Méira Cook’s third book of poetry contains a long poem composed of seven interlocking sections. Multiple characters emerge, recede, and are created, for the most part, by writing each other into existence.
The arresting first section, which bears the collection’s title, portrays the wanderings of Cook’s flâneur, a young woman called Mia. It also introduces Mia’s creator, “the old poet” Kulperstein, whose true identity is never revealed, despite being a central figure throughout most of the book. From the start, Cook resists satisfying expectations: the city her characters inhabit never comes into focus, but could be any cold and lonely metropolis.
Untethered to any actual place, Cook’s urban exiles loiter in various unsettling and anxiety-ridden inner landscapes: “One day / mid-winters she a fist, pocket- / deep. Pulls out, frail & brown, / blown, the corpse of a thought / lost months ago / buzz / buzz.” The echoes of Eliot’s “Prufrock” are made more explicit in the book’s final poem: “Let us go then, gentle one, you and I, / into this wood of our shared delusion …”
Cook’s highly imaginative and strikingly original images, along with her obvious delight in wordplay, shine brightest in the earlier sections. As the book moves on, the storyline begins to double back on itself and threatens to confound the reader. A new poet figure, Felix Kaye, the ostensible author of the book’s fourth section, is introduced via a mock publisher’s note. Later, we learn that Kulperstein may in fact be a figure from Kaye’s poetry, which in turn has been compiled by Em Cook, earlier referred to as an exotic dancer.
Line by line, Cook’s poetry is unfailingly good, but attempting to follow the overarching narrative – if there really is one – could leave readers as confused and directionless as the book’s characters. Rather than risking the attempt, A Walker in the City might best be approached as a collection of stand-alone poems.