Saturday, November 24, 2012
A Full Life Selected Poetry of Joseph A. Cohen
Review by Pam Rosenblatt
In 2005, Joseph A. Cohen published his first collection of poetry called A Full Life Selected Poetry of Joseph A. Cohen by Khoni Bindery, Lowell, Massachusetts. And it is to the advantage of people young and old that his book has been published! It was reprinted in 2011.
Poet Joseph A. Cohen is currently 95 years old, lives in the Metro Boston area, and has lived a life that makes books, so it was probably a natural step for him to take to write these poems that tell us the readers about his family, his friends, his acquaintances, his places where he lived and/or visited, and the war in which he was a soldier. In a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, musical and lyrical style, Cohen has written an autobiographical poetry book that many people can relate to and/or learn from.
The first poem in the book’s opening chapter named Jewels is about Cohen’s wife, or as he writes in the beginning of the book “his lover of 64 years”. It’s titled “My Sonia”:
To see her is to behold a flower in bloom.
Radiating, glowing with charm and beauty,
her smile reflects the song of a sunlit rose garden.
Music has nurtured her being
from early childhood. Now still composing,
teaching and playing piano with one
hand, her quiet hours are spent listening
to the classics as she did when she was young.
Her eyes reveal all that she is.
A serene smile upon awakening,
a gleam at breakfast time,
a flash of energy as she
speaks by phone to friends,
her solid determination when
doing endless post-stroke exercises.
Her home mirrors her taste in art whether
paintings, sculptures or exotic vases.
Surely, this sustains her will to live.
On awakening, the blinds are flung open to sunshine
and a view of tall trees shading a lush lawn.
Schumann’s “Davidsbunder Tanze”
pours forth to give harmony to the sunrise.
She has shown that health problems need
not be the end, but rather the start
of a new and still creative life.
With years to go, her current birthday reveals
that growing old does not always
dull the spirit, the thirst for the good life.
In “My Sonia”, Cohen has let us into his private world. A world filled with a loving wife whose “smile reflects the song of a sunlit rose garden”, whose music is vital to her as “her quiet hours are spent listening/to the classics as she did when she was young”, whose “eyes reveal all that she is”, whose “home mirrors her taste in art whether/paintings, sculptures or exotic vases”, whose “health problems …/[and] her current birthday reveals that growing old does not always/dull the spirit, the thirst for the good life.” Such wonderful descriptions for a woman who seemed to love life as much as her husband still does, as seen in the one hundred and four pages that follow.
Just as Cohen writes about the happier times in his life, he has the ability to write about his not-so-happier experiences with war as well. His versatility shines in the poem “I Promised to Write” found in the chapter At The Touch of Love:
Waving adieu from the bus window,
I pledged to write daily.
How was I to know that daily
was to be for three whole years.
War swept me oversees
into holes of mud and clay.
Fear of the unknown unsettled
and scattered my thoughts.
Here was no spacious and gracious
desk to write on.
With only stubby pencils to use,
I wrote on scraps stained by the earth,
dyed by green grass.
The beat of thunderous gunfire
tapped a somber cadence
as words formed for the V mail.
The old world was fresh to my eyes.
Olive and free trees bent low
by the weight of luxuriant yields.
Farms, fences, foliage
lay in pastoral settings.
From afar, words served poorly.
Amatory moods can best be woven
Colors and hues of dawns and sunsets
fill the pages with painterly images.
Always, intimacy and passion
are chilled by censors scanning the mail.
The first letter was written on a
ship pointed east,
the last on one headed west.
In “I Promised to Write”, Cohen writes with wit and a freshness of style. He shows how love for a woman can pull a male soldier through hard times, as he remembers years later, “I pledged to write daily./How was I to know that daily/was to be for three whole years.”
The troubles a soldier who is a writer of letters has during wartime is depicted in the lines: “Here was no spacious and gracious/desk to write on./With only stubby pencils to use,/I wrote on scraps stained by the earth,/dyed by green grass” But at the same time Cohen overcomes these technical problems through a love of words, art, and a solid relationship with his one-true love, a love that lasted “64 years”.
Cohen writes not only of his relationship with his wife, but he has created poems about each one of his children – and his parents and his grandchildren as well. In “Andrew”, “Beth”, and “Fathers and Sons”, Cohen describes his three children in a kind, loving, and understanding light. His son “Andrew” is “Now in his early fifties,/mature with graying temples,/ he shares California’s love affair/with cars of every horsepower.//Dashes to auto markets in Europe/and American car shows rate high/in his schedule of appointments./Tennis along with biking on the/Pacific Coast Highway keep/him fit and ruddy.” While his daughter “Beth” often “As a child she held my hand/swinging as we walked./We skimmed flat rocks over water./She read poetry to me./Holding her half-size violin proudly,/she played music from her last session.” And in “Fathers and Sons”, Cohen writes that he “pushed for cello, he wanted drums./We wanted David to be a brain surgeon,/but playing with a jazz combo/was more his thing.” What wonderful memories Cohen has described in intricate detail without creating embarrassment.
Joseph A. Cohen’s A Full Life is a pleasure to read not only for its fine poetic qualities but also for the way that the readers can understand with clarity what makes this poet’s life click – his parents, his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his friends and acquaintances, the war he fought in as well as the places that he lived and traveled to.
A photographer and a poet, Cohen has given us the readers “pages with painterly images” that will remain in the minds of his readers for a long time after reading A Full Life.