Monday, May 08, 2023

Julia Cohen, Collateral Light


If your first assessment of a lake is its perimeter
forego prayer for the face
Water slaps            laps up       eye-fauna

In which designated space would your trapped
door unfold?                If I do not spark?

Double-edged pen               a pile of piney breath
to defend or discard (“I STARED AT YOUR CAMERA / & PROMPTLY DIED”)

I’ve had Chicago poet, interviewer and essayist Julia Cohen’s second poetry title, CollateralLight (Brooklyn NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013) on a list of books I still needed to get my hands on for years, most likely since I caught her work in an issue of Black Warrior Review [see my review of such here] (further on that list include titles by Jennifer Moxley and Paige Lewis, in case you were wondering), only recently managing to actually do just that thing. The poems that make up Collateral Light are set as small moments, words and phrases that pool and cluster, propelled by fire, syntax and rhythm; a finely-honed sequence of small fragments that accumulate and hold together against, around and through the spaces she’s set just as deliberately as any word choice. She composes pinpoints that shape and hesitate, hold and cluster across narratives. “You happen // Here” she writes, as part of the title poem, “I am watching bees / traverse your jeans // I bit the point / of the strawberry // Off to the left / I’m seeding // The light peels back / a ringing splint [.]”

Set if five numbered sections, Cohen’s poems in Collateral Light are piercing and propulsive, sharp and articulate. “Damp & cylindrical,” she writes, to close the opening poem, “NO ONE TOLD ME I WAS THE ARROW,” “I raised / a black rooster / tipping / the color / of my red / heart’s name // I sharpen / my point // plunge / into a glass / of soil [.]” She manages to compose a sequence of narratives built out of sketched-out words and images that tether against an otherwise jumble, making clear sense out of pinpricks. “Everything I do / is very grainy,” she writes, as part of “THE ROOM DEFORMED THE SOUND OF IT,” “My pixels / deflect arrows [.]” Composing short phrases that accumulate down the stretch of each page, there is something similar in the shape and structure of many of these poems to the work of the late Robert Creeley, offering each phrase-line as a further step down a staircase, uncertain, exactly, where the poem might finally land. “A formation of water wheels / A formation of organs,” she writes, as part of “THE PLACE WE WORRY ABOUT,” “Movement caught in the work [.]” There is something interesting, also, in how each section begins with a single phrase set at the bottom of the page, almost offering a suggestion of tone or temperament for the poems gathered within; a single line to be read across the bottom of each of these five section-pages as a progression of the book’s tone and purpose: “my face was curious,” “I can’t just sit here with feelings,” “Open the invitation to anyone,” “Everything needs to be moved through” and “Let’s worship doubt.” And then, of course, the final poem in the collection, which is set after the final section and colophon, almost as an end-credit piece, suggesting a poem to simultaneously close and suggest where she might go next:


Abdomen            domain

Where I store my arrows

This is the first of her books I’ve managed to see, having seen neither her debut full-length poetry title Triggermoon Triggermoon (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), nor her lyric essays, I WAS NOT BORN (Noemi Press, 2014), so I am clearly and ridiculously behind on her work. What has the intervening decade brought to her work? Where is she now? I suppose I should count myself fortunate she hasn’t been more productive over the intervening years, although now that I’ve said it, I’ve begun to worry.

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