Pick-a-Poem: “Cook”


Welcome, blog readers, to another featured poem. As always, this poem has come from Poetry Daily, which has plenty of poems to satisfy all your poetry needs. This week we feature a poem entitled Cook, by Albert Goldbarth. This is a prose poem, so there’s lots of text to read through, but there are some truly amazing lines in here.

According to his page on Poets.org, Albert Goldbarth is from right here in Chicago and has been in the world of poetry for about thirty years. His collections of poetry include Coprolites and Opticks (1974), Popular Culture (1990), Saving Lives (2001), and To Be Read in 500 Years: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009). His work has been featured in numerous anthologies, including The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1985). He is Adele Davis Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wichita State University, where he has taught since 1987. 

Cook, by Albert Goldbarth

On the only inhabited isthmus of the planet Doppel-2,
the Earth-sim natives practice a psychologically complex
system of gift-expression based on their oldest myths
(or, from a different approach, the myths are based
on the preexisting psychology). Exchange of equivalent gifts
asserts a “rightness” in the universe—their word is an ascending
and then a descending whistle, in balance, and means … well,
“balance.” But anybody who provides a gift
inferior to the one that he’s received is promptly
ostracized; in certain cases, a beating is permitted
for a person who so jeopardizes “the order.” Even
worse is an ostentatious gift—there is no room for what
another culture might describe as “generosity”—and the recipient
of that gift then feels humiliated: suicide is honorably
acceptable; or, if the urge turns outward, equally
acceptable is the death of the offending gift-giver.

*   *   *

1798, on the deck of the Resolution.
Captain James Cook deeply inhales breeze as if
his nostrils are two instruments that the Royal Academy’s naturalists
invented especially for scenting land. Indeed, in one more day
he’ll discover Hawaii. In exchange for beads and mirrors
and a walnut cracker, he’ll be given a chieftain’s helmet
—crested with a majestically tall, thick arch—
that’s covered in fully 10,000 coral-red and saffron-yellow feathers
from the honeycreeper and honeyeater birds: that
would require about 2,500 individual birds, and this
in a culture where those feathers are the equivalent
of European gold. It’s a helmet in which one speaks
to the gods. Cook and his men are feted, entertained
with music and erotically bobbing hips. Is this the story
that our science fiction novelist is telling, in covert form?
The story of Cook. The story of you; of me; of everybody’s
good intentions come to bad ends. No one knows precisely why,
when Cook returned the following year, he was taken
and killed along the sands of a bay, his body “dismembered
and distributed, piece by piece, among the Hawaiian chieftains
across the whole island.” Presumably it made sense
to the participants. Presumably some code of honor
or retribution or we-don’t-have-a-name-for-it
was thus fulfilled.
The Intergalactic Survey Coalition feels
munificent, that first day, having received a smatter
of wilting alien plants and crudely painted alien pebbles, but having
given the village a huge machine, with renewable fuel,
for filtering salt from their ocean water. And that night
seven village elders kill themselves by hanging.

*   *   *

And time goes on, and their internet romance goes on
and on … and now she’s visiting him! The clement sky
was the blue of her high school prom dress, and the plane flew
like an effortless tug on a zipper pull, and here she is
at luggage carousel 2, and soon her chartreuse bag
with the clothes and makeup and b.c. pills is lifted off
that endless universal loop, and here’s the giant carton
for him—a set of thirty leatherbound volumes,
Tales of the World’s Great Chefs, he’ll love it, he’s a cook
at a ritzy Chicago bistro—but this requires a porter
and a dolly: as she waits, she idly watches the crowd,
the man in a turban she thinks resembles the swirls
of a soft-serve ice cream, and the family of seven laboring
under their loads of anthropomorphic citizenry from Disney World,
and the woman whose dashiki pattern is so
ooh-where-did-you-FIND-that … all these lives, all this immense
unfathomability! Now she’s in the taxi. And despite
these honk-smog urban streets, this is what it’s like
in her mind: he’s waiting for her on the shore
of a tropical beach, he’s excitedly scanning the Pacific, with a lush,
exotic bouquet in his arms, and the beautiful
saffron-yellow and coral birds of the island
pinwheel in the air around him, and wait for her too.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem. For more of these, check out the archives.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan


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