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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

Tripping Through the Particulars

Larry Sawyer reviews

Poems From the Akashic Record by Ira Cohen

Panther Books, 2001. 96 pages, 15 black-and-white photographs.
ISBN 0-9708476-1-0

This piece is 1,300 words or about four printed pages long.

Poems from the Akashic Record is a vast trip through the surreal subconscious of native New Yorker, Ira Cohen. These poems read as if they are an EKG of what happened to the counter-culture when the fifties and sixties deflated and sold out to crass commercialism. Either that or they are the record of Cohen’s Dantesque journey to Purgatory and back.
    A word about Cohen’s modus operandi should be mentioned in order to give this book some kind of cultural reference point. Instead of becoming immersed in the televised banality of the seventies, he set off for whereabouts unknown, namely Morocco, Nepal, India, Greece, and Japan. Along the way, Cohen wrote these poems in cafés and seraglios, amid tumultuous scenes, palm trees, and honest-to-god whirling dervishes. The places you might have glimpsed in the local movie theater are truly terra firma for Cohen, who has led a life of exotic locales, far-off islands, and strange bazaars. As a photographer and filmmaker, Cohen infuses everything he does with the poetry found in this otherworldly book. In fact, his poetry in this book is elegantly offset with his black-and-white photography. This makes the book a one-two punch of the visual combined with his autobiographical poetry. This also makes the book a collector’s item, because it is the most comprehensive collection of his poetry to date.
    Cohen spent a large part of the seventies in Katmandu, Nepal, publishing the work of poets such as Charles Henri Ford and Gregory Corso, and also the work of writer/composer Paul Bowles under the imprint of Bardo Matrix Press. This may partially explain the fact that Cohen has been largely overlooked as a poet, but his reclusive life history is outlined like a craggy roadmap in these pages.
    Stylistically, Cohen does take cues from Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and in fact he was a habitué of the same Moroccan cafés frequented by William Burroughs, but his poetry has little to do with the Beats per se. He has more in common with the rogue French poet Francois Villon, or the Persian poet Rumi, than the current breed of academic philosophizer that passes as poet these days. Cohen is merely keeping a visual diary and is inviting you along for the ride. His poetry is conspicuously devoid of any trace of the current fashionable interest in poetics, but full of the real-life details of a man who has spent his life simply searching.
    His muse, and I use the word “muse” in the classical sense, rides shotgun to all manner of special effects and invented words. In fact the word “akashic” is partly his own invention. This word, which comes from the Sanskrit, translates roughly as “the ethereal” or “the sky’s language.” Paul Bowles, author of the influential novel The Sheltering Sky, described “akashic” as something like watching “God’s home movies.” What this means to us, is that Cohen has finally given a habitation and a name to his wanderings in and out of bohemian circles.
    A key to unlocking the rough freshness of Cohen’s poetry is to recognize the vast distances his work covers. Walking the streets of Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a rag blowing in the breeze or his own reflection in a shop window is enough to send him into the reflection of these interesting poems on an astral journey to Katmandu or Morocco.
    Cohen spent years in Morocco walking the streets of the medina, staring out at the sea, and these are the ruminations that we are left with. Only now he is confronted with life back in the city, circa the year 2000.

People are killing each other on television. In the
park there is a gang of kids applying peer
pressure to a woman’s body...

Cohen’s poetry moves beyond what is seen with the physical eye and encompasses also what is seen with the proverbial mind’s eye. Each poem takes the form of what experience dictates, moving toward what can be recorded by focusing on an inner realm where opposites are not seen as opposites but visceral experience in its totality. Cohen invites the reader through a portal where time and space are on uneasy equal footing.
    But for all its serious tone, there exists also an easy humor, albeit a black humor. These are the jokes and asides of a man who has seen other worlds that would shock and offend the bourgeois reader. The impressions one receives are of the weariness of a traveler who must convince himself by convincing others that what he has seen and experienced is as real as his own skin.
    Certain passages reveal his affinity for other poets and artists whom he has known and associated with over the years, such as Gherasim Luca, Edouard Roditi, Angus Maclise, and Jack Smith, but the most interesting lines are the commonplace asides that slip between the cracks:

It was Laurel & Hardy who
reminded me I was not alone.


Death is harder to see
w/the lights all on —
The city’s so slow
on a long weekend
We are losing time &
love is out of town.

These are poems of a time that cannot be relived each time this book is opened. Cohen’s awareness of this is what saves his poetry from mere sentimentality. Some of the weightiest moments in the book occur when Cohen remembers friends who have passed from this world as in his elegy for the surrealist painter and experimental sound poet, Brion Gysin. It was only after Gysin passed away that Cohen realized that the poem he had written after their first meeting could also serve as Gysin’s epitaph.

You have left. We lived on the edge of the sea’s
awareness (denizens of the ocean of air.) You are
no shape, no other. You are the clarity of death
above the staleness of towns. Above the
pinnacles isolated as men crowd doorways you
ride the mystery of shape changing.

I have heard him read his work aloud on more than one occasion. Looking through these poems brings his voice back to me; I seem to hear the sometimes menacing, sometimes cajoling voice of the poet casting a trance upon his listeners. Cohen is a forceful reader; in one or two places I wished for even more elaboration, to push the autobiographical nature of these poems to their logical conclusion.
    In general, Cohen is not an intellectual, although he possesses a vast intelligence in his work. He does write from instinct and is unconcerned with poetics. His poems have an internal structure, however, and each line resembles another mysterious alleyway, which can be taken if the reader so chooses. Each poem is an organic whole, an assemblage of mystic moments.
    But Cohen seems to know the difference between his imagination and reality. His writing is in a constant state of enhanced awareness. In his elegy for fellow denizen of Tangier, Paul Bowles, Cohen writes:

Haunted by puberty,
almost blind & hard of hearing,
a rush of gardenias sends you
on your way
So long pal, a last pipe of kif & salaam,
Now you are public property.

Cohen seems to stand at some precarious threshold of the Western world and the world of the medina, the world of trance rituals and bodily possession. There are places on Earth that still defy description, even though we would like to think otherwise. Cohen invites us in and gives us a glimpse of an all-too-quickly vanishing world. Ultimately, the price of this ticket to Cohen’s literary Shangri-la is well worth it.

Larry Sawyer is editor of milk magazine at

You can read another review of this book by Nina Zivancevic in Paris, as well as her interview with Ira Cohen, in Jacket 21.

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