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Bragr

Ross Cogan
ISBN-13: 
9781781724552
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 5, 2018
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‘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 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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