Sure, it’s easy to read Julia Cohen’s second full-length collection of poetry, Collateral Light (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013), and get lost in the odd, little worlds that it creates in and with language.
If one was so inclined, this would be a relatively easy way to approach the book: as a text that builds itself, its surroundings, and the parameters of those surroundings through bizarre imagery, abrupt non sequiturs, and meta-linguistic statements. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the title poem:
Pour your wicked
cornstalks over my what
Everyone likes to look
at the moon
Show me mine
Chew a page
Here comes something
the biggest face
Do you get a bee?
Blue is a very
I am watching bees
traverse your jeans
I bit the point
of the strawberry
Off to the left
The light peels back
a ringing splint (29-30)
Outside of a few images that one can easily visualize (e.g. “I bit the point / of the strawberry”), one finds little within this poem that connects directly to the outside world; rather, the poem is very much in and of the world it creates for itself. In fact, the poem self-reflexively announces this hermetic state of being when the speaker declares: “You happen // Here.” Yes, you, reader, occur, exist, and experience the poem only within the poem: in other words, “Here.”
To this extent, reading Cohen’s poems as self-contained objects dedicated to world construction through linguistic play and a poetics of the absurd would seem all well and good. The following excerpts from the poem “We Clamor We Like The Sound Of It,” and their insistence on inventive language use, reinforce this view:
the word for fireworks
Found my mouth
in the knuckle rhyme (76)
is the other people
Is another person’s
The image is a mortal thing
To dwell, to leaves traces (78)
Are your sounds inside
the paper asylum? (81)
the clasp of the orange
dress acquired through language (82)
Whether conflating words with fireworks, redistributing sound throughout the body, exploring the ontology of images, confusing the speaker of a poem, interrogating the origin of sound, or debunking language myths (i.e. “nothing (half) rhymes with orange”), Cohen’s poems call attention to the manner in which her texts use language poetically.
But, to my mind, a more productive way (or, at least, a more interesting way) to read Collateral Light is through the lens of how the poems challenge their own (and our) emotional formations and registers.
To explain this statement a bit further, take the second section of “Practice By Fire & Doubt.” In this poem, the speaker defines a “poetics of doubt” as follows: “You see something, you feel / something, doubt” (87). Her poetics of doubt, then, requires that we complicate both how we feel–and how a poem induces us to feel–strangely.
Of course, the impetus for this poetics of doubt stems from the speaker’s desire to do something with her feelings, such that she is not simply a passive receptor of them. Indeed, she even mentions that to do nothing with her feelings is untenable: “I can’t just sit here with feelings” (34).
And what does the speaker of these poems do with (her) feelings? Well, sometimes she toys with an unnamed you for the sake, it appears, of spirited play:
But I want to give you a new feeling one you can’t
get rid of right away
but in the end it’s just a white bottle
I don’t believe in either (37)
Infusing “you” with a “new feeling” that he/she “can’t / get rid of,” the speaker finally concedes that this feeling was nothing more than a “white bottle” she doesn’t even “believe in.” To this end, the feeling shifts from a persistent or inescapable emotional state to a banal object that cannot be trust: a trick of perception wherein an internal condition mutates into an external form.
At other times, though, the speaker simply acknowledges the fatigue that often corresponds to the need/desire to name and perform our feelings: “It’s exhausting everyone asking to feel alive” (40).
Finally, while categorizing feelings too rigidly would undercut the uncertainty of her poetics of doubt, the speaker comes close to articulating her, our, and the poems’ feelings during the poem “Fill Me With Poison!” In the second section, she works programmatically through negation so as to vaguely define feeling through the process of subtraction:
nobility is not a feeling
cunning is not a feeling
decency is not a feeling
A feeling no an empty space
Here a localized wanting, a text (19)
Of course, she preserves the uncertainty attendant to doubt in that she doesn’t provide us with a conclusive definition or strict parameters for feeling. Instead, we’re informed that it is a “localized wanting” confined to a “text.” In other words, feelings are contextual: shifting responses by/for/of an individual within the limits of a poem and predicated upon what we desire at the moment of encounter. Yes, even the description of feelings remains elusive.
And this, I think, is what makes Cohen’s collection exciting. Instead of reading Collateral Light as book of poems invested in language play and bizarre images (Yawn. What book of poems worth its salt doesn’t?), Cohen asks us to enter into each poem as we would an emotional field wherein our feelings alter and shift from word to word, line to line, and stanza to stanza, recalibrating our psychological and emotional responses as needed.
Therefore, when the speaker of “Fill Me With Poision!” inquires of us “What’s your capacity of mutation,” we can read this interrogative as a veiled imperative that those who wish not to immerse themselves within the poetics of doubt—with its protean emotional registers and ambiguous affective responses—should move on. Yet, if we are prepared for the task at hand, then we can we bath in the glow of an “uncertain moon” (22) and “destabilize / the center of the center” (36) of our feelings.