Swallowing the Hourglass: A Review of David Cope’s Masks of Six Decades

A lot can happen in a year. So much can slip past us, instances and experiences that rush through like water through a gold-panner’s screen. I sit here at my kitchen table looking out the window at the trees that have grown thinner as autumn wind has swayed them silly. There are pumpkins on the neighbor’s porch and kids romping down the sidewalk. I am sitting here with my girlfriend and a copy of David Cope’s new chapbook, Masks of Six Decades, compiled poems of his written from 2003-2010. It is this time of year again, and I’m scratching my head wondering how we got here. It seems it was just last month I was 17 in my parent’s basement, writing lonely, suburban poems, so confused with my bundles of nerves and hormones.
A lot can happen in seven years. That’s enough time for you to fall in love with a beautiful lady or sir. It’s enough time for the seeds of new relationships to bloom, for old friends to pass, for the scenery and language of life to change completely. And yet it is short enough to still be gripping in the minds of those who remember past presidents and their wars, who remember the natural and unnatural disasters--and there is family, whether present or absent, with an undeniable hold.
These are the poems of David Cope’s Masks of Six Decades. They are poems of travel, but less a journey through space than a journey through time. They serve to capture time, filter through it to find the essence of humanity--the grist that all important poetry is grounded in. Poems like “October Surprise: An Absurd Reverie” address the political over-currents that act without our say. Lines like “may George Bush & Osama bin Ladin/kiss long & lustily, make up & dance a duo in tutus//by moonlight” are like praying for better weather, yearning for what is seemingly outside of our control. Similarly, “Gulf Spill Curse” confronts this futility, but from a perspective of mourning, saying “Cheney’s/dead spirit curses//us still.”
Not all of Cope’s poems are of a political nature, in fact most in this book are not, but they approach the subject from similar places, from the point of a prayer or a plead, or a point of reconciliation, of coping with loss and change. For instance, the poem “In My Father’s House,” a poem presumably dealing with the passing of the poet’s father, concludes with the question “how swaddle myself/with blankets long vanished & recall a father’s eye/overlooking my child-sleep?” At the same time of chronicling the loss of his father, Cope’s poem grasps for more explanation, an effort always trumped by the finality of death. While there are so many poems on death--a theme in poetry which “love” could only rival--David Cope’s poems on the subject are made personal and unique by the posture and endurance of his language, like in the opening lines of “Death, you come”: “to speak to me thru your mask,/you touch me thru my mother/who now is dying, & think//to make me shudder.”
But still, there exists other beautiful themes in this collection. The poem “Storm over Michigan Avenue, Midnight Market Dreams” describes the electricity of love in a bustling, stormy market, with lines like “we among them race into the midnight market ablaze in light” and “how did we come to this, two alone apart/from the family we raised, to find ourselves again & grope toward//a new gaze, holding hands?” This new-found passion is set on “thundering siren-filled streets,” and this backdrop acts as a metaphor juxtaposing with the main focus of the two who have found themselves lovers again. It is that of shaky excitement, the fresh toddling of new love all over, that David Cope seizes with this juxtaposition. There is a significant hope for the future in this poem, a future for lovers who have grown old in only their age.
The journey of reading Masks of Six Decades ends on an crucial note. “Dark Evening” is a communal piece, a message that highlights the importance of one-another. The poem asks us of our neighbors “what songs must they//be singing?” as the work is over and they must face themselves, as we must also. But it is in song where we face ourselves, and that song is a vehicle for processing whatever joy or pain or confusion that has gripped us over time. By ending the collection with “Dark Evening” David Cope gives his reader closure, an end that addresses our common struggle with our own individual and social fallacies, as well as our common melodious joy.
There is dedication and passion in the poetry of The Masks of Six Decades; they are packed so tightly with imagery, diction, and thought, that they demand of the reader a similar dedication. Many of these poems evoke a sense of loneliness amidst a crowd, while others display one of togetherness and community, all in songs around the fire, in the ruckus of steamy locker-rooms, in the passing of seasons, in the face of what we cannot hold. The poems of David Cope bring us back to the core of civilization--that we are all a part of the walk through this world. Masks of Six Decades sifts through life with poems of beauty, sadness, joy, and anger. They come to us breathtaking in their wonder and vital in their humanity.

Works by David Cope

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