Poet poses provocative and evocative questions

April 7, 2014 8:45 AM

Benjamin Morris

Peter Cooley

English professor Peter Cooley has published his ninth collection of poetry, in which he ponders existence, mortality, faith and the divine. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

“Look, poems don’t have truths or messages,” Peter Cooley writes in his new poetry collection, Night Bus to the Afterlife. “They’re like the orange I ate before I jogged, / delicious architecture’s sprung arches / embarrassing my chin with plenitude.”

Such an image is characteristic of Cooley’s work. Cooley, a professor of English at Tulane University, speaks as well as writes in metaphors. Describing how the collection — his ninth — arose, he explains: “A little seed fell onto the ground, and grew. Then another seed fell, and it grew. Then another. Soon I could see there was a flowerbed. Then I saw trees, and a forest beyond the trees. Looking at them together, I thought, let’s make a book.” 

The book that emerged addresses a range of topics, opening with a sequence written in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Those poems, Cooley says, reflect the need to address that the storm “still hasn’t gone away — that poetry keeps people awake to the fact that it could happen again.”

But it is for even larger questions that the book reserves most of its attention: questions of existence, mortality, faith and the divine, which Cooley calls “an ineffable mystery — which is the most interesting thing about it.” 

The poems adopt varying stances toward the divine, from conversation, to invocation, to supplication; some even recall forms of direct prayer, such as “Poem Written On My Knees.” 

Far from being grim, however, the poems in Night Bus to the Afterlife that deal with its titular subject are, by and large, inquisitive, even hopeful about the possibilities of language.

“Poems choose us; we don’t choose them,” Cooley says. “And if I’ve learned anything in writing this collection, it’s how much we don’t know. And how that is the most important, and exciting, realization of all.”

Benjamin Morris is a freelance writer for the Department of Development Communications at Tulane.

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