The debut collection by Emily Cooper opens on a potential slip, a dangerously formless ice-cream on the tarmac: somebody is going to get hurt. There’s no ownership here, no stasis, not of the physical sort – our narrator is a passer-by, a witness-but-not, and as such various lives and futures slip like sand through her hands.

she would never eat eels again      preferring

fish with less mud in their veins          fish that have never travelled        from the Sargasso sea

to die on the deck of her father’s boat           slammed hard against the wooden edge

— ‘Dinner with Raymona’

The collection questions what is lost by travel and what is gained – what is this life experience worth when we go back home again? What remains? The Sargasso sea mentioned above has no land boundaries; this is not a public pool where, when tired, you can cling to the sides. Once you’ve left you’ve left, and no amount of going back can strip that left-ness from you – you will die brittle (‘slammed hard’), like the glass of the title, as you try to unknow or at least conceal some of what you’ve learned. There’s a violence to this return.

In ‘Io at the Table’ restlessness is discussed – here being inflicted as punishment on the Io of the title. The name Io also evokes images of Jupiter’s innermost moon, itself a perpetual wanderer. The cause of the restlessness in the poem is a gadfly, significantly insignificant, accidental, much like the travel ‘bug’, which manifests subtly, growing to destroy.

But this is not a dismal collection, far from it:

I have always loved green/ perhaps for my eyes or perhaps for Ireland/ the Irish for green is glas/ on the cabinets in the British museum are signs/Do Not Lean on the Glass

— ‘Glass’

Glass equals green equals novice equals fragility equals nation equals home equals self equals artefact equals precious memory under glass equals collective memory equals story again …

it seems obvious, all these things are connected

— ‘Garlicking’

The collection takes us through the topographies in which our decisions land us and tries to construct a narrative from the fragments. Cooper has spoken in interviews about oral storytelling, and about the tradition of anecdote as a kind of self-building. This book seems to search for the house-stuff that can contain all the disparate selves we’ve half-made (there’s a through-thread in the book of not-quite-being, not-quite-seeing, the heightened awareness of lived moments being future memories – a side effect of our image-heavy culture, of our parallel digital and in-real-life existence, of our instant gratifications and rote multi-tasking).

Cooper juxtaposes the never-anywhere-enough of experiences in the world at large with the brief comfort provided by the interior spaces of the homes to which we are introduced. We feel the safety conveyed by these ramshackle nests, and the quick attachment to any home, however temporary, willing to bear the name. The homes in this collection carry with them hierarchy, inheritance, fragility, maintenance, personal relationships – all the many complications of shelter.

I rummage through the photographs among the slides/ I have grown tired of inserting them in the machine

— ‘Glass’

This scene takes place in an attic, where we store the parts of the past we are attached to, the things we have collected or bought that we might yet need. It is tiring to process this past, to do things properly, to insert the slides in the machine. The past, like a house, requires perpetual maintenance, constant jogging, prompting, repairing.

last month they replaced the wooden stairs with sharp edged MDF ones/ it doesn’t matter what I say/ it keeps happening

— ‘Glass’

There is no control, like trying to bat away the gadflies, the restlessness. We shimmy in place. In ‘Bradycardic Response’ lack of control is explored further, as is managing expectations. Life appears where it is not expected. The hunter only hunts for the company of the other hunters. Death isn’t aimed for. And then, in the poem death is narrowly avoided, twice – rendering life inherently comical, despite the darkness.

Perhaps it was a lie

— ‘Incredible Things Do Happen’

But does it matter?

It makes a damn good story.

there are outhouses and courtyards I will never enter

— ‘Glass’

Yet so many we will  – and it’s a pleasure to walk through all these rooms and pass by these walls with Cooper. Past the caged owls, the chinchillas, the dogs in the master bedroom. I’d sleep on the hay in the stable, or under the stars by the campfire, listening to these blazing thoughts.

The dust is free! Laughs the woman-in-the-reflective-vest

— ‘Glass’

And so are we, is perhaps the take-home. Losing, gaining, fixing-up, making do, changing course. And although the personal changes that occur with travel may pack with them certain difficulties when we leave our places of birth, “incredible things do happen” as one of the final poems reminds us. We grow, learn, adapt to the adapting situation. Throughout these pages there are small victories, much wisdom, and plenty of humour:

Until I was an adult I always burnt the garlic

— ‘Garlicking’

Glass / Emily Cooper / Makina Books / 26 August 2021

Reviewed by Lydia Unsworth