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Poetry in Motion

Cathy Cook Frames Her Obsession With Poet Lorine Niedecker Onscreen

Verse takes flight in a still from Immortal Cupboard.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/4/2009

Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker

Creative Alliance at the Patterson, Feb. 8, 3 p.m.

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 career in 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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