By cccook

In Case You Missed It: Thanks Jonathan and Cathy

Posted by Small Press Traffic


Cathy Cook’s documentary film, Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker opens with a drive to Black Hawk Island in the dark rural night. And so begins Cook’s journey through fields of Niedecker’s poetics, environment, and personal life. What was, for Cook, to initially be a few minutes of film, resulted in a six-year, 72 minute documentary (and aren’t we grateful!).

The narrative begins in a loose chronology of Niedecker’s life that tightens as it moves forward in time-space. Voices describing Niedecker’s “sparse” childhood on the remote island accompany sounds of splashing carp and the text of her early poems scrolling up-screen.

The film collages voices from a variety of interviews (from members of Niedecker’s local community, her family, the geographically dispersed poetry community, etc.) to piece together a narrative of Neidecker’s life. The voices are never identified, and their corresponding faces are left out of the film, yet “who is speaking” is of little significance to the narrative. Voices of “others” do not overshadow Niedecker’s life; rather, they speak with it—a life in poetics that is just recently receiving the attention it deserves, and the audience who needs it. Like a poem may, the film collages voices to tell a story:

“Lorine was famous.”

“Lorine, who are you?”

“I always thought of a wren. She had a lot of brown things. Brown and blue.”

“Then came the winter of ’54, and we wondered why she never had any heat in the house.”

“When it came to cooking, she was a blank slate…She ate words.”

“You can’t separate her from her place.”

These voices are transposed on the environs of the Wisconsin land/waterscape; the camera tracks movement of light over milkweed silk, cottontails, red dogwood branches, irises, forest fungi, ice fishing holes, etc. This visual narrative is never steady – it operates in a current of motion, disjuncting space and mashing together scenes.

Gaps in dialogue are filled with instrumental music. Mechanical in essence, these sounds exists in relation (at times juxtaposition, at times resonance) with the cacophony of sounds on the island: loon song, Canadian geese calls, cicadas, frogs, insects, lapping water, flapping great blue heron wings, an apple cider crank, etc.

In the film, as with Niedecker’s poems, the visual is dependent on the sonic—no sound is ambient. Both artists’ material arrives from a meditation with place.

And then there are the poems!

Cook intersperses Niedecker’s poems within the visual-vocal dialogue: a poem featuring beer can litter is transposed on an actual beer can litter, the text of a poem appears and then dissolves down a bathtub drain, a poem wavers with the lily pads on the surface of Lake Koshkonog. Above a field of sunflowers:

Along the river
wild sunflowers
over my head
the dead
who gave me life
give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend

Presenting poetry in a film creates the fact of its textual disappearance. Cook uses short poems and extracts from longer work to negotiate the challenge and limitations of the screen. She also layers the poem’s presence once it has left the screen, by installing visual resonances that flicker in the moments following the poem’s passing out of sight.

Cook also includes excerpts from Niedecker’s journals and letters:
“I conceive of poetry as the folktales of the mind and us creating our own memory.”
“Believing as I do poetry comes from the folk if it is to be vital or original.”
And: “Condense…condense…condense.”

The film is a story of it own making – of Cook’s numerous trips to Wisconsin to wade through flooded Black Hawk Island, to wheel open the library shelves that store Niedecker’s archives, to conduct interviews, and to peel away at the layers of Niedecker’s life. A life, as the film highlights, lived largely in necessity and in water. However, Cook works to highlight Niedecker’s connection the (then) contemporary poetry scene, and her correspondences with CidCorman, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, Jonathan Williams etc. Cook recreates Niedecker’s “immortal cupboard” of books, down to the exact editions, including works by John Muir, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, Lucretius, and haiku collections.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great song wrote and preformed by Jen Benka (also a Wisconsin native), which anchors the film’s opening and rest. The piece was written before the film was conceived, and it haunts landscape of the screen in its channeling of Niedecker: “You will never know me/ But someday you will hear me.”

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Small Press Traffic (SPT)


Poetry In Motion

Cathy Cook Frames Her Obsession With Poet Lorine Niedecker Onscreen

By Bret McCabe

IMMORTAL CUPBOARD: In Search Of Lorine Niedecker

In one of the numerous scenes of quiet grace that run through Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker, local filmmaker Cathy Cook turns to Niedecker’s own words to convey some aspect of the poet’s impressive mind. Niedecker–a little-known Wisconsin poet of elegant economy who died in 1970–lived alone for most of her life on Blackhawk Island, near Fort Atkinson, Wisc., in the southern central part of the state. Her poetry is a minimal monument to this area, capturing nature and seasons with an observant eye and breathless precision. Her work is impressive for how much she conveys with so few words, her stark choices so descriptively appropriate. It’s a gift that extended to her prodigious letter writing, as evidence in a short snippet that describes a letter that gives this impressionistic documentary its name.

“That was another Cid situation,” Cook says over brunch at a Hampden noshery, referring to the late poet Cid Corman who has always been influential in getting Niedecker’s work known. Trim and direct with reddish brown-framed glasses that almost match her reddish brown hair, Cook talks about Niedecker with a contagious enthusiasm. A Wisconsin native herself, Cook moved to Baltimore about three years ago to become an associate professor of film/video at University of Maryland, Baltimore County after a healthy careerin film/TV production in New York.

“That was in a letter to Cid,” she continues. “He had sent her the little book called For Instance, which I have a copy of. They’re Japanese bound on the outside. They’re beautiful. So when he sends her that little book, that was her response back. ‘You have sent me this precious book. You are now part of my immortal cupboard.’ Her immortal cupboard is where she kept all of her most favorite writings and authors. Poets and scientists were in that.”

Every writer maintains a mental reservoir that houses such precious things, but few can summon such a perfect receptacle of what has shaped your emotional and intellectual life as those two words. This passage is but one anecdote in the documentary, during which time Cook includes images of bookshelves and a label being made that reads immortal cupboard to identify the shelves. It’s a brief glimpse into Niedecker’s mental world that Cook chooses to dramatize obliquely, a strategy that powers this refreshingly different version of a biopic.

It all started when a friend gave her a copy of a Corman-edited anthology of Niedecker poetry called The Granite Pail. “I got this book of poetry, and I didn’t put it down,” Cook says. “I shared so much of what she was writing about. My life or my observations as an artist seemed to parallel what she was observing, and my interests paralleled hers, and it was about how she observed things.”

Cook has always been attracted to poetry as a filmmaker, and she responded to Niedecker’s works in kind. “I wanted to get as much [as I could] of my first response to her poetry, visually,” she says. “Whatever tapped into me visually, which is almost automatic, I just said I’m going to go shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, and then figure out how to construct it.”

What she envisioned at first was a short piece using Niedecker’s poetry as a guiding inspiration. “I thought I was making a half-hour film,” Cook says. “And I responded to her work and I kept responding to it and responding to it. And then I started putting in an actress. And then I started putting in poetry. And then I started putting in some stories. And then I said, ‘Well, I might as well go all the way and try to combine all three of those things together.’ So it’s not necessarily a documentary, not necessarily a biography, not necessarily a total response experimental film, but a combination of all.”

That combination is a viscerally informative medium for Niedecker. Cook’s Immortal conveys Niedecker’s life in a collage of footage–pieces of reenactments, Wisconsin animals and fauna, scenes of manual clothes washing, archival photos, some modest animation, stills that feature Niedecker’s poetry–and sound sources, from nature recordings to interviews Cook conducted with the people who knew Niedecker, and even Niedecker herself in a rare interview that Corman conducted with her shortly before she died.

These fragmented moments make Immortal an unconventional way to present a writer’s life, but Niedecker’s life was unconventional–and Cook’s version of it is a fitting tribute. “I just felt that this woman is so fascinating,” Cook says. “It was a matter of passion. It wasn’t even logical–if it was logical, I wouldn’t have done it. It was just pure passion.”

As in, when did she first encounter The Granite Pail? “Six and a half years ago,” Cook says. “And I’ve been working on the film ever since.

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Baltimore City Paper


On Big Screens and Small, Filmmakers Enhance National Poetry Month

Focusing on a lesser-known but equally deserving subject, filmmaker Cathy Cook premiered Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker at the Milwaukee Art Museum late last year. One of four films to receive this year’s Wisconsin Own Jury Prize at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Immortal Cupboard explores the life and writing of a poet who some critics have described as the twentieth century’s Emily Dickinson. Niedecker, who lived for years in rural Wisconsin, published only two books of poetry during her life: New Goose (J. A. Decker, 1946) and My Friend Tree (Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961). She died of a stroke in 1970 at the age of sixty-seven. In 2002 the University of California Press released Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy. Cook’s experimental documentary combines live-action footage, animation, archival images, and a rare audio interview with Niedecker to offer a unique portrait of the often-overlooked poet as well as the Midwestern landscape that inspired her.

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Poets & Writers

June 2023


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