When art and pain collide, a perfectly complicated and beautiful book sometimes emerges. Such is Julia Cohen’s I WAS NOT BORN, her third and latest work. It is a lifetime achievement and commingles poetry, transcripts of therapy sessions, letters, meditations, and text messages (all of which are poetry really) with a tremendous psychological and emotional impact.
Cohen writes, “Children who sneak into the jewelry drawer. Are the children who pretend to be parents. Now imagine language.” This single line outlines entirely what is encountered in the oeuvre of her work: childhood, memory, and poetry writing. She writes into the growing distance from childhood, nurturing the wilderness of its memories, and honors the time when the self was being created unawares. Her poetic approach is sacred, all-encompassing. She depicts language as a sort of omnipresent being, a kind of god, and although I WAS NOT BORN very much addresses the heartbreaking challenges of a period in her life, it is very much a book about poetry and reading and writing. Cohen’s poems and meditative paragraphs are rhythmically savvy and organically lyrical and she maneuvers between these and therapy sessions. Poetry as ligaments.
Paced throughout the book are transcripts of therapy sessions processing the trauma of living a shared domestic life with a suicidal partner, who she dubs as “N.” I’m grateful to encounter these sessions, which with a little less of one thing and more of another don’t seem all that different from my own–slowly understanding inner criticism and attachment. Cohen is deeply a poet and breaks the sessions at opportune moments (generally when her therapist lays it on her) in order to create room for difficult truths to settle. As the therapist turns the focus away from N and toward Cohen, her introspection is so mindfully crafted that it doesn’t leave the reader simply analyzing or judging her or N, but rather reflecting on the complicated questions arising from her work. The therapist says, “Back to the same problem of waiting to react to someone else.” Break. Can you be the most important person in a relationship? Cohen invites us to have our own therapeutic process by reading hers.
As we all know, reading and speaking are two entirely different things, especially for writers. The face becomes a symbolic investigation throughout the book. She looks to N’s face to reveal his inner pain; she recounts times they spent together before she knew he was contemplating suicide. “A face is never enough,” she writes. Faces never seem to offer the full emotional disclosure she longs for.
We think the sea is invulnerable & we are
wrong. I watch water evaporate from
the vase. I watch your face as it turns to water.
Ever so briefly, Cohen can see N’s vulnerability, but it will evaporate like the water. And his particular vulnerability could mean the end of his life. The beauty of these lines is the truth of her sadness—feeling grief for someone who is living, feeling hopeless to be able to help. The book settles on the idea of the face, peering into it as though it would offer pure emotional connection, though equally hungry and afraid of what might be revealed. What is the face value of the psyche. On the book cover, Noé Sendas’s photograph of the faceless woman offers a visual element into Cohen’s contemplation on emotional physiognomy. Without a face, the woman in the photograph is all heart, untouchable, creepy, sad, and nearly perfect except missing the one thing that would reveal everything.
In its unique way, this book confronts motherhood from many different angles. More pronounced than in Cohen’s previous work is the expressed desire to have children. The fantasy of parenthood acts as a weft to this genre-crossing book. “For the names of our children, they pop like bubbles poked with a boxcutter.” Wanting to have children is a complicated subject in any relationship, but all the more so in a partnership in which one person wants to die and has in fact hurt himself with a sharp object. Children represent the future and the future is tenuous.
Protecting someone, in this case someone who wants to hurt himself, guarding him, being on guard for him, is a distorted kind of mothering. While he is hospitalized, she is given his backpack and on the page a backpack loses its adult, ergonomic-logic-use and becomes a symbol of a child. Picture the stereotypical mother cleaning out a backpack looking for spelling test words and homework or packing in lunches. What Cohen discovers in N’s backpack is a noose, frightening and dangerous for both people involved, the death of hope.
The tenuousness of the future leads to a far worse domestic emotional standstill. Tenderly, gracefully, perspicaciously, Cohen walks us through her and N’s forever-changed togetherness. The book enacts her anger that she cannot share with so fragile a partner.
Unfaithful: N asks me to scrape out the bowls
& plates more thoroughly before stashing them
in the sink. To prevent drain-clogging. In return
I think, I had to throw away your noose.
Inwardly she has “faithful” and “unfaithful” moments, the way she acts toward N juxtaposed with how she might feel. The position she’s put in, to have the looming threat of someone’s death, leaves her feeling as though she is a one-dimensional partner. “If you’re with someone when they want to die then you’re a type of weather,” she says toward the end of the book and she ends the book with, “Weather does not hold feelings of its own.” It’s baffling we say commit suicide, as though it were an idea someone has to have a relationship with before doing it and while one partner has committed to possibly ending his life, to what does the other partner commit? Cohen beautifully depicts the pain of life with a suicidal partner.
What does it mean to not be born? Perhaps no one is born as much us they are made and create and recreate themselves. “I was never born, I’ve had hair for centuries. You’re on my side, see.” Ultimately, language was not born and has always existed, we grow into it, and it will never die. The opening line of DAVID COPPERFIELD seems so vivid to me now, “Chapter 1: I am born.” Scope. Possibility. If I was not born, I can’t die. If I can’t die, I can’t hurt anyone. Julia Cohen, borne of language, has made a brilliant record of her inner turmoil. I WAS NOT BORN is an act of love.
Farrah Field is the author of Wolf and Pilot (Four Way Books, 2011), Rising (Four Way Books, 2009) and the chapbook Parents (Immaculate Disciples Press, 2011). Her poems and essays have appeared in many publications and her work appeared in The Best American Poetry 2011. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons and is co-founder of Berl’s Poetry Shop.