Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
“Shadow of the Trees” is now our highest-rated poetry book ever! And it's for good reason. This poetry book brings poetry back to the basics, back to the heart and soul of what made poetry so appealing to begin with: the rhythm, the beats, the cryptic stories, and the feels.
Poetry seems to have taken the same sharp left-turn that the rest of art has. A working golden toilet served as a mockery to high art in 2011. Paint thrown at a canvas is now considered “imaginative and creative.” Likewise, “poetry” seems to just have become the medium of those who write crappy prose. Poetry is not a medium to fall back on if you stink at grammar and spelling and just need an excuse for that. We see that too much in other contests, and it disgusts us. Poetry should be beautiful and artistic. Poetry should be rich and substantive. Poetry isn't taking prose and turning it into calligraphy, cuneiform, or kanji. It's also not your depository for complaints and junk. Author/poet Michael Cook really gets that. Or, we should say, he got it while he was writing these poems back in the 1990s.
Every single one of these poems is tight, well-structured, and maintains a definitive rhythm. And, perhaps more importantly, these poems “say” something beyond the words themselves.
Let's start with the poem “Holocaust of Reason.” It is an unrelenting assault of a poem with the persistent use of the “an”/”on” sound while pounding with aggressive words and imagery like blood and floods, reason and treason, death and earth. The poem has multiple interpretations, but one of our favorites is that despite humanity's progress through multiple generations, there are still unanswered or unanswerable questions such as: Why do certain people suffer and die? What happens when we die? Do we have an actual, verifiable purpose on this Earth? Why, despite our growing prosperity, is there so much starvation and poverty?
These questions seem to reverberate throughout the course of this book, giving it a very consistent existential theme.
Something you'll notice about this book is that when Michael Cook decides on a rhyme, meter, or line scheme, he sticks to it with religious fervor, very rarely deviating into single lines for emphasis like in the poem “Wrapped Funeral Amazement” when he sprouts “Save Me!” and “Will you survive?”
This book is rich with quatrains. We've got ourselves a modern-day Nostradamus! The easiest rhymes to pull off are generally end-rhymes, and Cook does indeed use end rhymes a lot, but he also shows a great deal of proficiency in just latching on to certain sounds in words. For example, in “White Rails of Hope,” the poet clings onto the “O” sound in words like hope and know. In “Lament,” the poet clings to the “E” sound in words like “sealed” and “revealed.”
Our absolute favorite rhyme in this book took the phrase “summer's mist” and married it with “inquiries of an anarchist.” That stanza is arguably our favorite in the entire book as well, because there's a high degree of mystery, intrigue, and emotion in it. Let's just present it really quickly:
“The gentle breeze of a summer's mist,
inquiries of an anarchist.
Floating pollen populate the air
People yelling that life's unfair.”
The first line gives you a false sense of comfort and security that is quickly shaken by line two. It's like the rug has been pulled out from under you. The poet then returns to the natural imagery, but then brings it back to humanity in crisis. And there seems to be a great deal of crises in this poem. “Life's unfair” is something that a petulant young person might say, and is generally a pretty cliché phrase in poetry or prose. However, in this context, it is teamed with words like “anarchist” and “populate.” So, this gives us the sense that there's something else going on: a movement, a protest, a struggle, a battle, a war of some sort. At the end of this poem, there are dead bodies decaying and man is said—either figuratively or literally—to have gone extinct.
And by the way, how about considering that impressive use of alliteration and the O's in “Floating pollen populate?”
Another poem we'd like to focus on is “Wounded Sky.” This is one of the shortest poems with some of the shortest lines in the book, but the beat is so distinct and catchy that we couldn't help but mention it. It sounds a lot like “Who We Be” by DMX, and we wouldn't be surprised if the poet hadn't heard the song around the time that he wrote “Wounded Sky.” The lyrics are 100% completely different, but the beat is similar.
Duh duh. Duh duh.
Duh duh. Duh duh.
Duh duh. Duh duh.
Duh duh. Duh duh.
Probably the wildest and craziest poem in this book is “The Children.” What in the heck is up with this poem? It is so dark and so chilling, filled with mystery. The poem starts sing-songy like a nursery rhyme, playing on the popular line “I pray the Lord my soul to keep” but instead makes it critical and skeptical of religion rather than endearing to it. The poet questions God about why he is able to eat while children in third-world countries starve, and then he drops an absolute bombshell on us by declaring that he has cancer.
Wow! What does that tell us? It really depends on how you choose to interpret that, but to us, it meant that misfortune follows everyone in various ways, not always so obvious. The rich and the middle-class develop addictions to things like amphetamines, for example, and sometimes have further to fall. Trauma touches human lives in different ways. Some absolutely horrific stuff happen near the middle and end of this poem including the tragic victimization of a powerful man's daughter, a judge being brutally attacked, and young people being sentenced to death by electric chair. Even the description of the young man's pre-execution state is visceral. He feels “naked” without his hair (because it has been shaven as part of the execution process). The description of “burnt flesh” permeating the air is surreal.
Also in this book are some heartfelt love poems from a time in the poet's life when he was wrestling with those feelings of infatuation.
All in all, this is an outstanding poetry book!
Check it out on Amazon!