by Mark Cox
Serving House Books, $14.95, paperback, 165 pp.
Sorrow Bread is a collection of some of Cox’s most emblematic poems from the past few decades, mixed in with around twenty or so new poems. Interestingly, the poems are not organized chronologically, so that a reader deeply familiar with Cox’s body of work will experience each poem in a unique context, deliberately oriented in conversation with the poems around it. And to someone who has never read a Mark Cox poem, the collection presents itself in a way that tracks the development of a keen poetic eye through the various material circumstances of an interestingly lived life.
Cox writes poems with subjects that don’t usually stray far from the objects and actions of daily life. Much like people in “real life,” Cox’s speakers often find their activities centered around work, food, travel, waking up, and sitting on porches; but in every case, Cox’s poetic persistence transforms the coins in his pockets into glittering discoveries. Again and again, Cox finds poetry of what may have otherwise remained mundane facts of life. One gets the sense, reading Cox’s work that the truths offered up to the reader could have just as easily been missed. In many cases, it is the poet’s discerning eye and obsessive attention to detail that allow us to see the poetry that exists everywhere around us, gumming up our minivan cup holders and sometimes clogging our toilets. For Cox, the location of poetry is nowhere else if not where we are. In dealing with the stuff of our lives, we deal also with life’s questions and answers.
The key, always, is that we pay attention; and for an introductory course on paying attention we need look no further than Cox’s body of work, which is full of the kinds of worldly details people miss when looking at their lives. There are many numbers in these poems, exact numbers that tell us the distance someone traveled or the amount of time someone spent waiting, and whenever there are words, they are trying always to name things with equal precision and exactitude. For Cox, a hand is not just a hand, but it has “the number for the ATM fading on its palm;” an ex-wife can be found by the sound of her vacuuming; and hatred isn’t allowed to exist without us seeing it as “it fills hanged purses in closets.” Like the speaker in “The Pole,” who finds himself lost in a sea of white looking for an invisible magnetic point, Cox keeps his eyes open and brings to us the details and clues that might save us.
In addition to this love of detail, a reader of Mark Cox’s work will find the voice of an intellectual wit, as well as the voice of emotional depth. Cox handles grave encounters with humor, and he handles slight occasions with severity. He finds those important moments of our lives and shows us the parts we missed. At times, it seems as though decades have passed and been lived, that one line of Cox’s poetry could find itself. As he writes in “the Compass,” “Fifteen years funneled to this five minutes, the way, sometimes, when it first rains, the first drop carries the whole sky in it.”
Looking up from a page in Sorrow Bread, one will inevitably find a world that wants badly to be noticed. For some poets, private subject matter either stops readers from experiencing the poems or leaves readers feeling woefully humdrum – like the material of their own lives is too common and unaesthetic to remark upon. Cox’s work, however, is altogether different. The privacy of his subject matter is always a byproduct of the poet’s attempt to speak authentically and convincingly about the material realities around him. In the introduction to Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer Poems, we learn about the real life person on which the Mad Farmer persona is likely based. The Mad Farmer is the type of person who will take up painting and answer snappily when people from town come around to buy his work, that if they like his art so much they should make their own. In the best possible way, I want to say, finally, that the experience of reading Sorrow Bread is like that. Having read Cox’s aesthetic accounts of reality, the reader is finally encouraged to view the events of his/her own life as something worth writing down or hanging on a wall, if only he/she take the time to pay attention.