By Joan Gelfand
“A Different Wakeful Animal”
By Susan Cohen
Red Dragonfly Press, 2016
“Momentary Meditations and Memoir”
Susan Cohen’s new collection, “A Different Wakeful Animal,” is the winner of the 2015 David Martinson – Meadowhawk Prize. An entertaining exhibition of Cohen’s talents, the poems reflect, surprise, wonder and despair. And why not? We are living through awfully complicated times. Cohen brings us a world fraught with terrorist bombings, personal and world histories that, like ghost pains, continue to haunt; a world juxtaposed with loss, delight and awesome beauty.
An accomplished poet, scientist and journalist, Cohen is the Winner of coveted prizes including the Rita Dove Poetry Award, Acorn-Rukeyser Chapbook award and the Milton Messler Memorial Poetry Prize. Crafted with close attention to sound, visual imagery, and the echoing of language that create a whole stronger than a rapids crested river; they’re a waterfall, plunging headlong into a deep green pool, where we have the choice to swim in the warm waters or stand under its powerful torrent.
A poet’s job is to unpack language. Can we ever really capture the power of love, beauty, death and the rope thick pull of family ties?
From “Why Whales Are Poems”
“As long as whales are, the story is larger/than us, too big for prose/Useless to ask a whale what it means. It’s shapely/and precise but we will never translate it… because they amplify”
Exactly. A true, felt encounter with nature’s power takes us out of our world and, in this case a world of wondering about beauty and story, power and language.
From “Fog Week “
“Sky assumes the color/of aged bone, fog/the moist marrow”
The layering in this poem of nature with the body, that we are nature and nature is us works perfectly. Not to mention the effect of nature on our moods:
“What commerce is conducted/on afternoons like this? /more dull currency/of nickel, steel, silver, lead.”
“What Seemed Their Joy” opens with an epigram by Galway Kinnel about frogs. Cohen writes: “I was a black dot, in a tire track puddle, /and I thought the world of it/until I swapped/my clouded horizon/for the pleasures of wind.”
Talk about precise! This is where poetry lives. In a pond, lousy with frogs! In the act of imagining self as amphibian; in the echo and off rhyme (dot, swapped) in the pictorial image of ‘tire track puddle’ and in the metaphorical power of ‘swapped/my clouded horizon/for the pleasure of wind.”
With this opening, we are hooked. Something important is going to happen. Transformation. Growth. Clarity. From the last line: “Our New World/vast and verdant/with frog.” We can feel the green, hear a crowd of frogs bellowing like gamelan. The ‘clouded horizon’ has been successfully traded for the “New World.” We breathe a satisfied sigh.
Other poems that work Cohen’s magic of language include: “Credo” “a loose boom of birds, flare/right or snap left – visible.” And, “Reading Fernando Pessoa in Portugal:” “the hillside of dusty heather/sweating small shadows” and finally in the wonderful “Nothing Roughly Useful Like Oats”: “Poetry’s the kind of map/that gets you lost and lets you/ stay there, a black horse tumbling.”
These poems are fresh and new. Cohen gets up inside of language and wanders there. Not an easy task with a thing that ‘gets you lost and lets you stay there.’ They succeed as meditations, searching the known language for a new combination of sounds, unexplored territory. Great on first reading, these poems passed the age old test: they revealed more, pulled in and improved the second time around.
With a dual fellowship in Bioethics and Poetry Cohen’s passions are coupled with a reporter’s eye for detail, an empathetic heart and a passion for hidden facts. Many poems combine art and science, perhaps married best in “Strata:”
‘true, a stone is blind/deafer than dust/dead to the beauty/of a saguaro or Chopin/but one stone promises/immunity from fire.”
That the emotions unearthed in this collection are by turn delighted, (“The Humor of the Little Box”) grief stricken, (“Rossio Square,”) angry “After the Boston Marathon”) and scared (“Reportorial,”) is perfectly appropriate for a talented writer hell bent on seeing the world as a point in life when for many of us feel that we’ve seen it all. To see, and to say something new is demonstrative of Cohen’s native talents.
And, at the same time, there is a certain inevitable pull toward archeology as we advance in years. As if seeking gravity, balance, we want to understand what happened before. In poetry, I want to explore the past, but not just for its own sake, but for how past events inform our present moment.
The best example of this might be ‘Free Fall’ a fabulous imagination of what Felix Baumgartner felt as he ‘jumped 24 miles from the edge of space’ to earth.
“Time to remember/and therefore, time to regret. /Worthless. What if. Son of a bitch.”
And in the final line: ‘….to ask him why he didn’t find/the ordinary plunge/from birth to death/terrifying enough.”
For my money, this is where Cohen’s best spring waterfall of language, inhabited by a torrent of years, lives.
A long list of Cohen’s poems concerns themselves with looking back with a conceit stretched to unsatisfying conclusions. “Minor Collisions,” “Birding by Ear,” “Adam and Eve Near Retirement,” “Woman’s Song,” “To My Breath,” and “Frangokastello,” are well crafted, but unlike the pieces explored above, do not wonder at how the past has informed the present.
From “Frangokastello”: “A boy on the hill/agile as his goats. He must be middle aged by now if he still lives outside/the invention of our marriage.” Somehow, I’m not feeling a connection to the place and how it informed a long, successful marriage. Something, perhaps just a line or two feels to have gone missing.
And, “Woman’s Song,”: “Oh vacant city/all cracked and crumbling/Night without moon/and my children/left homeless. “We don’t usually feel that birthing a child leaves them ‘homeless.’ The conceit is a stretch.
Still, these small criticisms do not deny the excellent work of a poet still clearly in the throes of honing her craft, loving life, and passionately committed to living full throttle, no matter the cost.
Joan Gelfand is the author of three poetry collections and an award winning chapbook of short fiction. She has been published nationally and internationally and her poetry film, “The Ferlinghetti School of Poetics’ was shown at the 4th Annual Video Poetry Festival in Athens, Greece. Joan is the Development Chair of the Women’s National Book Association, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN and Bay Area Travel Writers. http://joangelfand.com