Ben Parker reviews
By Andrea Cohen
Kentucky Derby is Andrea Cohen’s third collection, and the second of hers to be published by the Irish publishing house Salmon Poetry. Despite having a publisher within the British isles, the poems in this collection have appeared almost exclusively in US publications, which may go some way to explaining the fact that she is not yet a well-known poet over here. Hopefully the quality of this new book will go some way to redressing the balance.
The collection opens with ‘To Whom It May Concern’, in which the narrator declares their intention to move to Norway, sounding a light-touch that is to be found throughout. Here the final lines play with sound in a way reminiscent of James Fenton’s ‘In Paris With You’: “They’re only trees, and / leaving, I’m Norwegian.” As the title suggests, the announcement is not intended for anyone specific, merely anyone who cares. This attitude of insouciance is employed effectively in many of the poems, allowing them to edge closer to silliness than many poets would permit, a refreshing quality when handled with Cohen’s expertise. This impression is augmented by the direct style that many of the poems are written in. ‘Reverse Egg Hunt’, for example, is delivered in punchy and unadorned sentences: “In this version / you hide / from the eggs.”, “The eggs have no / intention of finding you”. Far from detracting from the poems, this makes the peculiar ideas contained all the more amusing and, as with the end of ‘Reverse Egg Hunt’, disturbing.
When conventional poetical devices such as rhyme are deployed, they are done so in a way that allows the conversational rhythms to continue uninterrupted: “She / is teaching me to meditate, / to concentrate on breath”. By using internal and half rhymes Cohen hints at the craft that lies behind the seemingly dashed-off pieces, without drawing attention to it. At times her work sounds a little like August Kleinzahler, as in opening of ‘Live Girls’: “That’s an exaggeration. / There’s only one live girl / upstairs, and she barely moves.” The narrative concerns a poet’s performance being interrupted by the sound of a life model being painted in the room above, and states near the end that the poet “cannot compete / with the ruckus even one live girl, / barely moving, makes”. This poem seems to suggest that poetry, or indeed any art, cannot compete with real life on real life’s terms, with the “fleshy folds” of the live girl. What poetry can do is move beyond the actual, into the implied, as here, or into the imagined, as in many of Cohen’s other poems. The last lines of ‘I Will Not...’ are “I will, I will, I will...”, a chant that echoes through the whole collection, open as it is to the imagination, to strangeness, and to humour.
However, this exuberance is not bought at the expense of depth. ‘First Death in New York, 1967’, in which the narrator’s mother is murdered, is recounted in a voice of poignant innocence, with verse rejected in favour of prose, while ‘Self Portrait with a Chain Saw’ which describes the serious injury of an artist by a chain saw, concluding redemptively that the chain saw “for all its dividing unites.” The title poem begins with the watching of the Kentucky Derby in a bar, but by the end it has moved to an examination of the security of family life, where the care is so attentive that the speaker muses that it is as if she has been wounded. In this piece we hear that butter is one of the family member’s favourite foods, taking us back to ‘Butter’, one of the earliest poems in the collection (also reproduced on the back cover). This combines with honey, a yellow school bus, and a yellow star, to make yellow a talismanic colour for this collection, with its child-like excitement entirely in keeping with much of the writing.
There are in this collection subtle hints to the work of other writers, Robert Frost for example in: “this spot took / the hit when the ice storm blew in. Birches fly at half-mast now.” and Beckett the book’s final line: “It can’t last. It lasts.” However, the writer to whom Cohen bears the greatest similarity is Charles Simic. Both write poems with surreal and minimalist surfaces that reveal, on re- reading, great truths and deep understanding. The poems in Kentucky Derby yield many treasures on the first read and are easily enjoyed, but there is also much in the book to reward close reading. Highly recommended.
Ben Parker completed an MA in creative writing at UEA in 2008. He has had poems published or forthcoming in a number of magazines, including Iota, Staple, Neon and Envoi.