reviewed by Jackie Clark
The impetus of asking questions, of patterned questioning, can waver between confident concern, rhetorical bullying, and genuine self-consciousness. Sometimes poems are themselves implicit questions, the investigation of something unknown, in search of a somewhat satisfying answer — but an “answer” that is mapped and charted by the poet, with the muscle and resolution of the actual question happening on the backend. But in Julia Cohen’s Collateral Light, questions are posed explicitly (and emphatically) to seemingly anyone who will listen, or not (i.e. whoever the reader of the poems happens to be, or not be) on a variety of seemingly uncategorical topics/images, which, when considered together as a tactic of self-preservation and an interrogation of the logic of “feelings,” appear to be the driving forces of the book.
On a quick count, there are roughly 50 question marks employed throughout Collateral Light, and for each question posed it is fair to say that the questions are true to their internal engines. Sample questions include: “Is your clashing hungry? Can you / consolidate the animal?” (from “Practice By Fire & Doubt”); “I have a cabbage-head? / I am spewing blood?” (from “Invention Of The Outside World”); “What mood do you want? / Tonight? (from “We’re Enamoured With Shadow”). Though these questions are sublimated through coded language, they are pretty good examples of the types of questions outlined above (confident concern, rhetorical bullying, genuine self-consciousness), and in that order. This three-prong attack feels like a good strategy for self-preservation, especially because the questions, while full of humility, arrogance, and compassion, keep the other (i.e. the reader) at bay through a more rigorous and ordered investigation of emotion as opposed to the more common intimacy of the interrogative form pulling the reader in.
We are invited to ponder these questions by default, but our participation is never explicitly demanded. In fact, I’m not sure that our participation would affect anything. Other questions like “Can I cross over your line?” (from “I Stared At Your Camera”) and “Are you sad?” (from “We Clamor We Like The Sound Of It”) are speaking directly to an other, but it’s as if anticipating the answer to these questions is the real impetus for the questioning – the question is a part of the logic, it is built into the poet’s schema of a larger understanding. Almost like an if/then rhetoric. One reflects on such questions to glean insight into the past (or future), to create a space between the logic and the feeling, to better understand what “feeling” is, or is not. For example, in “Fill Me With Poison!,” “nobility is not a feeling / cunning is not a feeling / decency is not a feeling.” Knowing what something is not is a kind of knowing that is valued in these poems.
And yet, the poems (and poet) long for a more conclusive knowing, and in the absence of that the poems explore their own definitions. The poem, coyly titled, “Is It Hard To Count The Times I Am Deliberate?” attempts at definition by claiming, “Mimicry should be deliberate / Love should be deliberate / & generous.” The poem names its own definition for mimicry and love, and yet in doing so can only really qualify it with “should be.” And this is the tension in Collateral Light, what is and what should be, and where the poet finds refuge between the two. This is evident in passages like, “I caught / a life / of sea- / sickness / dreaming of ships (from “No One Told Me I Was The Arrow”) and “I let one emotion follow the other & believe // them both […] I’ve been meaning to // live” (from “The Decoy Museum Is Still”). Ironically becoming sick because of something you are dreaming for (one could read also longing) or letting your emotions exist in tandem though the suggestion of their difference is impervious, meaning that to acknowledge or assent to one’s (many) emotions strips away the vulnerability they can cause. To mean to live, as a cognitive thought, suggests that a certain sort of living has yet to take place. Ever aware of what her poems are doing, Cohen asks questions and allows for duel logic because she is in control, and control can be a very therapeutic vehicle.
Take for example the way Collateral Light is arranged. The book broken up into five sections with the beginning and ending of the book each bracketed by a tiny, inscrutable poem. The first one titled “The Inclusion Of Objects,” reads:
You are my sticky, flammable folder, child, alive
And the last one titled “It Moves In, Is Not Static,” reads:
Abdomen domain Where I store my arrows
Instead of just being collateral, the “light,” the guidance the poet lends to these poems, repeatedly struck me more like peering through a keyhole: a squinting investigation, illumination through a small scope. These poems are clearly intended to guide the reader. They act as a hello and a goodbye, a tour-guide, letting you as the reader know where you are when you begin (vulnerable child) and where you are when you end (calculated warrior). In addition to this, each section of the book is indicated by an over-sized roman numeral with a brief unpunctuated phrase appearing on the bottom right corner of the page. In order, the dangling phrases read:
I. My face was curious II. I can’t just sit here with feelings III. Open invitation to anyone IV. Everything needs to be moved through V. Let’s worship doubt
One could read these dangling phrases as a progression, which their tone certainly suggests. Beginning with the self, the face, to an agitation, an agitation or overflow of feeling, suggestive uncomfortable feelings, to a reaching out, to inviting someone in, anyone in, to a realization, an aphorism, a clear direction, to a pronouncement, a safe and protective summation with the final sentiment arriving just where the poet hoped (and planned) that it would.