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To all who gamble effort for a goal
The odds are always astronomical.  (“Wasson’s Bluff” 9)


Echoing in the final lines of “Ballade of Opportunity” is the earlier poem “Art,” which describes all poetry as simulacra, a pale comparison of the real thing:

Light bird of life
your death is sealed
even as we glimpse
the form revealed:

Strong though you soar,
marble, notes, words
kill the brave flight
with static swords.(32)

The discrepancy between the life of words and their ultimate failure brings us to the centre of Cogswell’s aesthetic. He was never certain of anything but groping in the dark, which is precisely why he speaks to us so deeply. The ending of his poem “Lines for a Last Judgement” enunciates that uncertainty: “Though never sure what was false, what was true, / He always tried to act as if he knew” (25).

Those lines seem less a confession of ego than a statement of effort, the expenditure of energy always essential in taking the measure of a man. It is the same, Cogswell reminds us, for most artists: “better,” that is, “to be a well-placed / candle / than a blazing sun” (“For an Artist” 217).

Though reviewers will continue to insist on wattage, Cogswell’s openness to more diminutive equivalencies pioneered new approaches to poetic attentiveness, particularly on the east coast. With no desire to lead a movement, he nevertheless plowed the soil for what would become a poetics of alterity practiced by later Maritime poets such as M. Travis Lane, Don Domanski, Harry Thurston, John Steffler, and Brian Bartlett. Arrived at through his reading of Lao Tsu and George MacDonald, and via his later meditations on the complementarity of energy and ecology, Cogswell’s poetics of alterity focussed on processes that treated humans not as centres or material reserve, the usual designations of the Western ego, but as constituent pulses of much broader energies in the biosphere. Theorists of eco-poetics now express views consistent with this. Akira Mizuta Lippit, for example, contends that “even as each individual organism perishes it is immediately replaced by another from among the multiplicity that constitutes it” (133), a view closely aligned with Cogswell’s vision of “cliff, waves, / Sun, sky, [and] gull wings one instant fused in me” (“The Beach at Noon” 9). Writing of the new field of critical animal studies, Tammy Armstrong observes that a poet’s focus on this sort of diminution into hybridity “collapses the space between species” as surely as it elevates the larger biosphere to the status that human egos obscure (16). “As the poet moves from predator to loam,” Armstrong continues, “he slips closer ... to the multiplicity of organisms that inhabit the soil and leaf fall,” thus “crossing into a metaphorical ecotone” where new possibilities of life, and alternatives to logocentrism, abound (20). Acceptance of this contemporary view avows a larger and more charitable democracy, and represents the kind of radical epistemology that Cogswell brought to Maritime literature. In their insistence on high wattage and intolerance of dated forms, few critics have understood this. To Cogswell, then, must go the last word:

What matters is what I have done,
Not whether folk praise me or weep.
I want to die with my boots on
And not slip away in my sleep.

Earth, I have always made my prayer
With knowledge I was only one.
What others did was their affair;
I had to trust them and be done.  (“Earth, I Have Always Made My Prayer” 7)


Next: III: Poems: Selected Poems