David Cooke

David Cooke

David Cooke won a Gregory Award in 1977 and published his first collection, Brueghel’s Dancers in 1984. His retrospective collection, In the Distance, was published in 2011 by Night Publishing and a collection of more recent pieces, Work Horses, has recently been published by Ward Wood Publishing.

His poems, translations and reviews have appeared widely in journals including Agenda, Ambit, The Bow Wow Shop, The Critical Quarterly, The Irish Press, The London Magazine, Magma, The North, Orbis, Other Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Reader, The SHOp and Stand.

 
 
THE SLEEPING LADY OF MALTA

Before these islands acquired their history,
a mythology of creeds and sieges,
there was a dream of flesh in stone –

Let’s call her Melitensis,
as handsome as only a woman might be
who lies at ease with ampleness.

Her children are scattered.
Her days are a pampered twilight –
until at length she floats away

beyond the ruins of temples,
beyond disfigurement and urban sprawl,
to reach the furthest island,

a stepping stone to where,
each day, the light comes good
that paints her lemony limestone dwelling

and where the air
in the evening is a distillation of herbs
and unfamiliar flowers.

 
VALETTA

for Ian Parks

High on its promontory the Grand Master’s city
seems to be carved from living rock,
its curtain walls rising from undressed sandstone
that heaves them clear of water.

Secured against past enemies,
their wind-scoured surfaces are embattled
against mere blow-ins: the indigent shrubs
and bushes that cling improbably to crevices

in a wilderness of hewn stone –
the riddled maze of limestone blocks
where lizards and heat-crazed insects
pursue inscrutable wars.

Etched on sky that’s buffed
by a soft drift of cloud, the finer detail dazzles –
the teetering balconies of citizens,
the arcaded gardens, where visitors share

in a view across the harbour
that draws a line against unruly surges,
its creeks divided between dry docks, silos,
and yachts whose crews unwind raucously

beyond the founder’s pious gaze –
his vision of strength graced by geometric streets,
palaces, the baroque churches,
where true believers sing praises to Alla.

 
MALTESE BUSES

For a couple of coins that otherwise
might disappear mysteriously
into the fluff of your pocket
you’ll get where you want on the island,
if you have time to spare.

The drivers are a closed book,
or are bound by a vow of silence.
Understanding your language,
they know that theirs
is one you’ll never learn.

Their seat is a sacred space
in 1950s buses, decked out
like wayside shrines.
A Virgin sanctions disregard
for their own No Smoking signs.

The routes they follow take you
past ubiquitous churches –
with a clock set right
and another wrong, the faithful
confound simple-minded devils.

 
PRICKLY PEAR

A shabby and uncherishable growth,
it is at first unrecognised and scarcely noticed
as you make a roadside halt, your visitor’s eye
lured by distant iconic vistas. And so,

inveigled always beyond the details,
you appraise each photo op, framing,
say, the Silent City raised up against the sky
on self-absorbed strategic heights;

or lose yourself in contemplation,
gazing through the Azure Window,
its accidental rock a masterpiece
shaped by the weather’s bag of tricks –

a monument to impermanence
where, returning, you can see at your feet
the evidence of countless tiny deaths
that went to form the island,

remembering, too, that the citadel
was built on fear. And later at the tourists’
market, jostled by crowds and trapped,
you sample the liquor of the prickly pear

sweetish and pink, a shot of fire
laced with recognition, for now you’ll see it
everywhere in spiked mittens
scrabbling over a drystone wall,

or the breeze block ruins of an outhouse.
Unprepossessing, thuggish,
it hoards its life and moisture in the fibrous
tangle of an impenetrable heart.

 
THE ROCK

For a brief age it glowered above
the edge of what was known
and fear that lay beyond it.
Making their names, the heedless
sailed and then returned, wrapped
in myths, their tattered blankets.

These days it marks the spot,
as stubbornly as ever, where brash
defiance outstares machismo.
Bumper to bumper, we have reached
the top, noting the skills of cabbies
who park up like sliding tiles

in a game for children. Inside
it’s riddled with twisting miles
of tunnels, chipped out by sappers
with little more than chisels,
the big guns they wheeled in
pointing blindly across the straits.

Further down, it’s a honeycomb
of stalagmites and stalactites
in poky chambers opening out
to one as big as a church, a chill
expanse across which at first
we miss the exit sign, lulled

by piped monastic music.
Once out, we dodge the apes
and share a view with gulls
of weather changing beneath us
where, over and over,
a desert sinks beneath the ocean.

 
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All poems on this post: © David Cooke
Published with the permission of David Cooke