Woman holding suitcase on empty, bright road

Everything: Poems by Andrea Cohen

Review by Elizabeth Jacobson

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Four Way Books | 2021 | 136 pages

 
Everything: Poems by Andrea CohenAndrea Cohen’s poetry has astonished me for years. The brevity, the wit, the psychological + philosophical hit. Her poems are impeccable, wise—word after word set down like flagstones on a path, both shapely and nestled in just so to function seamlessly. Many of the poems in her seventh collection, Everything, published in February 2021 by Four Way Books, appear brief on the page, but are paradoxically deceptive with their Zen koan-like intensity and provocativeness that open into wide emotional territory.

In the poem, “Le Danton,” the speaker observes an unnamed poet talking to packets of sugar on a café table in Paris. “Tell me everything,” he says, and the speaker of the poem responds, “I was nineteen and had / my whole life / to know nothing.” For me, these lines evoke a koan by Yun Men, from The Blue Cliff Record, one I revisit often: “A good thing isn’t as good as nothing.” Over the years, turning this koan around in my mind, I have generated the phrases “Nothing is better than something” and “It is better to have nothing than something good,” and these resonate for me in Cohen’s poem, and throughout the book, as in poem after poem I surmise that everything is actually nothing, and that nothing may be freedom.

“Fellow Traveler,” another poem that offers nothing as a form of liberation, does this through commanding, clever imagery: 

She went everywhere
with an empty suitcase.

You never know when
you’ll need to leave

swiftly with nothing.

It’s brilliant the way this poem challenges the reader to hold both the image of transporting something potentially large, yet empty or meaningless, while at the same time perceiving the futility of this act. This seems a metaphor—carrying something large around for no reason. Isn’t that what humans do with our myriad assortment of sentiments?

Poetry can help us manage the fast-shifting world when a poet’s words corroborate the reader’s feelings and experiences. In Cohen’s poem, “Self Portrait with Eraser,the precision and speed with which the poet builds tension and reveals aspects of her thought process generates intimacy as the reader experiences the poet witnessing and connecting with the self in unexpected ways. A self-portrait poem is an opportunity to take the imagination deep, as Cohen shows us:

I drew the eraser
first because I knew

it better than I knew
myself and because

it had been around
the block before me

and because it would,
after having its way

with me, rub up against
everything I’d ever loved.

To know the self, Cohen tells us, everything important to the self must be removed; we must erase the self. This is such a provocative idea, one that is both potentially frightening yet exhilarating.

Although the word grief doesn’t show up in any of the poems in this collection, it is a prevalent theme and what strings the sequence together. Tony Hoagland, in his essay collection The Art of Voice, writes: “What do we want from a contemporary poetic voice? One good answer to that question is that we want to feel that we are encountering a speaker ‘in person,’ a speaker who presents a convincingly complex version of the world and of human nature.”

In this solid and wholly absorbing collection, Cohen’s poems explore grief and the ways it manifests in our daily existences. Although there are only three poems focused on the loss of parents, these are central to the collection. In the poem, “Shiva,” meticulously brief with its six couplets, the poem opens with a Jewish mourning ritual and then encapsulates, in an everyday way, the relationship of a mother and her daughter:

Evenings we sit in the living
room, together. Friday I take

my mother’s slot (noon)
at the beauty salon. Ruth,

who for forty years washed
her hair, washes mine.

We’re all in the desert
together. Your mother

liked the water cold,
Ruth says—news to me.

From a thousand
mouths, our dead assemble.

Cohen is a prodigious reader of her poems. Listening to her read “Shiva,” originally published in The New Yorker, one hears the grief in the repeated S’s, a sound resonating sadness in her slow, deep breathy voice confirming the urgency we hear in these lines.

“Craft Talk,” another brief poem concerning loss, succeeds in various ways, including as an ars poetica (a love poem about writing poetry) and depicts the sorrow a poet might feel when a poem is completed: “I paint / small birds, / so when / they fly / off, their / loss might / seem / like less.” The moment is gone: that intimate space the poet and her imagination occupied during the making of the poem, like any moment, is irretrievable. This seems an astute summation of the paradox of completion—both the joy of creation and the sadness one may experience at the finish. 

You don’t hang a picture on a wall and only look at it once. Poems, like art on display, are meant to be taken up again and again and each time a reading opens new territory, new layers become apparent. Cohen’s poems merit this attention. Often bite-sized, they invite us in. At first reading, a poem may seem catchy, almost like an aphorism—something that might be said over and over because it is concise and true. However, on close inspection, multiple levels of intricacy are apparent. In “Stop-Time,” we discover a complex comment on human behavior and our illusions of time:

We give the clocks
a drink, so they’ll

have something else
to do with their hands.

Everything in life eventually falls away, and in these endings, we often have an opportunity for release. Cohen threads this concept through her poems by offering this paradox: the poems in Everything are both everything and nothing, but by no means naught. It is not so much a duality of full/empty that we are offered by the poems in this book, but the enigma of how these concepts may be the same thing.
 

Read poetry by Andrea Cohen appearing in Terrain.org: one poem, four poems, seven poems, and four poems.

 

 

Elizabeth JacobsonElizabeth Jacobson was the fifth Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico and an Academy of American Poets 2020 Laureate Fellow.  Her most recent book, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, won the New Measure Poetry Prize, selected by Marianne Boruch (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2019), and the 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for both New Mexico Poetry and Best New Mexico Book. She is the reviews editor for Terrain.org. Catch up with her at linktr.ee/ElizabethJacobson.

Header photo by Masson, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.