Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2010
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Shortlisted for the London Festival Fringe Prize for the Best First Collection of Poetry 2010.

This debut collection from Seren, Inroads, showcases a startling new talent. Carolyn Jess-Cooke has a sophisticated poetic intelligence as well as a great sense of fun.

The opening piece, ‘Accent’  where ‘stowaway inflections and locally-produced slang/have passports of their own’ is a praise poem for the versatility and joy of language, “The way sound chases itself in tunnels and halls, the way senses fold memory...”.  This verbal fluency and dexterity are employed to offer us poems that are multi-faceted and often paradoxical. ‘Aeneas Finds Dido on YouTube’ is part satire, part tender re-enactment of the myth, featuring the most up-to-date media platforms.

After this playful start, a difficult childhood is evoked through metaphor in poems like ‘Music Lesson’,‘One Thousand Painful Pieces’ and ‘Bitten’, all the more heartbreaking for being indirect. Other high points are ‘Newborn’ with the apt description of a babe in arms being a ‘zoo of verbs/mewling, snuffling, pecking...’. This sweet realism again gives way to metaphor, in the strangely evocative ‘Dorothy’s Homecoming’ in a brilliant take on the classic film ‘Wizard of Oz’, the power of maternal love has turned into a ‘twister’.

Readers will enjoy discovering this striking and versatile new voice. 

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Review from New Welsh Review

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke's debut collection shares a number of Macphee's (Kona) strengths, particularly her knack of using form boldly and, at times, innovatively. That gives her best work an engagingly open, transatlantic feel, with language used playfully in the service of imaginative, occasionally surreal conceits such as 'Open-Mic Night at The Memory Karaoke'

But most are ecstatic to slide into tune
(whether tone deaf or drowning-cat)
until I get why Odysseus was tied

to the mast and deafened to the Sirens -
this Juke-Box comfort, sing-along's certainty,
the voice lyrics give to dumb aches,
...Hit me, baby, one more time... It wasn't love, babe. Just Rhyme.


Along that rich imagination, though, Jess-Cooke also has a gift for realism, and the two are combined to superb effect in the poems about motherhood. Indeed, it's her ability to leap from the bare facts to disorientating, dream-like scenes, such as in "Descartes' Daughters', that sets them apart from the myriad poems on the same subject:

Our first moments returned like migrating birds:

the skin-tent you made with your foot inside,
a red-tinged river, the cervix folding back
like a bridge at the sight of ships. So real,
as it had been me who gave birth to you...

...You held out a small white hand. A wave
reached back.
I lost you. Lost you

Now a father surfaces each night in my soul.

Inside every breath
the gradual opening
of wings.

I've read that poems a dozen times now, and I'm still not sure I grasp is all, but it sounds gorgeous, and it re-pays re-reading, and I can't ask much more of a poem than that.

Matt Merritt, NWR Spring 2011

22/03/2011 - 12:06
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Testimonials from Carol Rumens & Luke Kennard

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This first collection is a sparkling variety-act, choreographed with a strong but daring sense of form. There are subversive triolets, an air-borne re-invention of Larkin's poem, 'The Whitsun Weddings', and poems in experimental 'field' layout. Some are almost surrealistic, as memories get up and perform karaoke-songs, or brutal beating becomes a music lesson. In others, Greek myths may be modernised and filmed, haunting landscapes captured, young motherhood described with witty realism and sensuousness. While memory at times traces darker inroads among the glittering, high-wire acts and comic cadenzas, the imaginative movement of the collection is outwards towards celebration . Jess-Cooke is a poet who revels in the magical pleasure of language, and readers will enjoy sharing it with her Carol Rumens There are breathtaking poems here. Whether writing about motherhood, accent, place or mischievously entwining the Classical world with YouTube and cable TV shows - and somehow still drawing pathos from it - Jess-Cooke has an unflinching honesty to match her powerful imagery. 'Bitten' makes you feel like you've been bitten, 'First Time Buyer' makes you feel like you have just got home, and 'A poem without any vegetables' makes you feel like you have children. Combine this with a sense of wide and deep reading, of reacting, of making a range of styles her own. Inroads feels refreshingly transatlantic - this is a poet unafraid of crossing boundaries, capable of being as simultaneously playful and serious, as good literature always is. Luke Kennard

18/10/2010 - 11:18
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Review from Poetry London

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke's work transforms romantic myths of all sorts from Dido of the honeymoon. It emerges from that strong school of younger Norther Irish poets, particularly women, for whom master of form is, wonderfully, a given. Like Leontia Flynn or Colette Bryce, she can turn out an assured sestina, here appropriately devoted to the ordeal of jet lag. There are also a couple of very convincing triolets - not something reviewers get to say often - where subtle variation has been put to striking use. The first time I was five. An Alsation we teased stripped a layer of skin from writst to elbow. It was a blind sensation the first time. I was five, and all stations betwen six and twelve were flagged with lesions connected, somehow, to a need to be kissed for the first time. I was five, and satiation, wet ease, stripped a layer of skin from risk. Here the themes of assault, tenderness, the link between childhood and myth, the shedding of a skin and the paradox of underlying continuity, are all combined in a single piece. Elsewhere they give to poems which revamp Orphic symbology, present abuse as a kind of music, and play wittily on the performative aspects of memory. One key piece, 'Tourists', reuses Larkin's stanza form from 'The Whitsun Weddings' to mediate on the shifts in identity performed by the newly-wed, still visitors to the zone of marriage, which is placed between exotic and the erotic ('we had jointly, / silently, agreed to take trips/ to love). This poe, pinpoints an essential fact about what we must call 'travel poetry'. It is not a presentation of the exotic, but rather an examination of what happens when the exotic becomes another type of the quotidian. The adaption of a stanza associated with a famous poem is both audacious and satisfying. W.N. Herbert, Poetry London, October 2010

17/10/2010 - 20:37
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Review from Magma 47

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke's debut collection, Inroads, covers plenty of ground in an impressive variety of styles. She writes with intelligence and (often) humour on themes that clearly have emotional resonance for her - family relationships, travel and love an is rarely if each poem is a journey deep into a complex human or metaphysical mystery that won't immediately reveal itself.

In 'Waterfall at Lake Chuzenji, Japan', the water “slices through fog” with a “guillotine blade”. We’re told that, “the unmarried come here / to drown themselves,” so the scene is one of death, decay, tragic endings. “This is the face of love that’s sinister, the desperate leap / because falling won’t happen to all of us.” The whole place is in ferment. Water spills from the waterfall onto the leaves, and the sound reflects the leaves “wishing to simmer.” Earlier the waterfall had fallen with “the roar of a god’s boiling kettle.” The danger of the waterfall, coupled with its tragic history – the deaths of so many loveless ones – contains also an obvious attraction, and Jess-Cooke finds an unobvious image to express that: There’s no set way to slip into this, but walking takes two legs. Don’t quit. Look at the lone rip of falling lake: it keeps trying to stand up. The poem ends on this note, which feels affirmative, but we’re not allowed to forget that the waterfall is a “rip” and that love and life are inseparable from struggle.

This poem is typical of Jess-Cooke in that it’s not obscure but resists summary and definitive interpretation. I was impressed by the poems on pregnancy and motherhood, especially '5 Months' which imaginatively presented the physical and emotional changes of pregnancy. Morning sickness is: "the bear I dared to stir with smells, who stood up on two legs and roared in a basin for seven weeks." After the humour of stacking her shoes in the fridge and not noticing the cooker switched on, Jess-Cooke is able to shift effortlessly to the more lyrical, “Focus flapping / in the mind’s lampshade.”

The book is packed with memorable, well-written images. In 'Daily I Forget to Live', she asks “The wind too / is a carousel for voices. Where / is its own?” and in what may be a favourite in performance, 'Yesterday I Failed', my favourite lines were “I did not merely stall, pause, or change my mind – / I failed, like any serious attempt at oil painting in a wind machine.” In all but a few poems, such as 'Bitten' (triolet) and 'Jet Lag' (sestina), the formal elements in this collection enhanced the poems’ emotional and intellectual content. Jess-Cooke revels in humour and complex imagination and, now and again, delivers a breathtaking sucker-punch. "The Archer' holds her mother against a wall with his bow-hand and draws his fist back: "The archer shoots so many so many arrows."

Rob A. Mackenzie, Magma 47

12/07/2010 - 10:28
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Review from Poetry Review

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke, a young poet whose often contemporary subjects – YouTube, hidden-camera TV, jet lag, the fish counter at the local supermarket – are, in the best poems from her debut Inroads, made surprisingly profound through a mixture of woozy shifts in focus, startling imagery, and a freewheeling use of the vernacular. In such a lavishly varied and adventurous collection, it seems a shame to single out one poem in particular for praise.

But I kept returning to the opener 'Accent', where the local and global intermingle, yet "the picked-up place-music" of home lends shifting roots to cling to: Home? Or everywhere? Like combing coral or sand and snow globes, or a wave-shaped petal from Sydney's Manly Cove my voice fossils places. The way sound chases itself in tunnels and halls, the way senses fold memory into five is an accent's suitcase aesthetic, Listen.

As this and the bulk of Inroads suggest, Jess-Cooke is a poet of both achievement and promise; whose future work will be worth looking out for, but who also deserves to be read and enjoyed now.

Ben Wilkinson, Poetry Review, Summer 2010

05/07/2010 - 13:10