My World and Words - Jonathan Cooper

Why write poetry?
 My answer to this question has communal and personal dimensions. I write poetry to better understand and exegete human experiences—both my own, and others. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I write because I have to write. Though sometimes pushed by family and job commitments to snatches of time in the early morning, writing and reading poetry have become an (almost) daily part of my life. Poetry helps me to stay in the moment, to relate more fully to myself and others. This was all encapsulated by an experience I had this Fall. In October, I was in my office in my office (in Vancouver, Canada) and I received an email informing me that a small poem I had published the previous Winter, entitled ‘Two Hills’, would be featured in a public art installation. Both the journal in which the poem was published (Cirque) and the installation are in Alaska. A few days later, the editor sent photos: Fall’s yellow leaves sprinkled across a gravel path, angled panels of art and poetry in the sun, looking out on a broad turn of the Kenai River.

‘Two Hills’ is about Burundi. In November of 2009, I travelled through Central Africa with three friends. On our second day in Burundi, we accompanied local aid workers to a hilltop village outside of the market town of Kyanza. We arrived mid-morning, and stopped our trucks on a red patch of earth which the rain had rivered into a thousand little ruts. I climbed out, and before I had time to put on my hat we were surrounded by children. They hovered six feet away, quiet and watchful. From the trucks we pulled two little goats, brought as part of an ongoing food security program. The villagers had built an enclosure out of fallen branches, and some women and elderly people waited for us beside it. I saw no adult males in the village: some were in the fields, but AIDS, a long civil war, and the search for work in larger cities had stripped many from the rural population. As we placed the goats in the enclosure, the children ranged themselves under an Acacia tree and started to sing—achoir of rags and distended tummies. My chest tightened and I had a hard time getting air past the top of my throat. I drifted towards a thin stand of trees, felt rain drops on my neck, and realized, belatedly, that someone was following me. To quote from the poem:

And beside me, a boy—filthy
blue sweatshirt full of holes, pointed
low slung stomach pregnant out over knobby knees, and a placid gaze which followed mine
but could not see as far.

After we got back into the trucks, I was silent for a long time. I sat in the back seat with my hands folded in my lap, and stared at the patchwork cultivation that ran from the edge of the road up and over every inch of the countryside. It has always bothered me that I didn’t learn that boy’s name; I realise that my thoughts, my words, the small amounts of money I’ve sent back—these are shabby offerings to a place flooded with starving children. But poetry gave me a medium to share part of theirstory with others, a means of respectful commemoration.


A village in Burundi; my baby daughter’s hand on my chest as we watch a silent street at 5 a.m.; the angled afternoon sun on the Cathedral across from my office: poetry has the power to capture a moment, to describe it in a way that is more complete than the words themselves. Indian poet Sanchita Chatterjee ably demonstrates this power in one of the finest short poems I have encountered,

‘The Rain’:

Stepping out in the rain,
she surmised
she’d be soaked-
it was a pleasant
when her nagging
about everything-
got washed away.

(published in The Commonline Journal, March 2016)

In conclusion, I would like to share two more of my own poems, as further illustrations of how and why I write. The first is ‘Hospital Garden’, a poem about silence. On a hospital ward—and in so many other places—silence is more compelling, more fraught, than anything else.

Hospital Garden

silence stretches out from an empty bed
through a blank window

and arched itself over
the small, green, hospital garden.

(first published in Poetry Pacific, Spring 2016)

The second poem, ‘Germaine M.’, depicts a funeral in DR Congo which I witnessed and in which, to a certain extent, I also participated. I consider it in the same poetic ‘family’ as Two Hills. It strives to present, respectfully, a human experience: in its reality, but also some elements of its greater—even metaphysical—significance.

Germaine M.

The small crowd clumped together under
too few umbrellas,  and some ways back I watched from the shelter of a thorn tree.
Sounds of singing carried through the rain—down the craggy landscape of dirty tombstones and black lava rock. Down to the shoulder of the road, where our little line of trucks and SUV’s wallowed in the mud.

Earlier that day at the border, I thumbed
my damp passport beside a rusted iron shack. My town-doctor host welcomed
me with the antiphon, ‘we are going to a funeral’.
The Land Cruiser rattled over potholes, and the doctor explained: ‘She was our cook,
the wife of a truck driver. He died first—AIDS.’

The priest’s arrival pushed me out from the tree,
out under Lake Kivu’s clouds. The
rain quickly blackened the brown shoulders of my coat. Forty feet off to the side, grave
digger boys leaned on long-handled shovels,
cackled and shoved each other as beads
of water coursed over their bare heads.

Picking my way carefully in amongst the mourners, I saw the coffin, unvarnished wood
already lowered into the black earth. And
the priest—fingering his prayers on sodden
pieces of paper—waited, because the women
were not yet done with their song.

(first published in Houseboat Literary Journal, April 2016)

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