Review: Kentucky Derby reviewed by Bracha Goykadosh for Booklist (2011)
Cohen presents a series of quirky and engaging poems in her third
collection. Her themes include the maternal, the notion of
self-portraiture and self-examination, and analysis of objects or
processes, subjects that are most intriguing when she manages to combine
them. In “Self Portrait with Forgiveness,” for example, Cohen
contemplates whether forgiveness could “take / the shape of a fish” that
she could “place in the heel / of a clear, plastic shoe.” While this
image defamiliarizes forgiveness, it also makes a concept tangible, an
actualization of the amorphous that reveals her skill and wit. In “Elf
Portrait,” Cohen writes that “The s went / on holiday, leaving / the
essence / of me.” In utilizing the language of diminution, she creates a
sweet, funny, unpretentious account. The notion of searching is
critical to “Reverse Egg Hunt” and “The Universal Truth.” In the former,
Cohen explicates the unhunted and undesired; in the latter, Cohen
describes an abject sense of discovery, in relation to the speaker’s
mother. These wonderfully human and inventive poems captivate and charm.
Review: Kentucky Derby reviewed by Mark Sullivan for The Manhattan Review
Stepping Lightly into the Depths
The title of Andrea Cohen’s new collection calls up images of thoroughbreds and elegantly dressed men and women, an occasion compounded from social appearances and animal power. These associations turn out to be apt, for Cohen’s poetry deftly combines verve and grace, close observation and lightning wit. But there is more to the briefest of our yearly national rituals than equine athleticism and fancy hats; as Cohen reminds us in the title poem to her volume, the Derby also encompasses the millions of people, most with only the vaguest interest in horse racing, who stop their lives for two minutes and tune in together, in bars and homes across the land, to a tawdry commercialized spectacle in an unexpressed search for a moment of transcendence and unity. “This is the moment to be in the moment and I / fail terribly,” the speaker of this poem says of her own slightly tipsy and ill-informed viewing. We all do fail, of course, and yet perceiving the way so much yearning and complexity get packed into a fleeting, equivocal event still makes a kind of triumph. And in this density of emotion and insight, disappointment and compensation, the race truly becomes a fitting emblem for Cohen’s art.
These poems are dense. Short, often a page or less, they clip along in lines that tend toward skittish brevity and serial enjambment. Cohen likes to use wordplay to move a poem forward, often setting up an expectation in one line and undercutting or deflecting it in the next, at times punning on words’ multiple meanings to make a line speak in more than one register or deploying clichés for the strange, buried poetry in their dilapidated idioms. The total effect is a smart, jazzy verse that has something in common with Kay Ryan’s work and the early poems of Heather McHugh, though Cohen is much less of a formalist than Ryan and less jokey than McHugh. Her real antecedent for this style seems to be one of our greatest but most inimitable writers, Emily Dickinson, some of whose lines provide an epigraph for the book and from whom Cohen has evidently inherited a faux-naïve stance and wised-up tone. It’s high praise indeed to say that Cohen can thrive on such a rich legacy without letting it spoil her own individual initiative.
In “Butter,” for instance, Cohen describes a visit to an agriculture show in paradisiacal terms that quickly become a source of humor and wry awareness:
of milk and honey, but once,
at the Iowa State Fair, I glimpsed
a cow fashioned of butter.
in an icy room, beneath klieg lights.
I filed past it as one files
The ambiguous use of lived here—does it mean to suggest that the butter sculpture is alive, or is it simply an idiomatic way of saying where the cow could be found?—as well as the abrupt shift from life to funereal imagery are typical examples of Cohen’s tricky language and the way her style shades into a poem’s thematic concerns. A similar food-oriented playfulness enlivens “The Gates of Paradise,” which Cohen begins by telling us that “The Gates of Paradise / are bitter, my father says,” before clarifying that this refers to her actual, not spiritual, father’s reaction to tasting a dark-chocolate replica of one of Ghiberti’s door panels for the Florence baptistery. Such reversals are fun, but as with Dickinson’s humor, they also point to the way language’s slipperiness mirrors the world’s strange doubleness—its revelations masked as the ordinary, its tragedies that, as in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” occur in the background. Cohen has a keen eye for these overlaps and shiftings, the sliding between monotonous and momentous. In “The Universal Truth,” the speaker describes dressing, when she was thirteen, as an old woman and spying through the window of a dime store on her mother, who was buying gifts for a man she was having an affair with. Her mother was “blushing / furtive, unrecognizable,” and the speaker was similarly opaque or invisible since her mother “stared straight back, / not seeing me.” The poem’s losses and discoveries of identity culminate in the speaker’s realization that her mother “would have been / the stranger / I was becoming.” Notice in that last quotation how, once again, Cohen uses language—this time the manipulation of verb tenses, with the past shown both as oddly conditional and as continuing in the present participle—to echo the destabilizing situation itself.
What Richard Hugo would call the triggering subjects of these poems, the occasions that called forth their writing, are not particularly diverse: family relationships, personal identity, love, nature, social interactions. Cohen’s poems distinguish themselves not through originality of content but in the way her light touch allows the depths of a subject to emerge. She is at her best in a poem like “Found in Translation,” where colloquial expressions like “in the weeds” and “chicken with its head cut off” regain vitality in being explained to, and illuminating the situation of, a Japanese acquaintance whose husband is cheating on her. Perhaps because of this gift for lightness, Cohen’s occasional forays into what is often referred to these days as “difficult” content (though it sometimes seems the readiest default subject matter for many contemporary poets), including poems about incest, suicide, and a violent death, seem a bit ill at ease and obligatory. It’s as though the poet were addressing these issues through a sense of duty rather than compulsion. Like her model Dickinson, Cohen finds greatest success in circuit and indirection, as when in “Not an Antidote” the jolt of seeing a deer trussed upside down in the woods, “his dead eye / eye-level,” causes the word for sight to blink or skip, like an old record, to the next line; or in “Sometimes I Drink Alone,” where Cohen uses a sustained though implicit comparison between wine-tasting and savoring light (“This is a very good / year for light, / with just the right / hint of darkness”) to suggest the joys and pains of solitude. I particularly admire a couple of poems inspired by the Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, which bring Cohen’s conciseness, gnomic phrasing, and precise imagery marvelously together. Here is one such poem in its entirety:
In this era of ebooks and cuts to funding for poetry publications, I also want to mention my admiration for the book itself. It isn’t just that Salmon has edited and produced a handsome volume, although the book is a pleasure to hold and read, with good paper, plenty of room on the page, clear typography, a pleasing and compact size. Some American poetry books have lately grown to ungainly lengths, and their complicated layouts, multiple epigraphs, sectioned poems, notes, dedications, and other textual apparatus can make them resemble an unlikely cross between an academic treatise and an elaborate tapas menu. It seems almost a bygone joy to find a poetry collection that is, quite simply, a collection, a set of individual poems arranged sensitively in thematic and motivic sequences to provide variation and contrast, and at a length that falls easily into the category the English call a slim vol. There is a real pleasure in being able to absorb a poetry book in a reading or two and then to return at leisure to deepen the acquaintance, an almost old-fashioned experience that also seems to rhyme with Cohen’s aesthetic. Her work exhibits modesty in the highest sense—an ideal where ambition and ability do not struggle against each other but work in tandem—but the delight it provides, far from being quickly exhausted, is abundant and renewable.
Copyright The Manhattan Review 2011
Review: Ben Parker reviews Kentucky Derby for Eyewear
Kentucky Derby is Andrea Cohen’s third collection, and the second of hers to be published by the Irish publishing house Salmon Poetry. Despite having a publisher within the British isles, the poems in this collection have appeared almost exclusively in US publications, which may go some way to explaining the fact that she is not yet a well-known poet over here. Hopefully the quality of this new book will go some way to redressing the balance.
The collection opens with ‘To Whom It May Concern’, in which the narrator declares their intention to move to Norway, sounding a light-touch that is to be found throughout. Here the final lines play with sound in a way reminiscent of James Fenton’s ‘In Paris With You’: “They’re only trees, and / leaving, I’m Norwegian.” As the title suggests, the announcement is not intended for anyone specific, merely anyone who cares. This attitude of insouciance is employed effectively in many of the poems, allowing them to edge closer to silliness than many poets would permit, a refreshing quality when handled with Cohen’s expertise. This impression is augmented by the direct style that many of the poems are written in. ‘Reverse Egg Hunt’, for example, is delivered in punchy and unadorned sentences: “In this version / you hide / from the eggs.”, “The eggs have no / intention of finding you”. Far from detracting from the poems, this makes the peculiar ideas contained all the more amusing and, as with the end of ‘Reverse Egg Hunt’, disturbing.
When conventional poetical devices such as rhyme are deployed, they are done so in a way that allows the conversational rhythms to continue uninterrupted: “She / is teaching me to meditate, / to concentrate on breath”. By using internal and half rhymes Cohen hints at the craft that lies behind the seemingly dashed-off pieces, without drawing attention to it. At times her work sounds a little like August Kleinzahler, as in opening of ‘Live Girls’: “That’s an exaggeration. / There’s only one live girl / upstairs, and she barely moves.” The narrative concerns a poet’s performance being interrupted by the sound of a life model being painted in the room above, and states near the end that the poet “cannot compete / with the ruckus even one live girl, / barely moving, makes”. This poem seems to suggest that poetry, or indeed any art, cannot compete with real life on real life’s terms, with the “fleshy folds” of the live girl. What poetry can do is move beyond the actual, into the implied, as here, or into the imagined, as in many of Cohen’s other poems. The last lines of ‘I Will Not...’ are “I will, I will, I will...”, a chant that echoes through the whole collection, open as it is to the imagination, to strangeness, and to humour.
However, this exuberance is not bought at the expense of depth. ‘First Death in New York, 1967’, in which the narrator’s mother is murdered, is recounted in a voice of poignant innocence, with verse rejected in favour of prose, while ‘Self Portrait with a Chain Saw’ which describes the serious injury of an artist by a chain saw, concluding redemptively that the chain saw “for all its dividing unites.” The title poem begins with the watching of the Kentucky Derby in a bar, but by the end it has moved to an examination of the security of family life, where the care is so attentive that the speaker muses that it is as if she has been wounded. In this piece we hear that butter is one of the family member’s favourite foods, taking us back to ‘Butter’, one of the earliest poems in the collection (also reproduced on the back cover). This combines with honey, a yellow school bus, and a yellow star, to make yellow a talismanic colour for this collection, with its child-like excitement entirely in keeping with much of the writing.
There are in this collection subtle hints to the work of other writers, Robert Frost for example in: “this spot took / the hit when the ice storm blew in. Birches fly at half-mast now.” and Beckett the book’s final line: “It can’t last. It lasts.” However, the writer to whom Cohen bears the greatest similarity is Charles Simic. Both write poems with surreal and minimalist surfaces that reveal, on re- reading, great truths and deep understanding. The poems in Kentucky Derby yield many treasures on the first read and are easily enjoyed, but there is also much in the book to reward close reading. Highly recommended.
Ben Parker completed an MA in creative writing at UEA in 2008. He has had poems published or forthcoming in a number of magazines, including Iota, Staple, Neon and Envoi.
Review: Kentucky Derby reviewed by David Kaufmann for Tablet Magazine March 2011
’s often lovely, sometimes loopy, poetry circulates between death and comfort, between images of inexorable loss and expressions of inexplicable hope. In Kentucky Derby, which just came out, she writes poems with odd titles like “Love Poem with a Trash Compactor” and “Coupons in the Afterlife.” These provide good indications of her m.o. She likes to take slightly outlandish metaphors or odd juxtapositions and coax them wittily back to sense.
At the same time, though, Cohen is capable of writing “Transport,” in which she introduces Lena, a German woman who taught her how to forge railway tickets:
It’s what Lena’s mother learned from her mother,
who tucked her in 1940 into the Black Forest,
into a train alone beneath a black
and star-starved sky, her own yellow
star torn off and burned, her mother
somewhere back there, not waving, burning.
The last image might not be all that surprising in a poem about the Shoah, but it is rendered stranger by its nod to a famously dark work by the English poet Stevie Smith, “Not Waving But Drowning.” It is also made more poignant—almost painfully so—by the notion that Lena’s grandmother’s sacrifice is as tender and as natural as a parent putting a child to bed.
A similar evocation of parental care is given a wide and positively redemptive turn in the title poem of the book. It begins, typically, with what appears to be a joke: “Next year in Jerusalem,/ with mint juleps. This year/ in Peterborough with Wyatt and Anna.” The messianic affirmation of the Seder is Americanized with that mint julep and then deflated and deferred. The poem meanders through an account of watching the race, remembering her uncle’s mynah bird, drinking a little beer and heading back to the McDowell Writer’s Colony, which, she tells us, is “my version of Eden.”
McDowell would be any author’s paradise, but for Cohen it is not the leisure to write that is enchanting. It’s something more communal and much more dream-like:
We are all
made of honey and butter and one of us has a yellow
school bus which we board from time to time
for a field trip that involves riding in circles
and falling asleep, which involves
all of us being ponies in a meadow.
The sea and sky are made of grass.
It can’t last. It lasts.
The yellow star has become a school bus that goes nowhere but around and does it so safely and reassuringly that its riders fall asleep, become ponies in a land that is so full of milk (or butter) and honey that the very sky is made of grass. A realist would say that a dream like that is just plain childish and that a state of bliss like that just couldn’t last. A utopian would say that it isn’t and that it can. In the end, our redemption is nothing less than the promise of such plenty and such peace.