Back to Issue Thirteen.

ON FURS NOT MINE by ANDREA COHEN

FOUR WAY BOOKS, 2015
REVIEW BY JACKSON HOLBERT

            Andrea Cohen’s Furs Not Mine is a scintillating exploration of how we cope with loss, of how loss and its perpetually hazier cousin, absence, change how we think and how we perceive reality. The collections revolves around a few central losses, most significantly the loss of the narrator’s mother. The opening poem, “The Committee Weighs In,” exemplifies this sense of loss, as well as the honesty and strangeness with which Cohen treats loss, absence and our own mortality.

                        I tell my mother
                        I’ve won the Nobel Prize.

                        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 (“The Committee Weighs In,” 3).

The first two stanzas set up the world, the situation of the poem. The third stanza reads fast and rhythmically, driving the language into the final stanza, which reveals that the first two stanzas, almost playful at first glance, are in truth a deep communication with the dead—in the form, of course, of the speaker communicating with her own memories. Like many of Cohen’s poems, the speed with which “The Committee Weighs In” reads, the ease of the language, is misleading. These are poems to be read quickly, then re-read slowly then read again.

            The mother’s death seeps into even the most quotidian moments. In some of the language, one cannot help but see glimpses of Emily Dickinson. Many of the poems are reminiscent of the later poems in Sharon Olds’ The Father. Cohen’s true precursor, though, seems to be Kay Ryan. The wit, the precise and sometimes playful diction, the manner in which the poems go about risking their own destruction in order to find their own weird truths. Though surely less formal than Ryan’s work, this collection possesses the same Ryan-esque quality.

            Even Cohen’s childhood poems are marked by the anticipation of future loss. Take, for example, her poem “First Thought, Best Thought”:

                        I’m three or four,
                        hidden in the branches

                        of the cherry tree.
                        I don’t ask: how

                        did I get here?
                        I don’t fear falling.

                        The job of the blossom
                        is to bloom, to be

                        beautifully unschooled in ruin (“First Thought Best Thought,” 88).

The stunning scene is broken—in its wake, or perhaps in the act of remembrance—not by the question, but by the poet’s knowledge that the question once had yet to exist, that there was a time when “to be and delight to be seemed to be one,” to borrow from Stevens. Though Cohen’s child narrator seems innocent, she also appears conscious of beauty’s work and, by extension, poetry’s work. In fact it is this consciousness, in the company of the (lack of a) question, that gestures not at a loss of innocence, but toward a ‘schooling’ in ruin.

            Cohen’s focus on loss and absence does not, however, render the collection devoid of humor or wit. The final poem in the book, “Gravy Boat,” matches Cohen’s focus on loss and absence with a certain humor, a certain liveliness, that ultimately erects a stunning poem about life and death and loving the world.

                        I’ve got one foot
                        in the grave, one
                        in the gravy boat.

                        It’s the same foot.
                        The other one?
                        I cut it off.

                        Otherwise it would
                        have stood its one
                        foot in the grave.

                        I balance easily now
                        in the gravy boat
                        on my good foot.

                        I got the boat cheap,
                        when Bolivia lost its coast
                        and auctioned off its navy.

                        Where am I sailing?
                        Who can say?
                        Goodbye Bolivia, hello gravy! (“Gravy Boat,” 89).

In reading these lines, one can’t help but remember Raymond Carver’s later poems: the fierceness, the optimism. One might even think of “Gravy Boat” as an allusion to Carver’s poem “Gravy.” Cohen’s blend of humor and solemnity creates an atmosphere of sincerity where even Cohen’s oddest images are unmistakably genuine, where their strangeness, in a way, reinforces the urgency and inherent intrigue of poetry.

            One of the great triumphs of Furs Not Mine is that Cohen manages to write personal poems that are both intensely inward and intensely outward. This is not a collection merely about absence, loss of a family member, and how such loss modifies how we see the world and interact with language.

            Through their intimate haunting, Cohen’s poems supplement loss by confronting the greatest generators of death: war, strife, famine. Poems such as “Bomb,” about the reactions of mothers to their sons’ deaths. Poems such as “Explanation (Hiroshima),” about guarding the truth of the past and memory. Through its impressive juxtaposition, this collection manages to apply what is personal to what is worldly, to look at the personal and see just a beginning.

 

 

Andrea Cohen’s poems and stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Her previous poetry collections include The Cartographer’s Vacation, winner of the Owl Creek Poetry Prize, Long Division, and Kentucky Derby. She has received a PEN Discovery Award, Glimmer Train’s Short Fiction Award, and several residencies at The MacDowell Colony. She directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Writers House at Merrimack College.

 

Furs Not Mine
by Andrea Cohen
Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2015
$24.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-819-57467-1
104 pp.

 

 

Jackson Holbert's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Radar Poetry, Parcel, BOAAT, and Thrush Poetry Journal, among others. He's originally from Nine Mile Falls, Washington and is currently an undergraduate studying English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is a Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal.