I Was Not Born
reviewed by Tony Mancus
From the measured and slightly expository moments to the surreal and lyric (and everything in between)—Julia Cohen, in her latest book, I Was Not Born (Noemi Press 2014), has crafted a supremely well-meshed hybrid text (part therapy transcript, part lyric essay, part prose-poem, part poem-poem, part daybook, part personal history, part text-log) that grapples with the intended self-erasure of a loved one, as well as the want for objective understanding of self and other in light of this. Through it all she consistently tethers the reader to what sits in one’s belly and governs how we, as humans, sift through the silt of our emotions as we attempt to carry ourselves out into the world knowing that those we love can potentially leave us without so much as a note.
The book is broken into six sections. The first section delves headlong into the speaker’s process of working through the knowledge of her lover’s failed attempts at suicide. The event itself has passed and we start with a question and are given the stars, long dead and traveling to us, patient in their light. These first images are juxtaposed with the leavings of a shared domestic space, and followed directly by a list of the things taken from the speaker’s lover as he entered the mental hospital, then a catalogue of the speaker’s actions in the days following his admission, followed by a series of short images. Through much of this section and the penultimate section, Cohen swings between moments of emotional distance and extreme clarity and into more slippery and opaque imagery, which serves to lend the content a weight and truthfulness that could easily slide away from a writer who possessed less control of her craft. It feels like we are living these moments alongside the speaker, that by entering into the space of Cohen’s language we’re consistently cued into the progress and regression of the speaker’s emotions.
Part of what creates this effect is her use of transcripts. The reader is given an exterior voice, that of the therapist, and the distance that accompanies this allows us to reflect along with the speaker in a very controlled manner. So when we return from the cool and measured space of the therapist’s session Cohen throws us headlong back into the decaying world that can destroy us and those we love. These rapid shifts in perspective present a mirror of the emotional states one passes through when dealing with a significant loss. For example:
Dr: In that sense, it was actually important that you didn’t come. In terms of processing. You had to manage the experience. You’ve spent an immense amount of energy & time thinking about N’s experience & where he is coming from. J: I have all this extra time now. * Your face looked honest. Then fish-hooked like a false-diploma. I think suicide is the desire to turn yourself into an object. To un-Other. Where spouts the distraction? I have to empty a room to fill the other with my body. Pay attention to every browning leaf. It is tiring to keep someone else alive. Accidently I rip the quilt. My hoodie’s white cord hangs out of the antique bureau. Shadow-cars float on my wall’s night. No one else can remember this for me.
In other moments she slides between direct questioning of the motivation and impact of her lover’s decisions into tender memories of their shared care.
Each section of the book ends with a poem titled “The Ache The Ache,” with the final section containing a series of five of these pieces. They serve as the emotional ground, so that even when we are presented with content that doesn’t directly link to loss the emotional current resets itself at the end of each section in the book. It is a sure and steady refrain, though the middle three sections of the book present a significantly different space. They turn inward a bit, and contain a more direct interrogation of self and some of the things that seem to be definitional, for the speaker. With the destabilization of constants that led to this book’s creation, this type of re-centering is cogent and moving.
One of the many strengths of Cohen’s earlier books is her ability to stitch together images into a dense reality that recalls childhood wonder and yet lands firmly in the questions that nag us into adulthood. In this book the addition of other elements, including a narrative arc of sorts, creates a reading experience with more gravity to it.
Look up anyways: the afterhours of stars. It’s a matter of what we want to sustain. Shape or sharp or hints of music in the sand. Fractal feelings to tendril. * Vigilant curiosity. A request without curtsy. Trochees clean the gums of worn-out brine & bristle. Ashing into attention. Horizon as anyface, air-pocked by syllable. I don’t want to miss. This flight. Look at a painting, dammit, look at a word: translation, the only enactment. Bilge or bouy, it will be godless. It will flip an image into feeling. … Hold an ache. Smoke out the stutter for a honey-ride of sound. Briny book. Hold my ache, my stormy, my lamp-tooth, release my— I act upon the air, I act upon the feeling. I’m a time capsule rustling in relief. Like the fractal shore, remain unmeasured.
The middle sections seem to point to the speaker arising out of the ash of the relationship. The image of a vase recurs often and allows for varied interpretation. Farrah Field in her review in Tupelo Quarterly draws us toward the speaker’s want for children, which re-inscribes the title again with another layer of meaning. It can also suggest the notion that the author/speaker here is in part a vessel for what is before us—the images and experience that are being spilled for the reader to consume, in effect suggesting that authors become through their content, or un-become in the same manner. As observers in and of the world they are simply trying “to hold nothing against nothing.”
This book, though small, is a heavy thing:
My tresses, my tresses, mercy. If you give a feeling away then someone can help. Mortal kite, the snap of an inchworm Crayon, & letting it creep out of us.
And yet, it is not despairing, as before these lines come these:
Most only ash to anger, which these lilacs extinguish. The sea is not wine-dark. It is lilacs.
and how this poem closes:
I’m not trying to reach for anything. I’m reaching through it.
In I Was Not Born, Cohen presents a window through which we can grieve the living and move toward restoration. She knows there is no way to escape the ache, but it can be borne through language and memory and etched indelibly into each of us.