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A confession: I like to read the endings first. Not for novels or narrative memoirs, but always for a collection of poems. I’m not worried that the last poem in the book is going to give something vital away. Surprise is chronic in good poetry, and insight is recursive. These aren’t elements the reader has to wait for in the form of a Big Reveal. Rather, I like to peek ahead in the spirit of T.S. Eliot, trusting that “The end is where we start from,” and also, if we’re lucky, that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
So along comes Julia Cohen’s surprising and insightful new collection, Collateral Light, and I turn to what I think is the last page—page 89, the last numbered page, the last line of the last poem listed in the Table of Contents. But I came of age in the era of “Easter eggs” on DVDs, so I find myself nosing through the Acknowledgments that follow. Then, lo and behold! On the second side of the final sheet of paper—the one that kisses the back cover every time it’s closed—I discover the ghostly blueprint of the book, the little candle Julia Cohen has left glowing for anyone who makes it to the real end of the hall.
The title reads, “IT MOVES IN, IS NOT STATIC.” I suspect “It” refers to the light for which the collection is named and also, of course, to more than the light. Then, this:
Where I store my arrows
What better way to impart the message, This collection of poems is brought to you courtesy of the Gut. Thank you for visiting the central hub of the Visceral. The image that springs to my mind is Artemis, or her Roman equivalent, Diana—goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, the natural environment. I turn to the front of the book with this image in mind, open it to find the arrows of language already slinging forth—not from the speaker’s mouth, of course, but from deep in her solar plexus.
The first poem is titled “NO ONE TOLD ME I WAS THE ARROW.” I commend myself quietly for reading the ending first.
Now how’s this for Artemis?
& their red coats
eye-pop the mountain
like a dog’s wounded side
Blood in the meadow—to spill well
The black flowers like pinwheels
spin & rotate heat in their starry fists
Here a localized wanting, a text
among animals & aprons
Isn’t Artemis also the goddess of animals? She is. Isn’t Artemis also the goddess of children, fertility, birth? She is. The ways we live with multiplicity, feel ourselves divided, stretched: the warrior who also wears the apron, the hunter who also tends the young.
On the next page, our speaker asks us: What’s your capacity for mutation?
And then: We gaze at the mother-vine// What part of ourselves / are we sparing?
In the title poem, this same speaker observes,
Everyone likes to look
at the moon
Isn’t Artemis also the goddess of the moon? She is. It isn’t a “man in the moon” perhaps, but Artemis herself watching over:
I put my face
inside your face
& look down
at the sunken garden
Her best advice for the earth-bound:
Get a ladder
She might have said: Go visceral, or go home.
The surprises continue, and the insights continue. Every line is an arrow, sharpened to a point. These are penetrating poems.
The book is arranged in five sections. Each begins with an epigraph, un-cited. I presume they are the poet’s own words. In the moonlight, instead of bread crumbs, we follow her phrases. That’s the old-fashioned way of winding through a forest’s maze. Or we think of these words in our New Age as the ticker, the constant scroll, streaming the length of our poetic screen which, being recursive, means its circumference:
My face was curious → I can’t just sit here with feelings → Open the invitation to anyone→ Everything needs to be moved through → Let’s worship doubt
Spoken like a true postmodernist huntress wandering through the woods, wouldn’t you say? This in which the woods are also our language, briared in such stunning and vexing multi-valence:
Some say I have little
faith in the full
[Let’s worship doubt]
with invisible arrows
& ice & ice
[Everything needs to be moved through]
Can you direct traffic?
Choose your fiancé?
[Open the invitation to anyone]
you can die inside & not
even know it
[I can’t just sit here with feelings]
Even in shipwreck we are not
marooned We play host
to ghosts daily
[My face was curious]
Then, I remember that I’m reviewing for Lambda. I turn back to the book, suddenly panicked. Aren’t I supposed to be hunting for the LGBT content? Highlighting it for the LGBT reading audience?
I am tempted to say: “There is no discernible LGBT content in Collateral Light.” It is more aptly described as a “moon-book” or a “bird-book” or a “tree-book” than it is a “gay-book” or a “lesbian-book.” I wonder if it might be a queerer book for just this reason.
In one of my favorite poems, “WE’RE ENAMOURED WITH SHADOWS,” the speaker sings,
We’re convinced arrows
have no shadows
I am thinking now of the phrase “straight as an arrow.” I am thinking now of the certainty the word “straight,” and by extension, the word “arrow” implies. Is anyone really that straight, that certain—regardless of the sexual identity claimed, or unclaimed?
The speaker continues, lifting the bread crumb she has already scattered: Open the invitation to anyone
This book doesn’t expect a certain kind of reader. But this book will make its mark on you, regardless of the kind of reader you are or think you are:
The moon a bloody thumbprint
The one I left on your throat
This book—this speaker—will solicit your participation in the making of that mark. Oh, Artemis, the Postmodernist! She will help you bend the arrow back, release the shadows. She will make you quiver with the questions she asks:
What mood do you want?
And if you were to ask her outright, “What do you have to say about identity? About sexual fluidity? Where do you weigh in on all that?” I think I know exactly what our speaker would tell you, quoting herself from “THE MIND THIS MORNING”:
We exist before
We float the rinds
in a bucket
I am a matchstick
The source of joy
is in the instinct for joy
When we play
the faster we spin
trees mother trees mother
In the end, what a beautiful blur we make. What a beautiful, unnameable blur!
Brooklyn Arts Press
Paperback, 9781936767229, 94 pp.