Monday, December 25, 2017

Obituary: Poet Joseph A. Cohen, Age 100

Poet Joe Cohen
Obituary for Joseph A. Cohen
William Falcetano

It is with regret that we learned of the death of Joseph A. Cohen, a beloved member of the Bagel Bards weekly meet-up. We last heard about Joe when he turned 100 in July; Ibbetson Street Press had just published his second book of poetry by the title “A New Path”. Let the irony sink in. Yet, despite his advanced age, Joe Cohen managed, somehow, to live up to the title of his book – seeking out new paths – up to the day he was stricken by a fatal stroke on Sunday morning December 10th.

We were lucky enough to see him at the Bagel Bards gathering the day before. It was snowing and we were all pleasantly surprised that he came at all, given his advanced age. Yet there he was, thanks to the kind assistance of his dear friend Victor, sitting among the bards, eating his customary cheese danish with black coffee, and kibitzing with the poets and the ladies; he especially liked the ladies and they returned his affections with warm embraces and kisses on the cheek. Joe was irresistible that way – you just wanted to kiss him.

He sat there looking out through the large window onto the courtyard watching busy people scurry by as the snow fell on them. He looked at them with the eye of a portrait photographer – he never tired of seeing people’s faces; he enjoyed studying them. His keen observations came across in his surprisingly revealing portraits.

Joe bid us farewell as Victor escorted him home for lunch and a little rest before heading out to Jordan Hall for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was / is the season for Handel, and all that wonderful music which Joe loved so ardently. He came from a family of musicians: his wife Sonia was a piano teacher and a composer; his daughter, Beth Bahia Cohen, is a violinist and faculty member at Berklee College of Music and Tufts University – her expertise is in Balkan and Middle Eastern bowed string instruments. When Joe read his poetry around town, it was often to the accompaniment of his daughter Beth and sometimes her friends as well.

Beth recently asked me to escort her father to The Museum of Fine Arts, where she was performing in the ancient Greek gallery. It was a great privilege to be out on the town with my centenarian friend along with another friend of mine who was visiting from Brooklyn. All three of us were able to talk about Brooklyn having lived there at different times in our lives. Joe grew up there in the 1920s and 30s; I lived there during the start of the recent tidal wave of gentrification in the late 1980s; and my friend is a bona fide 40-something hipster from Bensonhurst. We managed improbably somehow to bond that enchanted evening.

The MFA was hosting a 100th year anniversary of their musical instrument collection that night: soloists and ensembles were playing in different galleries using period instruments owned by the museum. Beth was playing a 100-year-old Cretan lyra, and her accompanist, a handsome Greek lad, was playing the Greek laouto. They performed Cretan music amidst ancient Greek pottery with themes labeled “Dionysus”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, etc. The music was enchanting, the setting incomparable, and Joe Cohen was as near to heaven as I have ever seen another human being. He was swelling with pride as he shouted out “that’s my daughter”, “play fiddler, play!” Like I said, you just want to kiss him.

I have already written about Joe’s long life and his many accomplishments. Here I wanted only to point out that since his birthday this summer, Joe blazed new paths in his life and showed us all that life is worth living – and enjoying – to the very end.

Joseph A. Cohen will be mourned and missed by his large and lovely family, but also by his many friends here in Cambridge, especially a little band of poets whose weekly meetings he graced for a few happy years.


  1. I read this with much love and appreciation for having the opportunity to have the experience of Joe's friendship. Thank your capturing his spirit to share with all who knew him, and the followers of Ibbetson Press. Bridget

  2. I'm really glad I bought Joe's book last month. It gave me a lot of pleasure, and I hope wherever he is right now, he's reading this wonderful piece about himself, and notices my little comment.