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Posted by : cj on Sunday, March 01, 2009 - 01:16 PM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet
by Helen Degen Cohen
Finishing Line Press
Reviewed by CJ Laity

Writing poetry about poetry is sort of taboo. We all love to break this taboo and try our hand at it, but too often the result is just an uninspired attempt at overcoming writers block or perhaps something quaint and witty to break the ice over a microphone. It takes a truly talented poet to pull off quality poetry about poetry, so that says a lot about Helen Degen Cohen, whose entire new book On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet is poetry about poetry. Cohen not only accomplishes this risky endeavor, but she actually manages to create a tour de force that holds its own as one of the finest chapbooks from a Chicago artist to come out in recent history. What other poet can convince us with her verse that poetry is not only geometry but also economy? This book, published by Finishing Line Press out of Georgetown, Kentucky, is definitely the Cohen title that you should invest in.

Some poets go to museums and get their inspiration from paintings, even going so far as to title their poems after the works of art. Here the book of poetry is the museum and other poems and the poets who wrote them inspire Cohen. The page becomes the canvas, but unlike images bound by paint poetry allows for a certain metamorphosis of interpretation upon each reading. Cohen points this out:

And I thought yes, when only yesterday,
reading in this same book, I had thought—no.

(from "This Morning")

Cohen writes about writing, at one point even including strike outs to not only illustrate the process of editing but to enhance the meaning of the poem by giving it the extra layer of the unedited version.

Cohen not only personifies poetry but she also creates complicated metaphors so that we may visualize the process of writing poetry as if it is an object:

roof on the new brick Center, broken by bare tree trunks stuck there / since their beginnings / writers stuck

(from "You Can't Not Write About It")

She also writes about reading poetry, and at these times the book becomes the world, and the poem within the book becomes a captured moment that is infinite:

I will have written at least four stanzas without any
additional object of any particular color in any
scene and you will remember these words

(from "The Red Wheelbarrow")

Next, Cohen writes poetry about the criticism of poetry.

Like where you have to read the (an, entire) book
that will not stand the test of
time, time being a couple of days,

(from "On a Good Day One Discovers Another Poet")


I saw nothing.
I heard nothing.
I say on the front steps,
with breakfast, squinting at nothing.
Post-Modern Anthology in hand.

(from "Today,")

or even:

And will you say / the Lord is my shepherd . . . / or take the Tennis Court Oath / or try to jury Jory, or insist that old geezer there is but a / paltry thing / or sing like hell / in SF, at home, at the Green Mill?

(from "Response I – The Bus")

The poet pays tribute to her favorite poets by playing with different voices and styles of poetry. In the world of this book the poet is friend, is teacher, is poem. Here is how Cohen describes Tess Gallagher, Rita Dove and Louise Gluck:

. . . three voices / out of sleep, waking as women, essential / women—and along with them, that sun / wedging in

Unfortunately it's a bit difficult to do Cohen's poetry justice with these few short quotes on the internet. You have to see the work on the page to really appreciate it. It's not uncommon for Cohen to use italics, parenthesis, dashes, colons, exaggerated spaces and other punctuation and imaginative syntax all in the same stanza while she pays tribute to the greats. It would be very hard to duplicate all of it here, so rather than making an attempt at it I'll simply suggest that you buy the actual book and enjoy it the way it is meant to be.

So click here and scroll down about three rows to find this title and purchase it online through PayPal. And enjoy!

--CJ Laity

Note: Here is a review of Helen Degen Cohen's new book of poetry, On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet

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