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David Cope's latest 'American Elegy': The Invisible Keys

Former G.R. Poet Laureate David Cope will read from his just-released retrospective "The Invisible Keys, New and Selected Poems" on March 29 at the Kentwood Library and April 12 at Grand Rapids Community College.
David Cope

David Cope /Photo by William Cope

Upcoming Readings: "The Invisible Keys"

The Invisible Keys, New and Selected Poems from Ghost Pony Press, will be available for $16.00 at the following events:

Thurs., March 29 – 6:30-8:30pm – Meet the Poet: David Cope at Kentwood Library

Thurs., April 12 – 7:00-8:30pm – David Cope: Reading & Book Signing, Grand Rapids Community College, 2nd Floor, GRCC Library

Catch David Cope and area poets on Weds. April 11 – at Our Children’s Future a festival event at Wealthy Theatre, organized by the G.R. chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). Poetry Reading at 8:00-9:45pm in the Micro-Cinema.

The Invisible Keys, Cover Art by John Woods, CWL Publishing. Detail from untitled painting by W.D. Markhardt.

The Invisible Keys, Cover Art by John Woods, CWL Publishing. Detail from untitled painting by W.D. Markhardt. /Ghost Pony Press.

So, what’s in a retrospective collection of poems spanning 1975 to 2017?

“My whole life,” says David Cope, former G.R. Poet Laureate and Grand Rapids Community College Professor. There are poems about workers and the union, protest poems about war and environmental destruction. “Always war,” Cope says. “Every war America has been involved in during my lifetime.” But there are also poems about love, family, and a deep connection with the natural world.

“I like to work with juxtaposition,” Cope says, “the presence of what’s happening on one level, the main subject, with the world going on around it.”

Juxtaposition is deliberate and ironic in the poem, “AP Wire Story: ‘Janitors at Risk.’” Cope spent nineteen combined years working at a local factory, as a school custodian, and eventually, as Head Custodian at Grand Rapids Community College, where he taught his first classes as an adjunct instructor while supervising a crew of janitors.

In the poem, a janitor breathes and handles daily, chemicals and pollutants that rile an auditorium full of environmental advocates. “For years I breathed spray paint, toluol, methanol”…“inhaled chlordane, wood dust, germicide …“Today, meetings to save the planet / fill auditoria as janitors wheel chemicals for the / air conditioning right past / the door where / the speakers have worked themselves into a righteous frenzy!”

Looking back on his time as GRCC’s Head Custodian, Cope smiles and says he’s proud of the college’s recycling system that he pushed for and saw into being.

Cope isn’t new to publishing. The Invisible Keys from Ghost Pony Press is his seventh book. “I’m at that point where I’m trying to figure out what my legacy is,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about the masks we wear and the wisdom that has us taking them off.”

Many of his poems hold up the birth of a child, the death of a friend or parent, the presence of a river or a dune bluff, suspending moments of deep connection so we, too, can take pause.

In the collection’s namesake poem, “The Invisible Keys,” Cope memorializes a musician who dies alone, his landlord left to arrange his funeral. The oddity of a man who once entertained thousands, his music moving their bodies and their spirits, dying alone and undiscovered until “3 days not answering his bell,” works on the poet as the poet works against the erasure of a problematic man. “Somewhere that old tune’s floating up / in a dingy hallway / one bare bulb hanging”…”& those keys’re / rolling, waves under fast fingers –“…”& she’ll remember an embrace”…”wipe her eyes / & fix her hair, who knows who / might turn up today, toes still tapping to that old song.”

In “The Train: Howl in Chicago” Cope’s tendency to juxtapose work, family, love with larger social and political issues comes full circle.

On the surface the poem is an elegy to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” to Ginsberg’s mentoring and friendship during Cope’s years at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where terms such as ‘EcoPoetics’ came into being and Cope helped draft a 1990 ecologically-inspired “Declaration of Interdependence.”

But “The Train: Howl in Chicago” is also a closer-in study of a poet traveling by train to help his daughter, a teacher, teach Ginsberg’s “Howl” to a group of Chicago high schoolers.

Former students of David Cope know him as a mentor and arts advocate. Cope has nurtured many to the Dyer Ives stage (a Kent County poetry competition) and he regularly publishes new voices alongside poets of national reputation in Big Scream, the journal he has published for over forty years.

The questions of Cope the mentor, as he rides the train to Chicago, will resonate with many: “guessing if the great poem might speak to them in their teenage skins, so many nightmares gone down the mad sewer since”…”today too is a howling time.”

And so, with his unique way of capturing moments that are both close-in and turned-out, David Cope’s legacy, it seems, is a particular form of elegy that could be called an ‘American elegy’ – not easy or sentimental, but adept at juxtaposing recognizable moments of love, anger, fear with a faith that holding these moments takes work, but we’ll be better for it.

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