Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Peter Cooley - New Orleans, LA

Peter Cooley's house has a purple door. It's a rich and powerful hue, and we see it from well down the street as we negotiate the narrow passage.

We're in Jefferson, actually, just minutes west of New Orleans proper. In less than 24 hours in and around the city we've been stuck in traffic behind three different accidents. Last night, after spending a pleasant but chilly night in the Quarter, we sat for nearly an hour motionless on I-10 behind a two car fender bender just before the gorgeous twin span bridge that links New Orleans to Slidell, Louisiana, across Lake Ponchatrain. Then this morning as we drove into the city again we came to a stop behind what looked to be a dirt spill. No truck in site, but maybe 70 yards of black topsoil was spread across three lanes about three inches thick. Of course the cars come to a screeching halt. The dirt, my god, the dirt! A little honking, however, convinced the delicate flowers ahead of us to push through. Then on our way here we edged by a t-bone crash in an intersection, a champagne colored Saturn up on a median, its driver scratching his head, wondering where on earth that other car had come from.

But the purple door opens and I'm welcomed in my Peter and his wife - and the delicious smell of chicken cooking.

Peter and I sit in the living room and I arrange the gear. The digital camera goes on a tripod off to the side, where it will work on its own, shooting images once every 10 seconds or so. I get out my indestructible Sony Cassette-Recorder and look for a place near Peter to set it. He's on a big soft couch with no tables near him so I prop up two very unlikely - but charming - fish-shaped pillows, each about 18 inches long. I learn that Peter's wife doesn't like them, but to me they look quirky and homey.

The chicken cooks, Peter's wife fusses with some papers, and Peter and I start to chat.

The purple door comes up a couple of times because Peter wants to talk about the rare quality of light that exists here. He's always had a debt to light in his work, but he really became aware of it during the research and writing of his celebrated volume, The Van Gogh Notebook. This part of Louisiana has just the right climate and humidity to give colors their due. The reds have a rich redness, the purples really pop. I wouldn't believe if it weren't for the door that I look at more than once during my visit.

I tell Peter about another poet I saw earlier in the trip who had suggested I make this visit. It's a poet who Peter knows of, but doesn't know personally. He's genuinely touched at the gesture and says, "He owes me nothing." But I hope I would have found my way here anyway. Cooley's work is not a natural or obvious fit for a book about "place," but I've long since learned to look past the obvious things. Peter's landscape is internal, questing. The speaker in many of his works is caught inside a frame of his own design, looking out, peering out, wondering if indeed there is a way out. It's heady stuff, and rich in place in ways that doesn't require the occasional name of a town or street or roadside bar.

He tells me a bit about his kids, who he clearly loves, and who are displayed in photos on the fridge, in a bookcase, on the piano, etc. He asks about the next stop while I start to pack up.

"Let's get some photos outside," I say, even though it's a chilly January morning - and even though Peter has already told me a handful of times that he left Detroit, Chicago, and Iowa behind mostly because of the temperature. I'm thinking get him posing by the door. The purple door. The poet outside.