Sunday, July 19, 2015

Furs Not Mine By Andrea Cohen

Andrea Cohen

Furs Not Mine
By Andrea Cohen
Four Way Books
New York, NY
ISBN: 978-1-935536-51-2
89 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Poems as polished as those by Andrea Cohen give up their secrets very slowly. Furs Not Mine, Cohen’s newest collection encourages her readers to enter its confines with enameled logic and diamond-edged imagery. Once inside one finds a sense of loss, a Siberian coldness, and a ghostly hunger for a way out. Escape, however, may not be in the cards. The chilliness continues even after the book’s completion and Cohen’s well-wrought lines ebb away into mnemonic limbo.

The opening poem, a really marvelous short piece entitled The Committee Weighs In sets the tone. Give and take repartee between mother and daughter exudes warmth, family closeness, and intellectual life. Then, of course, clarity enters with its uncomfortable surprises. The poet’s persona has just jokingly announced her reception of the Nobel Prize to her mother who engages playfully. The poem continues,

Again? she says. Which
discipline this time?

It’s a little game
we play: I pretend

I’m somebody, she
pretends she isn’t dead.

Notice that the startling last line all but swallows up the self-deprecating humor prefacing it. Nice touch.

Breaking and Entering, a poem of profound pessimism, leaves one locked in a world of night where homes devolve into lonely interiors. Cohen’s wit takes control here, saving the day and keeping the piece emotionally taut. Here’s the heart of the poem,

Mostly the home
invasion is an inside
job: your interiors
get ravaged and pointing

a finger, you
mean to seek

damages. I left
the window open,

told the guard
dogs to roll over.

He pinched my last

Cohen’s poem Macaroons quips about the penultimate things of life, as well as the acceptance of death. Her tone is clipped. The phrase “I get it” takes on a sullen choral power not directed at her dead mother, but rather at the deal humanity gets as one by one they make their way through the brutish and duplicitous aspects of life. The poet especially pummels the concept of the Promised Land. Navigating the short lines and tight logic I felt breathless, caught in the poem, unable to slip out between the syllables. From the very first line the tone of the piece never varies. Cohen opens her strange lament with acceptance, aggressive acceptance,

I get it now
You’re dead.
You can’t do
you used to.
Reruns instead
of new episodes.
I get it.
You can’t send
Macaroons this Passover…

My favorite poem in this collection Cohen entitles Bargain. The poet relates a story line as old as human kind. Well-heeled travelers are led into the desert, perhaps for quixotic reasons (Magi? tourists?). Their guide wants to renegotiate the terms of their agreement now that he has the upper hand. In the desert no deal is iron-clad. Everything can be renegotiated when circumstances change. The irony of their situation strikes a chord due to the self-satisfied arrogance that led the travelers into this trap of their own making. In fact I know a little bit about this type of negotiation, only it happened to me at 12,000 feet in the Hind Kush Mountains. My guides, who otherwise were quite honest, saw an opportunity to exercise their business acumen. We compromised. Back to the review at hand. Cohen ends this poem with a grounding eye-opening flip. She uses this technique in many of her pieces and she does it well. Actually, she does it better than anyone I can think of. The poet details a changing reality,

Such slim wages

to take us, without
complaint, all the way—
so far, without a star.

We were in the middle
of nowhere, or at its edge.
Friends, he asked, from

inside that blackness,
what will you pay me
to take you back?

The word “Friends” in this context deserves special mention for its remarkable and almost instantaneous transformation into a sinister threat par excellence, infused with surrounding darkness in case one misses the point.

Furs Not Mine, the title poem, seems almost etched onto the page. Each line exposing angular depth as it builds into the singular metaphor. The poet’s spiritual iciness speaks for itself. Consider these telling lines,


need not be or speak Russian
to comprehend the sense

of furs not mine. One need only
to have known deep cold, an inmost

Siberia made more Siberian by one
who basks nearby, oblivious in her Bolivia.

Like an unindicted co-conspirator he lords over us, this God of ours, the God of Job, with arched right eye and then judges us for what we do and don’t do. Yes, we created this God not only to share our guilt, but also to commiserate with us over his so-called gift of free will. Yeah, thanks a bunch. Cohen puts it another way in her riveting poem entitled Sins of Omission. Her protagonist, stricken with regret over life choices and lost potential, tests the very reality of her dream-world and calmly arrives at its dead end. Her family dissolves as she steps back in existential dread,

…God knows
we’ve been left
out by God.
The last part I
say under my breath
so my son
won’t hear. But—
little pitchers—he
does. Mom, he
says his brow knit.
It’s the moment
I’ve dreaded. You
know I don’t
really exist, right?

Poems that confront the glacial landscapes deeply within our shared consciousness are few and far between. Cohen’s icy architectures in this stellar collection showcase her uncommon bravery in facing humanity’s common, but no less scary, demons. Engagement generates warmth. That’s one of the poet’s secrets. Now breathe.

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