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Bragr

Ross Cogan
ISBN-13: 
9781781724552
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 5, 2018
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‘Bold and striking’ – Poetry Book Society

‘Cogan’s startling new collection is rooted firmly in the finest of the English poetry tradition, connecting us back to the dynamic dreamtime of nature and magic. In Bragr, the poems traverse the vast mindscape of myth, weaving the warp and weft of folklore and fable into re-imagined modern forms, which are immediate to the imagination and resonant with a prescient power. This is poetry of the first order.’ 
– Adam Wyeth

Whether it’s myth intended to explain the constellations, the secret of eternal life, or the bloodthirsty tale of the mead of poetry, Ross Cogan’s collection Bragr (meaning ‘poetry’ in Old Norse) is a reimagining of Norse mythology for our times. In particular, the collection focuses on environmental concerns. The earth’s incredible beauty seems all the more fragile in the face of habitat loss and global warming.

The first part – ‘The Beginning’ – interweaves themes from the Norse creation myths with our own, human, preoccupations. The opening poem mirrors the stately procession of creation which, like in the Biblical Genesis, seems to arrive trailing both glory and the seeds of its own (human) destruction. Included in this part are beautiful poems about trees, about wood grain, about the lovely Idun, about seascapes and starscapes, the playgrounds of the gods.

Part two – ‘Bestiary’ – is a celebration, and also a lament, for the richness of animal life that the world is losing. Here we find poems, frequently wonderfully complex yet compact sonnets about: toads, bees, snakes, goats, rats, ducks, seagulls and hares.

Part three reinterprets the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ and the last battle of Ragnarök when natural disasters and floods encompass the earth. Later from the darkness comes a new cycle of death and life. Although mystical elements feature throughout the collection, the author’s aim is also an immediate, down-to-earth view of the threats we face today from global warming, the depletion of the Earth’s resources and loss of biodiversity.

Myths have survived for so long because they say important things about what it means to be human. People have reinterpreted them from generation to generation, developing and adding to them as their worlds have evolved. I hope these poems form a small link in this chain.
– Ross Cogan

REVIEWS

Review by Brian McMahon, Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre

Wednesday, December 19, 2018
 
Bragr, the title of Ross Cogan's new collection, is the Old Norse word for poetry; and although the forty-five poems presented here are all written in English, the more of the collection you read the more this unifying epithet proves to be singularly appropriate. In recent years there has been a spate of revisionist retellings of the Old Norse myths, drawing in particular on three medieval sources: the Prose EddaPoetic Edda and Völsunga Saga. Modern versions of these ancient stories have included A. S. Byatt's Ragnarök (2011), Joanne Harris' The Gospel of Loki (2014) and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology (2017). What Cogan attempts is less overt than each of these, but in several ways more ambitious: to capture and appropriate something of the majesty of these wild and rough-hewn stories, rather than simply to make of them a coherent and cohesive narrative.
 
Although Cogan writes in English, many of the cadences, rhythms and characteristics of Old Norse poetry pervade this collection. At times these are deliberately made to jar with intrusive references to the modern world, such as when the pagan god Baldr (Cogan prefers the Old Norse spelling to the modern anglicised 'Baldur') is tormented by prophetic nightmares and receives comforts both ancient and modern: 'Odin cast the runes | over me. They tried me on Prozac, | Zoloft, Luvox, Lexapro and Paxil' ('Baldr's Dreams'). The same jarring effect is repeated in the poem 'Kvasir's Blood' which revisits the story of the murder of Kvasir whose blood is drained from his body, leaving him to appear, to modern eyes, 'like a leaking lilo'.
 
The result of this economical but repeated contrasting of ancient and modern is to confer on the collection a sense of timelessness through which different mythologies, philosophies and perspectives are conflated and condensed. In the first section of the book, 'The beginning', which consists of seventeen poems, Cogan draws his imagery variously from Old Norse myth, from modern cosmology, from Christianity and from Daoism to generate a sense of transcendent universality. These are poems which reward the curious reader, who will whittle away at their rugged exteriors to extract the nuggets of wisdom and profundity which they encase. Cogan overtly encourages this approach by opening his creation narrative with the compound noun image of 'Onething' ('The beginning') – simultaneously the logos, whatever fuelled the big bang, the void, and the concentrated potential for the universe. It is a deft and assured beginning; from the moment 'Onething' fragments the reader is sent hurtling with ever increasing momentum through a cornucopia of legends, a bestiary, a conflation of past and present ages, to the inevitable climax of Ragnarök, the apocalyptic extinction event which once more eliminates all distinctions between matter ('The sea gives up its dead', 'The wolves eat the sun') and leaves us back where we began. The final poem in the collection, 'Wreath', ends on a note of hope as the cycle of life survives even this epic catastrophe: its closing imprecation being, 'that this sad, small, withered and wilting wreath | might be a charm against, or cure for, death.'
 
There is so much to admire in the collection. Cogan's willingness to preserve the fragmentary Norse myths intheir fragmentary state, and not to impose some new narrative structure or interpretative schemaon them (an interfering editorial practice which goes right back to the writings of the thirteenth century antiquarian Snorri Sturluson), allows them to retain that inaccessible, mystical rawness which so entranced authors like William Morris and Walter Scott. Cogan makes no attempt to explain the actions of the gods either in metaphysical or human terms. The fourth poem in the collection, 'Ash', begins with an assertive cadence which Viking Age listeners would have recognised clearly: 'From a downed tree spread-eagled on the beach | Odin carved a man.' Why did he do this? What is the association, then, between men and trees? Are we to infer a link between men and the world-tree, 'flourishing, suffering Yggdrasil', later mentioned in the same poem? Cogan does not tell us. The alien unknowability of Odin is thus preserved in all its ancient grandeur.
 
Other habits of the Old Norse poets are also manifested in Cogan's writing, notably his occasional propensity to mirror the alliterative conventions of medieval Germanic poems, which he does sparingly so as to suggest a distant lineage rather than a direct relationship between his work and its ancient inspiration. Thus in 'Time thaws' we read that 'Black Surt sat | and still sits, safe in his rock-like hide'. The same device repeats at the end of the poem: 'Can you hear a tick, ticking, | an urgent tap, water on stone?' Here the wording and the alliteration conspire together to remind us of the inevitable progress of time, the unrelenting and unstoppable march towards the prophesied end. This preoccupation with the ineluctable nature of fate is a staple theme in Norse mythology, and Cogan returns to it in 'Idun' when he describes the apples of eternal youth which 'will tame time | dam up minutes, redirect ruffling days | down other courses'. Here the alliterative pulse tells a different story from the one the poem is overtly expressing; the apples may stop time in its tracks for an interval, but the final reckoning is no less avoidable in spite of all the gods may do to prevent it – even by 'fold[ing] space in time's amber', a gloriously evocative image from the bathetically named poem 'Aurendil's toe' (possibly a myth-derived moniker for the pole star, as Cogan explains in his brief and helpful end notes).
 
The middle section of the collection, 'Bestiary' is the least grand in scope but possibly the most arresting in terms of ideas and imagery. We are introduced, in sequence, to bees, a calf, a chicken, ducks, goats, a hare, lizards, moths, an otter, a pheasant, a pigeon, a rat, ravens, a seagull, snakes, a swan and a toad. Each poem in this sequence it taut and visceral, embodying the organic nature of these birds and beasts in contrast to the more ephemeral, transcendent first and third sections of Bragr ('The beginning' and 'Ragnarök'). One of the most effective recurring motifs likens the lives and deaths of these animals to the lives and deaths of stories, which are exhumed and, in some sense, resurrected through re-telling. Here is the motif as expressed in 'Pigeon': 'When we untie | fossils from the layers of shale amid | which they've waited like phrases in a book | that's what they show: those granite lines; that look.' The connection between animals and stories is all the more insistent when we recall that the parchment upon which medieval poems were ingrained was manufactured from animal hides. This fact is not lost on Cogan, as witness the opening line of 'And the rest': 'The poem wounds the page.'
 
This is an exciting, dynamic collection which reaches for the spirit more than the sense of these foundational Old Norse myths. It is playful at times, but consistently vivid, insistent, forceful and muscular. It is a collection which rewards re-reading and is loath to render up all its secrets to the reader's casual glance. A powerful piece of work.

Review by Ellen Bell, Poetry Wales

Thursday, November 1, 2018

 

Readers coming to the poem for the first time’, writes Seamus Heaney in his introduction to his translation of Beowulf, ‘are likely to experience something other than mere discomfiture when faced with the strangeness of the names... and lack of known reference points’.

Ross Cogan’s Bragr (the Old Norse word for poetry) – forty-five poems that re-tell Norse myth as an apocalyptic prescience – present a similar challenge. Terse and sharp-edged, Bragr is cut through with dark, cold Scandinavian doom. A melding of stories both legendary and biblical, Bragr is divided into three parts – The Beginning, Bestiary and Ragnarök. A poem in six stanzas, The Beginning apes the Old Testament’s telling of God’s creation of the world in six days. But here the yet-to-be- created world is Onething, a thing that splits into four.
        ‘Fire and ice have shaped this island’, writes Nancy Marie Brown of Iceland in her book Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, ‘half its total area – are desert: ash, ice, moonscapes of rock’. Cogan’s recurrent layering of the sonic-bound ‘split’, ‘splitting’, ‘fizzing’, ‘shifting’, ‘levelling’, ‘flooding’, ‘bubbling’ and ‘bursting’ of ‘The Beginning group of poems make the birthing of this landscape manifest, ‘drawing itself up ready for the crunch’. Time Thaws with its ‘snapping’, ‘stirring’ and ‘shedding’ tells of the ‘two worlds waiting’ – the volcanic with its ‘black soil steaming’ and the ice ‘sunless and brittle’. But these worlds are not thriving: there are ‘parasites’, one ‘slumps wheezing inward’ while the other ‘freezes, dies in the dark’. With the final couplet the poem shifts dramatically from the mythic to the now, and its time-bomb of global warming: ‘Can you hear a tick, ticking’, it asks, ‘an urgent tap, water on stone?’
        Cogan’s poems see-saw us dizzyingly between saga and eco-politics, and between Norse myth and Christian iconography. They assume no one form. Some rhyme, most don’t. Sometimes, as with Attraction, a quatrain, we are lurched into the small, the intimate, the personal, ‘And there you lie: the U-shaped magnet to my iron nail.’
        The curation of the poems is a woven, auditory delight. The struck ‘nail’ of ‘Attraction’ is heard in ‘clinker’ in In Your Hands; the ‘thin-leaf parings’ of The Grain echoed in the ‘ruffling days’ in Idun.
        Mostly sonnets, the Bestiary poems such as Calf, Hare, Otter, Ravens and Pheasant are excellent. In Hare Cogan’s repetition of ‘My first real hare’ reignites the wonder of the first sighting. Pulsating with religious symbolism, the hung plucked fowl in Chicken becomes ‘Peter pinned to the cross’. Similarly, in Pheasant, a hen hit by a truck throws up a ‘spray of feathers’ reminding Cogan of ‘those painters who drew the soul’ and as he drives on ‘through the slipstream of a sacrament’. These beasts, as familiars of the Gods, assume an epic malignancy such as with the repeated black in Ravens: ‘black thought’ and ‘black memory’.
        Awash with murder and blood-letting, Ragnarök (meaning Fate of the Gods), the final part of Bragr, is both apocalyptic and accusatory. Cogan’s bordering-on-mawkish preachiness, where the end is prophesised ‘as a whimper...that will drown the suffering world’, is made forgivable by the sparse beauty of his language and compelling interweaving of tale and ethos.

 

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bragr is Ross Cogan’s collection of entrancingly personal poems inspired by Norse mythology. Quite simply he picks up Earth and its neighbouring galaxies, gently placing them where we happen to sit or lie so that we nestle with wonders.

I found myself reading most poems more than once – firstly for the pure beauty of the word choices and secondly to drink in the meaning of the piece.

In Part 1, The BeginningAnd The Rest sweeps us beyond the presentation of a creative act – writing, painting or music – and draw us to the exquisite nature of the silence just beyond that last fading note.

There’s a playfulness to the assortment – from the evident delight of selecting the perfect phrase to conjure a scene or emotion, to the joy of regarding the world and its surroundings, to summon up origin stories of time and humanity and pin them to the page.

Underlying it all bubbles as an unexpected quaintness that speaks to the universal feelings at the core of each of us. Gazing out at the stars or to the seething heat beneath our feet, Cogan acknowledges the crux of humanity in poems like Willow, delivering with a wry nod to our innate dissatisfaction the line: “We rarely want the miracles we’re given.”

In Traefisk, creating a work of art becomes a collaborative act that sings with the joy of collusion, right down to choosing to hang the finished article in a place “where the light could fin it, white it might/ just be confused with something that can fly.”

Elsewhere, a frostbitten toe in the cosmos becomes a comfort in the dark, and a god rises on thermals in a falcon’s skin, and fish sing with “tinfoil voices.”

It’s that trick of combining the every day with the astral and the mundane with the uncanny that pours Cogan’s poetry from the page into our minds.

In part two, aptly named The Bestiary, Cogan narrows his gaze to the animals, introducing us to the world’s wild menageries of seagulls, rats, snakes, hares and moon-swallowing toads. In each, he can’t help but draw parallels between himself and the observed creature, most notably in Otter, where: “Its old man-monkey hands worked on a cake/of salmon” and we watch it let the water pull it away, “’til just a bobbing dot of skull/ was left; a skull that might have been human.”

In Ravens, he carries us close to the gods of old again, as they visit “past and future”, sent to spy on scandalous secrets. Cogan’s power to bend an image to his will is striking here. The ravens are “Black thoughts” with “soap-bubble plumage”, and “Black memory, a battered purse”, who “shrink to twin pupils/ beneath a cloud’s brow.”

Part 3, Ragnarök, highlights the dichotomy of mortals and immortal. The word represents a series of future events,including deaths of various gods, drawing our attention to our vulnerabilities – if even those great figures of Norse mythology can perish, what of us?

Line after line, I felt myself being allowed into the secrets waiting between light and shade and the magic just beyond the peripheral of vision. This is old enchantment, elemental and eerily familiar, as though we’ve temporarily forgotten that just yesterday gods walked among us and we were on intimate terms with the stars.

 

 

Review by the Poetry Book Society

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

​Bragr starts with a retelling of the Norse creation story and then slowly slides from the epic to the personal. However, myth still informs its symbols and preoccupations. The central part of this bold and striking collection is a “bestiary”, the lives and deaths of animals passing before the poet’s eyes. This being and undoing is mirrored in the final section ‘Ragnarok’, the end of the world, where myth grips the reins once more and sends the reader plunging into a lyrical abyss.

 

Review by Clark Allison, Stride Magazine

Sunday, August 12, 2018

 

To get the measure of this fascinating, lucid book of poetry I think one has to follow it to its conclusion. It is overtly in three parts, the midst of it, ‘Bestiary’ (pp29-46) bringing us into anthropomorphic Ted Hughes type territory, no crow, but there are ravens, seagull, pheasant, otter and so on. Cogan’s twist is that he regards this naturalistic territory from the perspective of Norse myth. 

So there is an element of weighting in the sense that Cogan builds up the mythological elements in the introduction, ‘The beginning’, and the conclusion, ‘Ragnarok’, but less so in the naturalistic middle. This middle section too perhaps unhelpfully for narrative purposes is arranged alphabetically, from ‘Bees’ to ‘Toad’. Ragnarok for want of a more subtle description, means the Norse apocalypse and end of the world.

It’s a book of short poems, there are 17 in the middle section. But I’d say the collection is as it were framed around four poems, a creation myth in ‘The beginning’ (pp9-10), ‘Ragnarok’ (pp58-59, ‘after Milosz’), and two poems around the ‘trickster’ God Loki, one ‘Loki as falcon’, one ‘Loci as salmon’. The gods negotiate among themselves what corporeality they can wear and occupy as it were. Cogan’s creation myth poem, ‘The beginning’ is succinct, compelling, well argued and expressed, the originary object if you like of creation, the world is described as the ‘onething’. I might prefer, say, the ‘cosmos’, but well one knows what is meant,-

   Some say you could not see
   Onething as you could not stand outside it,
   As Onething was everything.
        (p9)

But as with all creation myths, Onething divided ‘quartered like a traitor / and there were four things’, one frozen, one hot, one flooding gaps, one ‘bonding’ and joining. And Ymir first of the frost giants begat other of the gods and mortals. Cogan is quite tough on this, I don’t know if needlessly, 

   Men talk of love, but men know nothing.
   This is just stark force feeling its strength
         (p10)

a bit unsparing, if also leaning to the brutalising. But this first is a highly compelling poem, as if one could have Ted Hughes read through Robert Graves.

The other certain highlight for me is the ‘Ragnarok’ poem, which takes rather a different tack (pp58-59). This is seen to an extent as by a contemporary narrator. Cogan focuses much on when and how ‘it will come’, ‘Please don’t expect a warning’. As for the effects,-

   This is…
   a whimper that
   will level hills and drown the suffering world.
           (end, p59)

As a kind of counter to our high Utopian hopes, there are also those insistent fears geared to Dystopia and Apocalypse.

Cogan has a short coda to ‘Ragnarok’ that again is a fine poem, and tends to suggest at interpreting intimations of the end. This is ‘Wreath’ (p60) and is a nature fertility poem at finding growth result from replanted horse chestnut limbs,-

   clean, readable blueprints of their trees
   and enough life to put on leaves again.

There is a slightly fatalistic or deterministic leaning to Cogan’s tale, though not unduly heavy handed. Two short, relatively intimate poems, ‘Attraction’ (p18, just four lines) and ‘In your hands’. This seems as it were to reflect on Cogan’s linking of anatomy to natural organic stuff, so there is ‘wonder at the small bones’, and the conclusion to this poem is intriguing if we are not to recall these other dystopian intimations,-

   Lend me your palms’ heat; let me reorder
   their small muscles, tangle my own fingers

   in yours, neat as the beams beneath the slate.
   Cast your dice for me. Show me my fate.
          (end p19)

Perhaps this is what I get out of this book mostly, it is naturalistic, anthropomorphic, mythical. Cogan can take on and envisage the God Loki perfectly well as falcon or salmon. As so often a lack of reference to contemporary life, to any introspective thoughts and feelings, merely the occasional glimpse. Some might suggest a celebration as it were, even if a little tainted, of those glories and manifestations of natural life that today are in such jeopardy. A strong merit here is a very convincingly inculcated ecological sensibility. 

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