Harp & Altar
Farrah Field
The Art of Groundlessness: Julia Cohen's Chapbooks

Patrick Morrissey

Michael Newton

The Art of Groundlessness: Julia Cohen's Chapbooks
Farrah Field

Who Can Forget the Sensational First Evening of the Night (H_ngm_n B_ _ks, 2007)

If Fire, Arrival (horseless press, 2006)

The History of a Lake Never Drowns (dancing girl press, 2008)

For the H in Ghost (Brave Men Press, 2009)


You could spend all day trying to track Julia Cohen’s publication credits. Her poems have appeared in countless journals, both in print and online, and in addition to the four chapbooks she’s published on her own, she has three more co-written with Mathias Svalina and at least four others forthcoming. Seven of these chapbooks were published before she finished her MFA, and now, with less than a year having passed since that accomplishment, her first full-length book, Triggermoon Triggermoon, is due out this spring from Black Lawrence Press. Considering her publishing history, Cohen’s forthcoming book can’t exactly be called a debut of her work, since there’s so much of it out there already. Don’t confuse her with the next new thing either; her influence on other poets has proven more significant than her youth would suggest. Yet something defiantly new, something regenerative, has defined her writing from the beginning. Newness, in the form of vibrant metaphoric invention and fierce sonic ravelry, is in itself emblematic of Cohen’s poetics, in which a sharp thematic focus stands in a kind of elemental tension with an elusive, unstable linguistic gamesmanship.

Cohen’s characteristic mode is a stream-of-consciousness at once jutting and quizzical, yet grounded and self-assured. Though her poems sound like memories, though they sound like stories, they are constantly upsetting our expectations about the relation between language and memory, language and experience. Their formal provocations grow directly out of the breakdown between different registers and categories of speech. The poems gather together words as though they had been rounded up from dreams, former classroom assignments, conversations with friends, walks down city streets, moments with lovers, childhood memories, scenes from books or films, all overlaid and intertangled. Her somewhat perplexing phrases require multiple readings (and often more than one double take), and though the course of the poems is typically winding and nonlinear, without promoting any straightforward narrative, an inherent sense of story, of development, of argument, is palpable and unyielding. The poems hint at surrealism but are specifically not “surreal,” gesturing at dreaming possibilities impossible within the confines of an announced dream landscape, recombining past and present through the workings and workings-over of memory and wonder. (Consider the title: “Call Me a Grown-Up but My Five Eyes Blink at Once.”) They are childish and playful and childful and playish, anchored by dead-on sweeping statements on beauty and experience. Here’s an example from the poem “Two-Headed Kitten,” found in Who Could Forget the Sensational First Evening of the Night:


In the bathtub I swim to Staten Island we’re neck and neck

but I beat the ferry by a head what we carry most is not visible

It is so very visible


The longing for intimacy throughout Cohen’s work is aching and urgent, as is the need to reclaim memory. To have memories, in some sense, means to lose them. To hold onto memories means to be alone with one’s experience, no matter how shared it was in the lived moment, and to be alone with the desire to never lose its detail or contour. One day you won’t be able to remember what you want, won’t be able to re-experience memories long-since filed away—perhaps from age, perhaps from sheer accumulation. The brain is a strange place that shuffles, filters, adjusts, and fixates according to the time of day, how much beer or coffee you’ve had, or a sudden swing of emotion. Do you trust your own brain? “I miss the charm of a sturdy memory like a missing limb,” Cohen writes.

Her poems have bleeding phraseology and very little punctuation. She tends not to build large, complicated sentences saluting the traditional structure thereof. Rather, she positions phrases right up next to one another, blending ideas, gaining movement. Here’s an example from the poem “Fieldtrip,” in If Fire, Arrival:


When I lost the spelling bee a kind teacher told me the original language

was an infant sigh she also taught me you’ll know when you see it


Cohen’s phrasework is like scooping cereal onto a spoon for a bite that is part crunchy, part milky. Her method of putting words together is never restful, never lazy, never cluttered. Intelligence as imagination and imagination as intelligence pull her words together. “As in gauging the rain, it is nothing like rain,” she writes in “There Is a Naked Body up There & I Need to Touch It,” in The History of a Lake Never Drowns. Measuring experience might be a definitive human act, but it is not the same as experience itself. The energy in poems comes from how they take this measure, from how they leave language cues like breadcrumbs for us to follow the trail back through experience, even if only the experience of language. I gladly pick them up as I follow Cohen on her winding trails.


Excuse Me, Your Beard Is Showing!

Julia Cohen is to beards what Henry Darger is to girls with little penises. Who Could Forget the Sensational First Evening of the Night is a compendium of childhood renderings mixed with adult complications. “What beard have you given yourself recently?” Cohen asks. Her beards are non-gender specific and add an unnerving yet playful quality to the poems—a dark humor, a thing you didn’t expect. Picture Miss Havisham as a young woman with a beard. “Only dangerous beards belongs to the dead.” Picture groups of storybook children—the boys from Peter Pan or Laura Ingalls and her sisters—not with pixie dust or pennies, but with beards tied behind their ears. Serving as a visual, thematic, and rhetorical touchstone throughout the chapbook, beards build upon the ideas of masking, covering and uncovering. “Unready to remove our beards and fight / we take the other account where the organic is on our side.” In lines like these, Cohen layers the many meanings of “beards” one on top of the other, suggesting both natural physical growth and protective sexual cover. Markers of maturity, beards are things to be touched, with a certain outline and texture, hair that is like other hair somewhere else on the body, hair that is either cut and groomed or left to grow and spread. “Bury your beard on the porch where I first found it.” In these poems, beards can be brought out and removed from a face, or can be kept private like a memory. Hiding something like a child, yet possessing something like an adult—Cohen knits this profound thread through the chapbook.

Poems like “Not Any Replica” evoke a mysterious state that is neither child nor adult, as though the intertwining of childhood experience, memory, and the process of “growing up,” created a sort of fieldtrip from any one coherent time or stage of life:


Peer and crane to see anything at all

and more often what happens is outside our field


The cheerful country weekend rolls by unnoticed

This piece of the same country smearing and growing


We swear inside the hut is better than a hundred torches

The bog is nearly dry and soon will be able to support our tracks


In one unbearable version a variety of poison flowers

band together next to the path


Unready to remove our beards and fight

we take the other account where the organic is on our side


Any replica of movement by the original is just persistence

So look and move at the same pace to catapult outside the field


We open the package of regrettables and quickly wrap them in sheets to soak

Come up with the dark bottle and a box of matches


We roll the sheets down the path of a hundred torches

so onlookers watch and murmur over a choice they may make


It is not a favor this favor of looking

We drop the request into the bog


In this world of pastoral-meets-Swamp Thing, there isn’t a single speaker, but rather a gathered “we.” But is this a school camping trip, a family vacation, or a lovers’ getaway? We “peer and crane” like backseat children desperate to see something during a “cheerful country weekend” that “rolls by unnoticed,” but “the package of regrettables,” “the dark bottle and a box of matches” suggests pleasures decidedly more adult. “This piece of the same country smearing and growing,” Cohen writes in the second couplet, as though the trip were already in the past, already a bit blurry. The poem then splits at line 7 as “one unbearable version” takes hold, forcing us to wonder how many versions there are and if any of them is more “bearable”? “The package of regrettables” is interesting wordplay, gaining multiple nuances considering the connotations of “regrettables” (sexual slumming, conservative economic wastage) as well as the word’s simultaneous evocation of both present and future regret. Cohen’s phrase turns regret into a packaged object, something purchased or homemade, something domesticated, nicknamed, even treasured.

In the unusual scene of witness that closes the poem, “We roll the sheets down the path of a hundred torches / so onlookers watch and murmur over a choice they may make.” A sort of classic horror mob-like presence looms here, with those torches that might light the way to the fantasy dungeon, or might burn the castle to the ground. Yet the scene here is a strange battle without a fight, inducing the feeling of being watched, the feeling of others’ influence, of others participating without you. Are “the onlookers” adults watching children, children watching adults, adults watching other adults? All are true, to a certain extent. Everyone watches you become an adult, serving as witnesses to your own culpability and regret, the mirror to their own.


Hello, Mediations. Hello, Interlude. Hello, Julia Cohen’s Hello Poems.

Hello, Something. Hello, irrational building. Hello, bones, warm bones, bones warmer than kindling. Hello, story of use.

The truth is that you say you never “summered” in Barcelona, but imagination says otherwise.

The exercise of “goodly”—good not quite good, “goodly sound,” “goodly couch,” good-like. Growing into language, into “sentencing.” Were you reading the bible? Acts 15:19, “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God . . . ” Our time together is like a sentence. Losing salt, tumbling into salt like time. Are you turning into salt like Lot’s wife? I hate that; I hate that I can’t remember her name. “I cannot account / for the time that has passed, but I have // lost much of it like salt” (“Hello, Goodly”).

Word trickery, spells, child games. Repeat a name thrice. Bloody Mary. I’m hurting to do you a favor. Why are you wearing your hurt on the outside? Little treasures, securities, risks. “My hands come back to me in the 24 hour bodega the clerk hands me // free cigarettes I never smoke but take anyways as bricks for my castle” (“Hot Cold”). How come there are so many things that at one time seem important but become nothing? What are you supposed to do with everything that was handed to you, everything you didn’t know what to do with, everything you didn’t want?

If you can’t see your face, is your face still your face? You don’t know if your own performance is good. You’ve done something to your face. There’s one day a year that you pretend to be dead; it’s only funny on Halloween. Counting time and distance—not the distance between phone calls, but the distance between telephone poles. X as ex-lover. I like to call them formers. The truth of your dream is black? “So black it is // the list of truths I pocket” (“Hello, Tugboat: Will You See My X and X”). Is truth so black that you have to store it away? Beginnings reworked into endings, “my greedy midnight” becoming “the greedy fountain” (“The Kite”).

Don’t close what you want open. “Dare you to find / what is more disturbing than a slate scraped clean” (“Reins”). Is nothing worse than losing experience? A slate is never scraped clean, not even in death. Not even with new love.

Wish for simple. “Take me to when another // was not a threat I could harbor” (“Hello, Nostalgia”). Do you see yourself as yourself? Have you realized that someone wants their youth back when they look at you?

If your hamsters live past Christmas and you carry a bag like a baby, “you win everyone knows you’ll be / a good mother” (“Fieldtrip”). Stupid tests to see if you’re good at being grown-up. Sometimes language has no words, especially the language of just-waking. Sleepy talk and words that float out of your mouth from napping breath, words that can hardly stand on their own two feet. “If life size can be so small are we the right size” (“Fieldtrip”). How is it that some things are so tiny? Does it mean that we’re too big?

I picked up Hamlet before. “ ‘The hero always engineers / the villain to fall on her own // sword’ ” (“Hello Encore, Please”). Petard—a bucket of gunpowder designed to knock down walls in battles and battle scenes. These buckets were more dangerous for the makers than for the walls. To have attended a play in the 15th century would have been total chaos unless you were an actor and even still. Wanting looks of approval but finding that detestable. I’m stepping in your poem’s bucket.


This Isn’t Kicking Horse Reservoir or Is It?

The History of a Lake Never Drowns homes in on and refines the complexities of language exhibited in Cohen’s previous chapbooks. Though much shorter than the other two, this chapbook delivers spirited and challenging poems that hoist and tackle. There is, however, a courser, cutthroat edge to this work, something markedly not nice, something pointing to a deep sadness, to disappointment and anger. The ground Cohen wasn’t standing on becomes shaky. “I cannot finish this poem for you,” she writes in her newly serrated tone (“I Count Between the Seconds to Find Your Head Does Not Rest the Pillow”). The incompleteness harkens melancholy and heartache, admitting “I” can’t tell you what to do or make a decision for you. Pointedly, cannot is used in this line, not shall not or will not. An unfinished stopping place has been reached—a stalemate. She would if she could, but she can’t. The line offers no self-assurance; something between “I” and “you” has been left hanging, a project has been left undone. Working on many levels is the address of the “you” to whom the poem is addressed, at once you the beloved and also you the reader. Cohen has addressed poem writing, directly and indirectly, in other poems, but never as powerfully as here, openly telling the reader that a conclusion will not be reached. This encapsulates the ambiguity that she achieves so effortlessly. Meaning doesn’t necessarily cohere as a clear-cut summary of any one of her lines, but her unconventional approaches direct readers toward something more expansive: to measure possibilities instead of answers.

Before continuing, a point needs to be made about Cohen’s original and beguiling titles, which are virtually poems in and of themselves. Quizzical and funny, the titles often introduce the reader to a tone developed in the poems. The chapbook’s title poem serves as an example of both a pivotal poem for the chapbook and a typical Julia Cohen title. Though “The History of a Lake Never Drowns” does contain a body of water in the poem, this title is a stand-alone thought-poke. What exactly is the history of a lake? The history of its lifetime as a visited and referenced body of water, such as Walden Pond? Of how this lake was used in some specific time period, say the ’70’s? If the lake was man-made, does its history begin when it was totally filled in or when someone had the idea to make it? Or what about a lake that has dried up and left either an expanse of fertile soil or nothing at all? What about a lake whose shores have been developed? The history of a lake, as a phrase, appeals to a local sensibility, in the sense that local communities tend to visit their surrounding lakes. As far as drowning is concerned, the word “drowns” is a choice term that animates both history and lake by offering the idea of history as never ending, yet all the while showing that a lake can’t do what the living things within it can do, drown and die. It can’t die within itself. The entity stirs with vitality; it will never drown, but will it do something else? Flood over? Erode the nearby landscape? Yet lakes are always “drowning” in garbage and germs, sewage and stench. Does the history of anything actually drown? What if we replace “lake” with “man”—does the history of a man never drown? Cohen’s suggestive title works its way into the full scope of our associations. How can we not think of the Lady in the Lake? Or Richard Hugo’s “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir”?

“The History of a Lake Never Drowns” is acclimated in Cohen’s illusory, unpredictable imagery, her ambiguous syntactical and tonal shifts, and her arresting observations. She walks with figurative language as though it were a friend she introduced you to and you wanted to ask this person a hundred questions and to know everything on her mind. Here is the poem in its entirety:


We fished for porcelain, traded childhood wampum in shards of blue


Summer thunder levitated a tiny body in bed

Your head, tender poppy, white-shaped lung tired like a sinner watching

the sun go down


Think how many little words have passed by & not noticed you

The dock was a xylophone you dove from


Lightning slung past me reddening the water, it bled where your

swimming stopped


I’ll widow, I’ll always form a body to mourn

Shape behind the shape, chartered, gland-like in what to give


The bank above burned grasses blue like icing

Drowning is only levitation above the lake’s floor


When I unclutter, when a memory goes out, there is a bride inside me

A hole in the water where your body once was


The stunning language in this poem—“tender poppy,” for example, in which I can’t help but hear the opiate mantra, “poppies will make them sleep,” and sense every kind of tiredness, including the sleepy kind, the humdrum kind, and the wayward kind; or the phrase “I’ll widow,” not “I’ll be a widow” or “I’ll be like a widow,” meaning I’ll be exactly what it is to miss your presence—gives the fragmentary images and narrative enormous emotional tension and force, pushing the words out of their qualifications and ambiguities into strange territory in which the linguistic and the psychological cease to mean anything as separate categories.


Let’s All Get Another Round

Scrutinizing the parts of words that take up space yet have sound, Cohen brings into play an even more sophisticated artistic approach in her most recent chapbook, For the H in Ghost, one of her finest achievements to date. While her poems increase in length, perhaps due to the dimensions of the chapbook, they also become more spare and difficult to parse, often losing me in whole nests of language, and sometimes in just a few fingers of it, yet always her art of groundlessness, her groundless ground, continually demonstrates an untamable rootedness, a playful fervor.

In “The Decoy Museum Is Still,” there are two getting-lost-in-thinking lines that I want to delve into. The first line—“your childhood-bird looks / so young”—left me thinking about birds, and fauna in general, for some time. Birds never really show signs of aging; they’re either flying around or they’re not. Decoys are so easy because birds of one group pretty much all look the same. Yet a childhood-bird speaks to how you see yourself as a child, to the way that your childhood self is always sort of the same age, though probably always looking younger, in fact, as one grows older and further removed from the “childhood-bird,” the child self. The resonance of the second line—“lit by bayonets fresh / from the oven”—is even more pronounced for me. The inherent violence of bayonets acting as a source of light speaks to the creepiness of the image, as does the idea that the bayonets are “fresh,” since the scariest part of weaponry is that it is constantly new. Yet, the phrase “fresh from the oven” indicates a homely quality, as though that which frightens us the most is an everyday part of our lives.

Many of Cohen’s poems include an eternal return of sorts—a sort of evolution of words and ideas that first appear at the poem’s beginning, then come back at the end through homonyms and other reworkings—and “The Decoy Museum Is Still” is no exception. The idea of “the decoy museum” is kneaded thoroughly throughout the poem. It “is still a real museum / so distracting you can die inside & not / even know it.” We can all be distracted by the life that looks like life, by the memories that seem to give us back to ourselves whole; it’s quite a powerful idea.  We watch the decoy museum be lit by the aforementioned bayonets, and then watch it “destroyed,” in the hope of recovering something closer to actuality: “I destroy the like-like decoy I’ve been meaning to / live.”

Cohen establishes her playful ideas and they seem to come weirdly true, as though the decoy museum were something right out of the Jurassic Museum of Technology in Los Angeles. Other plays-on-words take shape as well. In the penultimate section of the poem, birthdays are related to anticipation, yet later become “newspaper shin guards” in the final section. Birthdays are just another day. Reworkings such as these happen throughout her poetry, not making the poems circular so much as open-ended, refusing any attempt to box or frame them in. The poem ends with these lines:


wing clipping season ends when I cut

the swans from your ankles                          newspaper shin guards

are birthdays


between the gilded         pages I whistle the grass

between my thumbs

I destroy the like-like decoy I’ve been meaning to



place all possible coverings away from your face’s reach

what happens to your face


For the H in Ghost moves through a trajectory of the body, as though the intimacy so sought after in the first three chapbooks has finally been rewarded with a new project of physicality. The body is a collection of memories—“the body of your memory” in “The Decoy Museum”—yet it is constantly in motion, as in “I’ve Walked Backwards to Remember My Name”: “here is my body moving air out of the way.” And the definitive feature of this active, operating body is that it is removed from its name. “Not a name but the body,” and elsewhere, “a body breaking away from its name.” In “Call Me a Grown-Up but My Five Eyes Blink at Once,” Cohen brings out the animality of bodies, saying “the animal in my leg was the deep humiliation / of crawling up the stairs.” She even goes as far to say, “kiss my puppy lips my deer lips / the animal inside that animal / alive & yelping through the skin” (“Someday You’ll Be Replaced by Language & then Nothing at All”). There is more than one animal quality to the body, one inside the other like a matryoshka doll. Can a body sum up a word or a name? In “Call Me a Grown-Up . . . ,” Cohen postulates this new kind of intimacy, recognition without language: “I see bodies but the words are gone . . . as if a stone sums up the land that stands behind it.”


Hello, Julia Cohen, You’re Taking Over My Bookshelf

On her blog, Julia Cohen once wrote,


Reading experimental poetry, listening to music, seeing a film or an art show, or reading theory that puts something in this world that is beautiful, constructive, advances dialog and new avenues of understanding—these are the moments that make me feel we, as humans, can provide something positive that would not exist on this planet without us. That’s the glow. For poetry, I’m intrigued by work that dismantles and then plays with the un-gendered “I,” that explores new forms of address, reckoning, and evinces culpability for the human and non-human other. Through new communication via what some may call anti-narrative, the links between fragmented image, quiet but firm declarations, and the transitive property of memory in complimenting and translating subjective experience to an other. Works that are about inclusive resistance and inclusive revolt, that emanate a destabilizing yet regenerative force, that may on the surface look surreal though are anything but.


Each new chapbook of Cohen’s has borne out her commitment to this approach, adding something to the world that would certainly not exist without her. As in the title poem from For the H in Ghost, Cohen finds new ways to remove “the bar” within her poems, leaving the poet and the reader to stand “I” to “I”:


The unspeakable “H”

When the bar            falls away

“I” & “I” stand              face to face