Reviewed Book: Making Music by Sally Cook, White Violet Press, 2012

by Monika Cooper

Making Music by Sally Cook is a book that comes with a painting on its cover, a still life no less. Wine-colored drapery adorns a blue bowl with a pedestal stem, the bowl mounded with fruit: blackberries and strawberries nestled around oranges, their royal glow vanishing into luminous highlights. The fruit casts its halo onto the deep green background. Shapes are half-realized, there’s no trompe l’oeil polish here but more the feeling of a bas relief, of things partially emerged from the imagination into the shared space of the world. The painting is a luscious thing to look at and it was tricked from the brush of the poet herself.

Sally Cook is painter and poet and she titles this collection of her poems “Making Music.” One of the first things to notice about her work, noticed by many before me, is the synergy of various types of art at play in it, and the related synesthesia of the senses. Painting and poetry, music and gardening, flow around each other and interact in her creative world. You will find nectars and colors in this book, diatonics, modulations, accidentals.

Not only did Cook paint the still life on the cover of Making Music, she includes in the collection a poem “In Praise of Still Life”: a poem that defends a particular genre of art against its powerful and fashionable enemies. Still life loves flowers and fruit, of course, but also vegetables and insects, the whole rich world of natural particulars that begs arrangement by the human hand into something beyond nature. The art departments of the world “Forget the breadth and majesty / Of each tomato, pear, and bee.” Cook’s poems often show the specific instances of beauty she defends in the terrible process of being forgotten, cursed, mocked, heartlessly imitated, or thrown onto the dung heap of contemporary scorn. Hers is an embattled poetry and aesthetic.

In “In Praise of Still Life,” the runners of the show shrug at “buzzing round a bowl of fruit”—a line that deftly captures both their scorn and the total magic of a painting so alive (whether realistic or stylized like the book’s cover picture) that we hear it buzzing, with bees or flies, seen or unseen, with the faint hum that charges stillness when life is present in it. The “cold, ironic, sneering” critics of the pictorial music they can’t appreciate “miss the revolutionary / In a bowl of ripe red cherries.” The “revolutionary” is what the academies look for in art. Why do they miss it in the still life? Is it their failure or is it because it isn’t there? The poem ends on that vibrating ambiguity. The underappreciated bowl of ripe red cherries is a good image for this whole volume of poetry. As you taste your way through it (and you can in its synesthetic universe), you never know what you’re going to get. The cherries of it have a sweet-sour dapple and no two taste alike. Does it include the revolutionary? Or should we even care, so long as we can savor the adazzle-dim of it?

It may or may not be revolutionary but, again, Sally Cook’s poetry is embattled. It’s embattled the way Shakespeare saw beauty embattled, “whose action is no stronger than a flower.” Cook celebrates poetic order against the scatological chaos of the art scene but she also pits it against a rigid, sterile, and soulless kind of order, represented in one poem by “grey clapboards in unbroken rows,” and “awful dragon’s teeth” (“Making All Things Orderly”). The order she carols proceeds in “strict procession, structured joy,” (rhyme and meter, poetically speaking) but is also soft and soulful, “swirled” (“Gardening”). In Cook’s poetry, flowers come to symbolize mocked and massacred but radiant, soulful, and miraculously resilient order. “Making All Things Orderly” is perhaps her most perfect expression of this symbol: sixteen lines, two rhyme-sounds, no repeats. She skip-ropes the whole so beautifully.


Stare at grey clapboards in unbroken rows
That seem to follow the unceasing sound
Of thrumming traffic, with no vibrant red
Or swaying leaves to soften sunlight’s blows.
Poems of air and chlorophyll’s repose
Have gone; the smallest traces can’t be found;
Destroyed as some fool’s sense of order fed
On massacre of hollyhock and rose.
For you and I know there are always those
Who come to slash and dig and curse the ground
Where fantasy has bloomed and plant instead
Their awful dragon’s teeth.  And I suppose
What grows from them is vigilant and toes
Its dull unthinking line, but pound for pound
Cannot compare to one small flower bed
Of buds, rough stalks, and silken furbelows.


Flowers embody the order and beauty Cook defends. But there is another layer to “Making Music”: the clinging to a particular beloved and individual note of beauty, in preference and contradistinction to other modes of beauty that may be just as objectively valid. “End of A Season” is a portrait of a mother: making a sharply individual “solstice offering” of “stark stems of thistle,” “a coat of silver paint upon their pods.” In the poem, the beauty of the thistle stalks must contend, not only with glossier, more conventional, kinds of decoration, but with shallow, fashion-dictated copies of itself. It triumphs. In Sally Cook’s poems, it triumphs. “End of A Season” speaks of a poet’s need to bear her witness to her individual vision through to the very end.

Some of the poems in this collection are portraits of women. And some of these women appear against the background of unsympathetic men. There is nothing overtly or conventionally feminist about Cook’s portrayal of the dynamic between the sexes but, through it, she brings the battle that pervades her book to focus in the human realm. In “The Woman Speaks,”, a woman’s love unexpectedly meets with “a freeze so sudden and opaque” from the man in her life that her very being seems to herself “silly,” recalling the kiss of death on the art critics’ lips from “In Praise of Still Life.” “A Second Wife Observes A Blue Moon” shows a woman suffering the cheapening effect of divorce culture: “She’s second, and she’s blue. What can it mean? / A second one of anything is less.” Not a happy ending: but place the poem in the larger context of Sally Cook’s work and you feel in the sad vibes of the lyric something uncannily lovely. (One of the unique notes in Sally Cook’s poetry is its intense awareness of the sheer mystery of blue in the universe.) In such poems as “A Second Wife Observes A Blue Moon,” “The Woman Speaks,” “Presentiment,” and “Time, Passing,” the aging and the feminine are shown as unjust targets of scorn. Advancing age finds it difficult not to despise itself, especially when it meets its own former attitudes to age. The feminine too finds it difficult not to despise itself, especially when it comes into conflict with the masculine and into contact with masculine scorn. But the feminine is worthy, stubbornly worthy, of honor and celebration after all. And so is the elder. Cook’s poetry repeatedly resists an inner and outer contempt for the feminine and the aging, resists the heartless and soulless “world” of the arts. It is Sally Cook contra mundum. And, as some saint has said, it’s not the world outside but the world within that gives us the most trouble.

“Berenice” is another portrait-poem in which, once again, the color blue enchants and mystifies. The woman in the poem is something of an American archetype, “a conscientious mother and a wife,” missing her chance at Europe but making beauty where she is. Her splendid laundry line and nasturtiums comprise a masterpiece of hidden art. This poem, especially, makes music in favor of the dreams, aspirations, and talents of the forgotten American woman, her reaches for beauty and greatness. It sings in favor of hidden art and of hidden art being recognized and appreciated. It champions all our inland, folk-modulated magnificats.

Is that “revolutionary”? I wouldn’t say so. But it sounds a bright clarion for an inner War of Independence, a war that Sally Cook, as a Daughter of the American Revolution and as a poet, wages and wins. Though an anguish in obscurity is palpable throughout the poems in this collection, that anguish is reconciled into an ever more determined will to beauty. “Reward is in the making of the net,” the spider reminds herself, beginning again on another of her “silver parchments” (“Why Spiders Weave”)..



NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

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16 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    This is one of the most beautiful reviews of a book I have ever seen. My mother was also a Daughter of the American Revolution and I can with hers and your streak of magnificent independence. I absolutely love the concept of a spider beginning a web again to build something beautiful which transcends the making of the web and instills the thought in all of us that we can begin again in life and make something beautiful again.

    • Sally Cook

      Roy, I concur… I am so grateful to Monika for her perceptive and well written review of my work… I also thank you for your kind comments.

  2. C.B. Anderson

    May God help that rare person who dares encapsulate Sally Cook’s poetry. Cook covers everything in the known and unknown universe. Unless you join her family, it’s impossible to understand the first thing she’s saying. Yet Monika Cooper is exactly that person who can, syntonically, capture the essence of Cook’s raptures. To both the reviewer and the reviewed I give my heartiest thanks.

    • Sally Cook

      Kip — so glad to know you enjoy both my work and Monika’s magnificent review of it !

  3. jd

    This excellent and very comprehensive review compels one to read Sally Cook’s book. A writer can’t ask for more than that.

    • Sally Cook

      Dear JD –

      Hope you enjoy “Making Music.” I am over the moon about Monika Cooper’s reviewing skills.

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This wonderful review captures the essence of the accomplished Sally Cook’s work beautifully.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Sally Cook’s work, both as a painter and a poet, has a polished authenticity and vigor that would be very hard to match in either field. I have followed her work for nearly thirty years now, and although we have never met in the flesh, I feel that I know her personality and history as thoroughly as one might know that of any intimate friend of long standing.

    I’m glad to read this perceptive and appreciative review.

    • Sally Cook

      Joe, you can’t imagine what this review means to me , especially at this particuloar time. But I would be where I am today if not for your kind help. Thanks to you for your guidance over the years. If we live long enough, we even get the chance to meet !

  6. Sally Cook

    Monika, many thanks for your very professional review of my book. You no doubt have plenty of editors beating your door down !

    It seems such a long time between the appearance of those few who come along who understand and respect my unique position in the cultural world, I know full well I stand outside the norm; but you are willing to probe to find the reasons for it! Thanks for choosing to review “Making Music”

    You are a fine writer, and a sure winner. I am looking forward to seeing more of your work. Thanks for

  7. Monika Cooper

    Thank you all for your encouraging comments. It’s an honor to be among you. And Making Music is a marvelous book.

  8. AB Brown

    This is the best analysis of Sally’s poetry that I have read. I like the perceptive phrase ‘anguish in obscurity’ – always a faint feeling for those as superlatively talented as her. Hopefully, though, this review places Sally one step closer towards a much-deserved widespread recognition as one of the foremost poets of our time. Hats off to the reviewer as well. It is relatively rare to encounter a gifted poet who is also highly adept at honestly analyzing the work of fellow poets. You join the likes of Coats, Salemi, and Sale on the site in that regard. Thank you, Monika.

    • Monika Cooper

      Thank you for your kind words, Andrew. Placing “Sally one step closer toward a much-deserved widespread recognition” is one of the main things I hoped my review would do. I highly respect the poetic/analytic talents of Coats, Salemi, and Sale as well! Interpreting poetry is a different gift from writing it but related.


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