What a delight to attend a terrific reading by a local (bay area) poet that I know, who has just published her first book. Throat Singing surpasses its blurb by Chana Bloch, who claims that "The music of Susan Cohen's poems is close to that of Coleman Hawkins, the jazz saxophonist who could make honey sting / and gravel sing." For Cohen does not merely write (and convincingly read) narrative poems that sing, but has established herself as a poet of substance with this perfect-pitch work that delivers just the right amounts of redemption and longing--temporarily sating our appetite for connection with our deepest selves, but moving outward toward a horizon that promises ever-increasing challenges to our identity.
Cohen immediately sets the tone with the title poem, "Throat Singing:"
he can make his bass
notes rumble with the pulse
of hoofbeats on the Steppes
while his larynx also squeezes
the freakish whistle of thin air
heard in the highest passes
and his words ride hard rasping
where have you gone my ponies
where have you gone my country
as he scrapes his hopes together
across the chords
tensed in his throat
but so much straining
as he oscillates the octave
between what he has and what he wants
drives his blood until the veins
leather to reins around his neck
and throat singers die young
with the effort of singing
so many notes at once so much
longing wears out their hearts
Navigating through a life stalked by death--by falling tree limbs in "Under Trees," by the momentum of history in "That Year I Read Anne Frank's Diary," by cancer in "At The Radiation Clinic," by dementia in "My Mother's Future, Named,"--the poet continues singing poems that both ruminate and paint images about our entropic existence, poems that take care, like we are warned, "not to startle a grizzly--but if you do-- / to wave your arms above your head/and calmly speak, so that the bear / does not mistake you for a caribou, / which wanders mutely, and with no imagination."
Cohen's poems are replete with imagination; see "The Woman Who Feels No Fear" about a woman that doctors reported had a brain anomaly that left her without the capacity to feel fear, "Playful Abstract Painter, 79" about a painter who "Once . . . licked a Vermeer at the Frick / to taste the colors," "Rewriting War and Peace" which summarizes the entire novel in eighteen two-word lines, after the epigraph "'Drops Dripped' is the shortest sentence in War and Peace."
And these poems never stop moving--not merely blindly away from emptiness like the dog swimming in circles to keep from drowning in "Iraq War Blues," but toward a real, if only temporal, happiness. Like the happiness that comes from reading them.
The Most You Can Hope For
"Wanting and dissatisfaction
are the main ingredients
of happiness - Ruth Stone, 'Wanting'"
Mix salt of tears, salt of the sea-womb, salt
of blood lively with your pulse.
For fidelity, snip rosemary. Crush
till pungent with pining. Add sweet basil,
because the Mediterranean is only semi-arid,
which may be the most you can hope for.
Pick a lemon that's brilliant, avoid the palest
yellow of caution or cowardice. Sugar it--
you're after the sweet and sour taste
of contradiction on your tongue.
You're making hope, which won't exist
without dissatisfaction. You're making life,
which fattens on hope. Avoid blandness,
avoid bitterness. When you're making happiness:
Don't ever stop to test for doneness.
Susan--never stop writing poems like these in your debut book, and I'll never stop reading them!