Unfinished City (March 2017):
In her second collection of poems, Nan Cohen (Rope Bridge) plumbs the mythic dimensions of ordinary life through a reimagining of the people and places of the Hebrew Bible. By turns tender, reflective, and playful, the poems of Unfinished City discover both new gravity and a shimmering mobility in the commonplaces of human experience.
Poems from Unfinished City:
“Bee 1” (The San Francisco Chronicle “State Lines” column)
- “Pruning” (The Forward)
- “Storm” (The New Republic)
- “Abraham and Isaac: I” (Ploughshares–periodically available)
- “Abraham and Isaac: II” (Ploughshares–periodically available)
- “It Is Not in the Heavens, Neither Is It Beyond the Sea” (Gulf Coast)
Profile from the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia.
From Rope Bridge (Cherry Grove Editions, 2005):
“Girder” at Verse Daily
“A Newborn Girl at Passover” at the Academy of American Poets
“Rope Bridge” on the National Endowment for the Arts site
- Review by Deborah Schoeneman for Jewish Book Council:
A finalist for the Koret Award for an Emerging Writer on Jewish themes, Nan Cohen juxtaposes the metaphors of seasons and bridges to depict the cycles of relationships over a lifetime. Meet the young man crossing a fragile rope bridge in the title poem. His journey parallels this writer’s invigorating, poetic creation, a task producing an ecstatic almost sexual connection in which “…he is now part of a classic experiment/on the attribution of a heightened state/(his quickened pulse, the trembling in his knees)…Who would say: it is fear that takes my breath, that wets my palms, that spins my heart in my chest -/the fear that sleeps in me, easily roused/from its light sleep, with wind/with ropes, with words?” Watch and wonder at the biblical reflections of “A Spy in Canaan” who cuts down the heavy cluster of grapes, places them in a bowl, and is besieged by a “…cluster of reproaches:/why should my teeth/burst those taut skins?/Let someone else have them./Let them shrivel, even -/it was a mistake/sending us into this land.” Nan Cohen suggests that the vibrant push and pull of experience drives us through life toward fulfillment with regrets constantly juxtaposing each other—perhaps “Kol Nidre” says it best. Like the prayer of atonement, we ask for forgiveness for the unconscious way in which “…The world gives us so much/without being asked. /But again and again/we break our promises to it…” Whether she is reflecting on a translated poet, the best friend of Hamlet, the fear of plagiarism in “Helen Keller,” or grief, Nan Cohen’s poetry creates in the reader a vigorous yearning to grasp and cherish the moment, no matter what threat time poses, for, as she states in “Festival of Booths,” “…Your roof is open to the countless stars.” Simply put, lovely.
Though this is her first book, Nan Cohen’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and have won her various honors, including, most recently, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. In this collection, bridges serve as an organizing motif: in their different ways, these poems are about crossing from one stage or moment of a life to the next. Sometimes that process involves facing hard things—fear, death, and “that slow disaster, time”—but the poems approach such subjects with redeeming clarity. Throughout the book, Cohen combines humor with a sturdy grace. “Dr. Steiner” is surely the loveliest account of visiting an otolaryngologist you’ll ever come across. And here are a few lines from “Between Voyages”: “I love the unexpected alleys terminating in a brass memorial / to some poet or playwright, the shop windows full of — / live turtles once, / once a flock of gloves all hanging by their fingertips.” Through travel, through art, even on the freeway (“A sign is / a yellow diamond / a black deer leaps across / for the next 15 miles”), we learn a little more every day. The speaker of “A Northern Winter,” for instance, has seen the ominous tracks of the glacier. A gentle intelligence characterizes the book’s most satisfying moments. The title poem is a fine example: in “a classic experiment / on the attribution of a heightened state,” crossing a treacherous rope bridge makes a subject more likely to find the assistant who meets him on the other side “Very” attractive. “Who would say: it is fear that takes my breath . . . ?” Instead, “one by one, the men who crossed the bridge, / who did not fall, chose love for their reward, / saw it coming to meet them, smiling in welcome.”
Video of a short talk, “Enough”: