For the past 2 days I’ve been engrossed in a wonderful book of poetry, Nicole Cooley’s MILK DRESS (2010). It’s (non-doctrinaire) feminist, maternal, biological: it’s about the poet’s body as she bears her two daughters, nurses them, weans them, and exults in their own growing bodies both within and without her. So it’s also about embryos, births, life itself. And the poems themselves give moving, articulate testimony to truths about a woman’s body: that it is fecund, animal, sentient.
The word “body” initially appears in the prefatory poem, “Homeland Security,” and in the first poem, “Self-portrait with Morning Sickness,” which begins, “Don’t tell me the body’s opposite is—” and leads up to the concluding assertion that “the body’s / opposite is not the spirit. // It is nothing but this wish.” Along the way, Cooley tropes her morning sickness as “My body is its own shipwreck” and relates that “inside my skin, another // body floats,” the fetus that causes her illness but will lead to great fulfillment.
Indeed, Cooley uses the word “body,” with more or less import, in most of the poems in MILK DRESS and ends the book with “In the Anatomical Museum,” The Mütter Museum, in Philadelphia. There she mentions her dream of being “pregnant / for the third time but there was no baby, // no ‘obstetrical interventions’ to remove this body / from my body,” as there once was, she tells us in “Caesarean,” in order to birth the “body caught in my body.” In the final poem Cooley recognizes that a hundred years ago she would have died in the birthing room, where she “had failed” to deliver the baby who would be “not of woman born,” as Shakespeare puts it in MACBETH. Now, however, she concludes by referring to her two girls—proof that she has succeeded: “my girls / who cannot be bodiless.”
Throughout MILK DRESS Cooley uses effectively the traditional elements of poetry, as in “Triage Sonnet” and the rhymed couplet that ends “Homeland Security”: “Write against blankness, a sheet strung tight, / a bed the color of ash: white, white, white,” where the monosyllables, the mention of ash, and the thrust of the repetition recall Sylvia Plath. But elsewhere, as in “Milk,” the cadences and imagery suggest those of Virginia Woolf’s admirable prose: “Save that woman / in the garden, folding and unfolding // clothes alone while the light lies / broken on porch stones.” Notice how often Cooley uses the imperative voice, a sign of her passion, one of her virtues, in my view. She fuses intense feeling and scrupulous form like the best poets—think of Dickinson and Yeats—and knocks the reader out in poem after poem, evoking tears and wonder in equal amounts.
MILK DRESS also contains strategically chosen excerpts from a poetically written 1959 scientific essay on “Love in Infant Monkeys” and poems about 9/11, which occurred when Cooley was nursing her first-born. Key among these is “Disaster, an Instruction Manual,” in which she meditates on the word “disaster” in an effort to accommodate the nearby disaster she and her family experienced on 9/11. This poem makes a bridge to her previous collection of poems, which was published only last spring: the excellent
BREACH, a telling account of another disaster, Hurricane Katrina, from her point of view as a native of New Orleans. I can’t think of another poet who published two such fine books in the same year. Cooley has already won the Walt Whitman award for her first collection, RESURRECTION (1995), and I’ll be disappointed if she is not nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
I’m writing about Nicole Cooley now to suggest you consider buying either BREACH (LSU Press) or MILK DRESS (Alice James Books) as a seasonal gift for anyone who loves to read or for yourself.