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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

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Ira Cohen feature

Nina Zivancevic reviews

Poems from the Akashic Record by Ira Cohen

Panther Books, New York, October 2001

This piece is 1,000 words or about two printed pages long.

‘Poems From the Akashic Record’ is a book of poems which also mirrors the photographs  included in it, very much echoing the author’s very life, that is, the miracle that has never stopped happening and can be compared to a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on God and then turned towards art and poetry.
      The last printed poem in the book entitled ‘Hail and Farewell’ evokes in an ancient Roman style the poet’s intimate relation to life and poetry, or, rather, an attitude underpinned by the radical freedom of his verse that feeds on the peculiar spontaneity with which he can exclaim : ‘Farewell Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke & Leary too/ we who are about to die salute you.../ Return to that light which once you knew/ before you wrote yourself out of this human zoo.’
      Broadly speaking, one can say this recent book of his poetry — alas, he has not had many of them printed along with his peers on the North American continet — could be read as a meaningful dialogue with those ordinary, and less than ordinary people who shook the soul of the 20th century’s intelligence. As a prolonged dialogue with oneself and with the others, it consists of snippets of  highly energized conversations, observations and monologues. Eventually, the poems could be read as one long piece which does not allow for further divisions.
      That’s why the book is largely divided into two large sections ‘Poems’ and ‘Photographs’ as if a great deal of subtlety were needed to convince the reader that the photographs were not Ira Cohen’s poems and vice versa. Sometimes, there is a feeling with regards to both of the two artistic forms presented here that we might be mistaking one for another as, for example, in ‘Quevedo in New York : The Skeleton Key’ (‘into the dusk of another New York day/ in the doorway waits the ghost/ of Charlie Parker and down West Broadway/ hangs a neon moon’) and ‘Optical Time Delay’ (‘How fast can you download/your free flight mirrors ?/ Fasten the seatbelt & enter/the world of darkness forever.’).
      These lines were not written by someone who had a revelation or a prophecy while thinking about the Two World towers to be destroyed soonafter. They were written by an authentic New Yorker who was born with the doom theory up his sleeve and has been seeing too much art, too much life, too much death and too much poverty in a single lifetime and who was at his best (somewhat like  Frank O’Hara) while describing the following situation:
      ‘On the 23rd Street waiting for the N train/ a black child sings to his robots/ I am going to see the IRIS prints & then to Soho Guggenheim.../ And now I see that Death will ride the N Train/ to the end of the line/ & for a moment I feel safe as feet pass/ over the blue gratings above Broadway...’ (‘Akashic Revelation’)
      A true poet always feels safe in the company of numerous other fellow human beings. As a matter of fact, it is his lonely quest for the Holy Grail that places him on a cloud made of dreams, poverty, but also of exceeded humanity. That frozen moment of revelation or epiphany is the only one left to him who has always had a lot to say but did not die young, that is to say, Ira Cohen. Nevertheless, he has left the whole fleet of admirable admirals, great visual artists, talented poetic captains and it seems that these long poems in prose, long one-breath sentences were uttered in a sigh and a prayer, quiet meditation of someone who knows, in this selfish age of ours, the true value of friendship.
      Among these texts, I found particularly captivating poems such as ‘For Jack Smith’, a great poet/performer and a filmaker, ‘a Garuda on the Bardo wing’, an ‘Elegy’ for Brion Gysin, a mythical Surrealist American who lived in Paris and made cut-ups as legendary as Duchamp had his ready-mades, and ‘He Wears the map of Calabria on his face’, a poem for Gregory Corso, the emperor of the Beats who has also expired recently.
      Ira Cohen, a legendary poet, voyager and  ‘raconteur’ has known them all, and has known IT all with them and sometimes that ‘It’ comes across as so overwhelming that we’d rather not even ask what it was! After so many a voyage recounted through this book when one comes across  lines such as the following, one knows that Cohen has lived his life full to the brim and that just a small portion of all that experience has ended in a poem: ‘Must I read the Science Timesto know/that the Monarch’s migration/ is a fragile journey ?/... Goodbye Elephant Goodbye Whale/ Hello AIDS Virus/ smaller is perhaps stronger after all/ My dreams were bigger than any whale & sometimes I dove even deeper’ (‘End of a Line’)
      But what I find really fascinating about the ‘Poems from the Akashic Record’ is their steady Surrealist pace, autonomous and wild at the same time, but following on the other hand the best Surrealist tradition in this or any other country. We should not forget that Ira Cohen is someone who has exhibited his photography with Man Ray in Paris.
      What I find really sad and even revolting is the fact that his complex and generous poetic voice has always been hushed or inadequately valued because of circumstances in his own native country that seems to suffer from a mild but constant publishers’ flu for decades. Clearly, this latest book of Cohen’s imaginative poems comes in as the best medicine  and antidote to the inanity of the suffering begotten in these insecure times of human folly, grief and oblivion.

You can read another review of this book by Larry Sawyer in Jacket 16. Larry Sawyer is editor of milk magazine at

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