Winding the Honey Clock

Spool by Matthew Cooperman (Parlor Press/Free Verse Editions, 2015)
Winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize

Time.  It is the great commodity, the metaphor that governs our lives, bestowing through the limits of its measure both sweetness and pain.  In his award-winning new collection, Spool, Matthew Cooperman grapples with the pressure of time.  Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the form of the poems themselves, where Cooperman employs short, three-word lines which result in slender poems, sometimes stichic, sometimes stanzaic, but always markedly vertical and threadlike.  It isn’t long before a reader realizes that Cooperman’s tripartite measure is born of necessity: the lack of time.  The book’s opening poem, “Spool 16,” presents his dilemma, one we all share:

time is honey
and honey pain
we earn it
confusing the whip
with the watch
how it passes
year after year
a wrist with
handcuffs all alone (5)

Even as the Cooperman subverts the quotidian metaphor (time is money), the familiar trope lingers, revealing its tenacity.  Mortality, time’s ultimate legacy, creates life’s value even as it causes anguish.  It need not be so, yet for most of us time is a lash that drives us to “earn,” “spend,” and above all not to “waste” it.  For a man with responsibilities to spouse and children and job and his own creative impulses, a truth becomes unavoidable: one’s time is not wholly one’s own.  The question, then, becomes one of survival—both corporeal and spiritual. How does one fulfill one’s duties ethically as a member of communities both local and global? How does one free oneself from the shackles of time?

The poems in Spool suggest that for Cooperman the answer to these questions lies in finding a way to inhabit time without becoming enslaved by it.  Continuing the ternary structure at the core of each poem, Spool is comprised of three sections, each with a thematically suggestive epigraph.  The scope of Cooperman’s subjects are broad, but three motifs surface within the general context of time: language, family (with frequent references to the speaker’s autistic daughter), and the “natural” or nonhuman world.  If the word spool evokes images of sewing and/or weaving, one could say that the warp of the book is temporal, its woof spatial.  The resulting tension of this interplay is one of the overriding pleasures the poems offer.  Even as the short and often radically enjambed lines urge a reader to race down the page, a movement enhanced by the lack of punctuation, the semantic density of the poems expands each line, offering inhabitable spaces of intellection.  Cooperman achieves this effect through a dazzling array of techniques such as anadiplosis, punning, manipulation of cliché, and echoing cognates. One rarely encounters such delightfully suggestive wordplay.  I was reminded of the similarly rich quatrains in Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge.  

Another example of the book’s engagement with time is that the poems, whose only titles are numbers, are not ordered sequentially.  This ostensible randomness (“Spool 16,” Spool 20,” “Spool 24,” “Spool 4,” etc.) alerts the reader to the disruption of sequence.  Is it a lack of order, or is it some other order that supersedes the numbers which, presumably, mark the order in which the poems were written?  Due to their general lack of narrative, the experience of reading the poems is one of generous and fluid cohesion, as if the poems were composed in one order and then arranged with the thematic arc of the book in mind.  I recently heard Cooperman read from Spool, and I was interested to note that he did not read the poems sequentially as they appear in the book.  Rather, while he consistently moved forward, he would read the beginning page of one poem then skip ahead to the second page of another poem, and then skip ahead to the middle of another, and so on.  To a listener the effect was seamless.  Such open structure subverts the linearity of time with its beginnings and endings, creating instead a state of continuous present.

In addition to the semantic richness and wordplay reminiscent of the Language Poetry movement, many of the poems in Spool exhibit an interest in current ecopoetic theory.  There are numerous references to nonhuman animals, and this seems fitting given the temporal concerns of the book.  After all, only humans are enthralled with abstractions like time, which is why Whitman declared, “I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contain’d, . . .”  (102).  Cooperman seems to feel this attraction as well, but he avoids the binary of the human contrasted with “the animals.”  Without risking anthropocentric projections regarding nonhuman “speech,” he follows the traces of language’s primal beginnings.  “Spool 11,” for example, suggests that the original impulse of language is sheer pre-linguistic sound:

prior to meaning
is partial to
moaning the syn
in tax is
what keeps coming (38)

In addition to a homophonic pun on death and taxes (another aspect of time’s potential tyranny), these lines pay homage to formless utterance.  Formless though it is, a moan in any language communicates pleasure and pain (time is honey); its universality brings all animals together (syn).  Sound is the aspect of speech which, despite the semantic slippages, miscues, and failures of language, unites it with the body, making it a visceral experience potentially analogous to a

steady state of
nuthatch going through
the juniper’s plosive
agency makes swoon
a tangy nexus (38)

Here both bird and tree are given agency, and as actants they affect a synaesthetic experience of sound and smell that approximates the simultaneity of actual sensory perception—a far cry from the differentiation of senses so common in most “nature writing.”  Indeed, cultural ecologist David Abram has noted that alphabetic writing, while not responsible for the human separation from the natural world that has resulted in our current ecological crisis, does make that separation possible.  “Only when the alphabet comes into a culture,” says Abram, “when the phonetic alphabet arrives, only then does that culture get this odd notion that language is an exclusively human property or possession, and the rest of the land falls mute.”  Throughout Spool, Cooperman refuses to let the nonhuman fall mute and suggests that if language is traced back to animistic, onomatopoeic gesture, one may find “exactly some etymology / lurking in trees” (38).  A writer of such sensibility privileges the corporeal aspect of language over the referential:

author was hard
of herding  he
saw vowels as
substantive pets I
like meaning but
will take moaning (38)

Herding vowels. Bringing sound to ground. This is what Scott Knickerbocker has termed “sensuous poesis,” a process whereby the symbolic action of written language is returned to the body through sound and made animate again.  As Cooperman puts it in “Spool 9,” it has to do with “making sound monumental” for ultimately, even if we have forgotten the fact, “the animal is / in the material” (64).  In Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, Forrest Gander, a poet in the vanguard of ecopoetics, poses the following question regarding poetry:

Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics?  (1-2).

Matthew Cooperman’s Spool goes a good distance down the path toward an answer to these questions.

The second section of Spool begins with an epigraph from Richard Serra, the American minimalist sculpture known for his large-scale site-specific works in sheet metal; and the book’s cover features a photograph of Serra’s sculpture “Sequence.” Serra’s work appears to hold considerable importance for Cooperman.  Relevant here is the fact that Serra’s sculptures are subject to the erosion of time (rust) yet highly resistant to its ravages.  Furthermore, Serra’s sculptures can literally be inhabited by the viewer.  So too are the poems in Spool inhabitable as we wander through the rooms and open spaces of meaning, while at the same time we are made fully aware of the materiality of words.  Faced with this constant tension between the “inside” and the “outside” of language, I was reminded of Robert Creeley’s statement regarding the influence of jazz on his work: “I was interested in the way that rhythm could make articulate all the possibilities of literal time, durations, within a given situation . . .”

In addition to the poems’ self-referential quiddity that resists time’s forward surge, in “Spool 13” Cooperman suggests that in addition to poems there are other things a poet must make:

a family is
a thing a
made thing almost
a true wall
we made this
thing true wall (73)

As noted earlier, one of the more prominent motifs in Spool is that of the family, its turbulence, its demands for time, but also its function as a stay against the onrush of time.  Our love for our intimate others—human and nonhuman—insulates us from time by focusing our attention.  We pay attention to them.  That Cooperman is aware of these temporal ironies is evident in the qualification “a / made thing almost / a true wall” [my emphasis].  Whatever balm it may offer, the stability of family cannot fully arrest time; there are memories of the past, hopes for the future.  One’s children grow older, a bittersweet reminder of time.  Time and time again throughout Spool the reader is reminded of the book’s opening assertion: “time is honey / and honey pain” (5).

Cooperman is too much a realist to suggest that the struggle with time stops.  Indeed, the poems in Spool with their unabated tensions, their spooling and unspooling, their three-word lines like so many three-brick walls, never offer a solution.  To enact the struggle is the solution. And that enactment is no small undertaking. Furthermore, as the poems in Spool reveal, the scope of our crisis extends far beyond family.  Yet, it may be that family, after all, offers a glimpse of a solution.  And as is so often the case, children become teachers.  An endnote to “Spool 7” acknowledges the poem’s riffing on Robert Bly’s “Things to Think.”  Cooperman’s speaker opens himself to the visionary mode, a “new thinking”:

what one needs
            in new thinking
ours     the tissues
which require reflection
post pastoral local
global self same
on a slide
in a dream
La Poudre spring
run off     the
            rack of a
    moose emerging from
the river
              a
   child ours I
have never seen
caught in the
glittering crown he
is king riding
and a kingdom
of new thinking (54)

The child here is Bly’s, Cooperman’s, Wordsworth’s, ours.  It is the lost child within us which must be found, riding kingly in the wrack of a moose, at one with the nonhuman, uniting global with microscopic, waking with dream.  In short, one way to break the shackles of time is to protract the awe of childhood, to recall, as Baudelaire observed that “. . .genius is simply childhood rediscovered by an act of will” (138).  New thinking, then, is original thinking, green thinking.  It is worth noting in the context of Cooperman’s concerns with time that among the “Things to Think” offered in Bly’s poem are these worthy observations: “Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s / Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.”

Cooperman’s thematic concerns are at once both individual and universal: slow down, rest, pay attention, love the world and all its inhabitants.  Find a way to be good.  The poems offer a semantic generosity and density that allow, even encourage, multiple readings; but the poems are always human at their core.  After spending many rewarding hours winding and unwinding the poems in Spool, I became more and more appreciative of the pleasure and pain that obviously went into their composition.  In prefatory remarks at the reading I attended, Cooperman said that Spool was a decade in the making.  It shows.  His struggle is palpable, the ethos of the poems unmistakable, the result intellectually engaging and emotionally moving—a rare combination in the balkanized realm of contemporary American poetry where the “mainstream” and the “avant-garde” are so often at odds.  Spool offers what the best writing offers, which is to say that when the reader puts down the book to get on with the business of living, it is with new awareness of our world.  Furthermore, it demonstrates a symbiosis between life and art, where the making of each can be a moral act:

to write a
year in threes
these little wiles
and pauses     what
       they bring to
doorsteps     planets     terns
at the window
on my mind
limit is splendor
bright folds now
love or parenting
the time it
loses or looses
indelible hows plotting
the new child
the better man (“from Spool 20”)


Works Cited

  • Abram, David, Interview. “How Reading Affects Us.” Online video clip. YouTube. June 13, 2010. Web. July 6, 2016.
  • Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter and Modern Life, Parts 1-4.” Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950. Ed. Melissa Kwasny. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. 131-44.
  • Bly, Robert. “Things to Think.” Morning Poems. Harper Perennial, 1997. 12.
  • Creeley, Robert. Panel: Poetry and Jazz. Naropa University, July 12, 1991. MP3. July 6, 2016.
  • Gander, Forrest and John Kinsella. Redstart: An Ecological Poetics. U of Iowa P, 2012.
  • Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Deathbed Edition 1891. Song of Myself and Other Poems. Ed. Robert Hass. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2012. 71-132.



Joshua McKinney is the author of three books of poetry. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, New American Writing, Poetry International, Volt and many other journals.