappear . . . For him there is no house
here, no car, only green meadows going on and on . . . and there
are no people: only when my mother rises to walk between the
trees does he feel a presence like the stillness after rain.
Analysis of “The Form,” “Desert Roses,” and “After Rain”
The three poems above reflect Allan Cooper’s primary concern, which is to see beyond the normal range of one’s seeing. That action is physical, an operation of the senses, but it is also spiritual, an operation of the mind and heart. To be willing to see is the first step toward enhanced vision; to know what to look for is the second.
“The Form” and “Desert Roses” instruct us in what to look for, Cooper’s presumption being that each of us desires greater sight. In the first poem we may be tempted to ask, What is it, this form that rises from the roadside?, but that would be the wrong question. Cooper is not presenting us with a riddle to be solved but an assumption to be examined. The assumption is that we humans are the main cargo on the roadways, a natural assumption given that we built the roads and they exist for our conveyance. What takes strange form and lurks on roadsides must therefore be unnatural, a problem or riddle to be solved. That conclusion is wrong, however.
In a province still governed largely by wilderness, we are but trespassers on others’ lands. We catch glimpses of these others in periphery and at night, when we straddle the highways, and when we are less emboldened by light. When our car lights recede, so does our dominion, the roadways taken over again by an invasion of the “slow croaks” and “small feet” of wilderness. What is unnatural, the poem infers, is our belief that strangeness lurks by the roadsides. A proper understanding of the natural order of things would quickly dispel that assumption – and the belief that humans are always at the centre of things.
Cooper, however, rarely despairs at the short sightedness or hubris (pride) of humans. Instead, he sees us as an evolving consciousness, moving slowly toward understanding. “Desert Roses” charts that growth. The poem opens with the speaker’s despair over the dying of last summer’s brilliant flowers. What once warmed with colour now imparts “grief / still as a grey slug sleeping beneath stone.” The heart has turned cold. Thinking of Christ in his desert agonies, however, reminds the speaker that even among thorns there are leaves and shoots “like tiny lizard feet.” Where there is only sand there is also desert roses. The body need only look beyond its normal range of seeing.
The world beyond our dominion teaches that even in times of great agony there is restoration. The third poem, “After Rain,” written only a few months after the poet’s father died, explains this. New growth of rhubarb and leaves does not mock or render insignificant the father’s death, but gently affirms that death, taking it into its wider cycle of green. In death the father feeds the earth, nourishing and entering the kingdom of greenness. The deceased father may not have entered the heaven of our Christian catechism, but he nevertheless luxuriates in new life. As Cooper reveals in another poem, “The Final Gesture,” written soon after Alden Nowlan’s death,
We think that after death
there is nothing … darkness … stillness …
but perhaps we are moving at a tremendous speed,
perhaps all our molecules are beginning to sing,
perhaps their small ships are setting out
in the final gesture
of light. (62)
Winds that blow across the autumn fields
are great . . . yet how much greater
are the winds
that blow inside.
Listen to the sound
flowing from the breathing grass:
that same song pulses
in our cells and veins . . . .
Wherever we walk,
on hills, or in old pastures,
something is singing;
and the force of that sound
the sleeping air . . . .
Sounding between the boards of old houses,
in the slow grass of fall
the wind tries to tell us something:
real journeys take years;
in the end,
having repeated the same slow
toil again and again
we may come, unexpected,
to light . . . .
Beyond the far tree line
there are paths
that lead to open land,
into what is.
We must learn to live
through our own inner shining,
as after rain
the rocks and trees
seem to light up
and shine from inside . . . .
Whose face is this
leaning toward me
in the light?
followed the sun,
into small dark seeds
the chickadees love,
into a wild
There is a young girl
inside this flower,
longing to come out.
All my life I’ve
loved her, and I didn’t know it
a little closer
to my face,
of your name.
Analysis of “Winds,” The Clearing,” and “Sunflower”
These poems are didactic, but gently so. They speak of locating a centre in nature’s pulse, which is evident in wind, in grass, “on hills, or in old pastures.” This pulse is akin to song in that it elevates and enlivens “sleeping air.”
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a favourite of Cooper, used the term “instress” to denote an object’s being, that which holds it together and emanates within and from it. This force does not give objects their design or function (that is “inscape”) but their dynamism. Instress, then, is an object’s vital energy, and when two things meet it is across this field of energy, their vitalities touching. Hopkins cautions, however, that human ears and eyes are often shut to this field of energy, and so it is the poet’s job to train sense and sensibility for greater awareness. Cooper continues that endeavour in much of his work, including the poems above.
“Winds” impels us to listen “to the sound / flowing from the breathing grass,” a listening that, turned inward, will bring us to the sound and pulse of “the winds / that blow inside.” Those winds are “tell[ing] us something,” continues “The Clearing,” telling us what our journey is, how to undertake it, and how, if we follow it, “we may come, unexpected, / to light.” The secret, imparts Cooper (via Hopkins and many other thinkers who have said much the same thing), is that we locate the answer “through our own inner shining,” tutored by the essential dynamism that exists within us and within all things.
To arrive at that awareness is to see the face in the sunflower – not as a metaphor (as one thing standing for another, thus a literary conceit) or, worse, a form of anthropocentrism, where all things are measured against the human, but as a thing in itself, radiant and dynamic. Only then will there exist a détente among the earth’s beings, whether sentient or inanimate, and only then will we know of our equivalency with all other things. Cooper writes in “The Song”:
Don’t we sing the same song
again and again? – the one we learned
in our mother’s arms, the first long cry of delight
ripening inside …
And the trees, budding
with heavy rains,
don’t they sing the same song? – and the ants,
performing their ancient labours. (n.pag.)
With such knowledge, all becomes “whole” (“Bending the Branch”), and we might find our true loves (“All my life I’ve / loved her, and I didn’t know it / until now” [“Sunflower”]).
“Bending the Branch”
I stand at the edge of a pond
and dark water. Listen:
the frog’s tongue
at a droning fly …
So many things
nourishing the body,
of an earthworm
in a robin’s ear,
the music the spider hears
as he sways up and down
on his web
Once, I came to a cabin
where snares and an axe still hung from the door;
the floor collapsed, the woodstove rusted;
the mattress worn to the shape of a man
who sat in his rocker on the porch at dusk,
his sweat worn into the rocker,
as he watched the fluid shadows of ferns,
the swallow’s dusky
What stood before the mirror
after I left,
after the spider climbed
the flaking wall,
after the dust settled
and the air grew still?
What returned to the silent wood
after the alders closed behind me
and the air
I think of thresholds
worn by the passage of four generations,
the nest of a fieldmouse
untouched among long grass,
where even the moon is holy,
shedding its light
like petals on the earth …
The holy notes of songbirds
open in space,
filling the flyways of the air,
the Bach fugue
as multiple layers
rise and fall, join, separate
like cells in the womb
I hear the sounds of crickets
cutting the night,
the sexual waters of breeding trout.
I smell the stain of earth on my hands,
near the mountain of the ant:
and all the forgotten days return,
all meadows and vistas,
as an apple ripening
at dawn, reddening
in the sun, bending
“Ghazal. In Memory of John Thompson”
In the afternoon I watch smooth brook stones:
gold, they overshine the sun.
The rare beauty of things: dark brooks;
and the voices of children, playing.
Where are all our books and stories?
Rest now, silent as a sleeping fly.
I hear your words; dark, they stir:
petals of a rose, growing from the unseen core.
I’ll drop my hook in the water, raise
the great, grey soul, waiting in the shadow of that rock.
► Allan Cooper’s poetry invites an important consideration: namely, a comparative examination of how that poetry differs from and is similar to the poetry of John Thompson and Douglas Lochhead, his literary predecessors who mined the ground and techniques that he refines. This comparison of techniques, entrances, and “swerves” will be especially useful for writers and scholars who are interested in how traditions develop and are shaped by multiple hands. The confined microcosm of Sackville artists provides a rare opportunity to do such comparative work. Readers might start by comparing Lochhead’s “Pulse” and Cooper’s “Winds.”
► Readers of Cooper will also want to consider the wider context that he inhabits. Though he is definably part of New Brunswick’s Tantramar movement he also occupies a larger New England Transcendentalist community that included New Brunswick poet Bliss Carman (see Confederation Poets). Cooper’s indebtedness to Henry David Thoreau is clear, especially in terms of communion, solace, and kinship with nature. Thoreau wrote the following in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again” (108). Such similarities invite comparisons across borders – and a closer examination of musicality in Carman and Cooper.
Strategy 1: Mindfulness in Nature (All poems)
After reading several of Allan Cooper’s poems, or a selection of Cooper’s poems along with the work of other Tantramar poets and artists, take your students outdoors for an extended period. Encourage them (individually, not with other students) to emulate Cooper’s careful and humble attention, and see what they discover. Although this might be the prelude or setting for a writing activity, caution them against trying to impose a meaning on nature that is “deep” or “poetic.” Instead, students should try to quiet their minds to see, hear, and otherwise sense what is there, in the present moment. Follow with 1) a discussion about what students saw differently or more completely, and 2) a representational activity, where students write or draw their observations, or develop the writing/drawing they began outdoors.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing
Strategy 2: Combining Written with Visual Art (All poems)
Renowned New Brunswicker painter Alex Colville, in his striking images of the Tantramar landscape, renders everyday subjects mysterious and riveting. Likewise, Sackville photographer Thaddeus Holownia captures scenes such as a pond or a stand of trees in ways that render them simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. Beyond the physical proximity of the Tantramar artists and poets (Holownia actually built his studio on the site of John Thompson’s former home), a common sensibility ties them together. When Holownia explains of his Jolicure Pond series, “I’m saying there is an experience to be had in your back yard that could enrich your existence” (qtd. in Enright), he could be speaking for any of the Tantramar poets. The teaching strategy that follows is intended to have students think about and articulate various connections between Tantramar artists and poets.
Ask students to select a particular poem or part of a poem by Cooper, Lochhead, or Thompson that resonates personally. Then, have students view the work of Tantramar artists online here and here. Students should aim to find an image or images that parallel their selected verse in some way. Clarify that this connection need not be direct (if the poem mentions a bear, the image need not have a bear in it). Rather, can they find an image that exhibits a similar atmosphere or a similar way of looking as the poem? When students have selected an image, ask them to combine it artistically with their poem. Depending on the class temperament and resources, you may choose to be specific about how these should be combined (layer text over image on a PowerPoint slide, create a short video with voiceover, print and create a collage, etc.), or leave things open to student creativity. When complete, ask students to share their designs, and to articulate the rationale behind their decisions. Why did the student select that particular poem and pair it with that image? Does the juxtaposition shed new light on aspects of the poem and/or image?
Note: Teachers who have access to the published works of Holownia’s Anchorage Press, such as Working in the Dark, which combine images and regional poetry, can share those with students as part of this strategy.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Demonstrate a commitment to the skilful crafting of a range of writing and other representations
- Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning
Strategy 3: Compare to Cogswell’s “Zen” (“The Form”)
Like Fred Cogswell’s “Zen,” Cooper’s “The Form” playfully challenges the assumption that humans are central to all things. Most New Brunswickers will have made or heard complaints about deer or raccoons harming gardens, as if these actions were not only annoyances but also personal affronts. The news regularly features stories of bears or coyotes wandering through new suburban developments, with the residents calling the animals “invaders” – and with no sense of irony. If our headlights are not illuminating these creatures, and they are not inconveniencing us, they may as well not exist. Though it is likely that discussion will flow naturally from comparing these two poems, discussion prompts could include:
- When are people most likely to pay attention to animals?
- Is the suggestion that animals have equal dignity to humans reasonable or suggestive of some kind of left-leaning bias or sentimentality? What role does politics play in this difference?
- In what ways do religious and spiritual beliefs affect human relationships with animals?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 4: Compare with Leggett’s “Harp of Brunswick” (“Winds”)
In the early 19th century, William Leggett wrote about drawing poetic inspiration from the “Harp of Brunswick.” Cooper’s “Winds” invokes a similar “harp,” which plays music when wind blows through it. In the century and a half between these two poems, New Brunswick literature has matured considerably – to the degree that Cooper has no need to proclaim the worthiness of New Brunswick as a poetic subject. Instead of invoking a muse of wildness, he opens his senses to the wildness that is both without and within. Students would benefit from examining Cooper’s assuredness, as well as his confidence in “the particular” rising to the level of “the universal.” Comparison with Leggett’s early poem will make that clear. As stated before, literature and art do not evolve to become better, but writers and artists become more familiar over time with their environments and more confident in their handling of the minutiae of those environments. Students will benefit from considering the distance from Leggett’s song to those songs that are sung by Cooper.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Butler, Joel. “Allan Cooper.” New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Fredericton: New Brunswick Studies Centre, 2009. 17 July 2020
Cain, Michael Scott. Rev. of Allan Cooper’s The Alma Elegies. Rambles. 17 July 2020
Clarke, George Elliott. Rev of The Pearl Inside the Body: Poems Selected and New. Atlantic Provinces Book Review 19.1 (April 1992): 15.
Cooper, Allan. Bending The Branch: Twenty-six Poems. Sackville: Percheron, 1983.
---. Blood-Lines. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979.
---. “The Final Gesture.” Bending the Branch: Twenty-Six Poems by Allan Cooper. Sackville, NB: Percheron, 1983. 61-62.
---. Heaven of Small Moments. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1998.
---. Hidden River Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982.
---. “‘I Must Write the Poem’: A Review Article on John Thompson’s Stilt Jack.” The Antigonish Review 42 (1980): 91-98.
---. The Pearl Inside the Body: Poems Selected and New. Sackville, NB: Percheron, 1991.
---. Poems Released on a Nuclear Wind. East Lawrencetown, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1987.
---. “The Song.” Hidden River Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982. N.pag.
---. To An Unborn Child. Fort Collins, CO: Leaping Mountain Press, 1988.
Enright, Robert. “Eyeing the Landscape: The Photography of Thaddeus Holownia.” Border Crossings 21.4 (2002): 36-40.
Hawkes, Robert. “Of the Earth.” Rev. of Allan Cooper’s The Pearl Inside the Body: Poems Selected and New. The Fiddlehead 182 (Winter 1994): 116-21.
Morrissey, Stephen. “Review of Three Poetry Books.” Rev. of Allan Cooper’s Poems Released on a Nuclear Wind. Stephen Morrissey 2007. 17 July 2020
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1854. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1958.
For a much more detailed biography of Allan Cooper, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Allan Cooper for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“The Form,” “Winds,” and “Ghazal. In Memory of John Thompson” appear in Cooper’s Hidden River Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982. “Sunflower” appears in Cooper’s Heaven of Small Moments. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1998. “After Rain” appears in Cooper’s To An Unborn Child. Fort Collins, CO: Leaping Mountain Press, 1988. “The Clearing” appears in Cooper’s Poems Released on a Nuclear Wind. East Lawrencetown, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1987. “Bending the Branch” appears in Cooper’s Bending The Branch: Twenty-six Poems. Sackville: Percheron, 1983. “Desert Roses” appears in Poetic Voices of the Maritimes. Ed. Allison Mitcham and Theresa Quigley. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1996.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.