Throat Singing

Susan Cohen
  • Review
By – January 22, 2014

The poems in Throat Singing cir­cle and search sin­gle inci­dents from the speaker’s mem­o­ry, snatch­es of over­heard con­ver­sa­tion, and bits of sci­en­tif­ic and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion. For Cohen, a for­mer jour­nal­ist, poet­ry seems to be near­ly an inves­tiga­tive tool — but the inves­ti­ga­tion is of a per­son­al, even inti­mate, nature.

In these exquis­ite­ly craft­ed poems, Cohen explores aging and death, history’s endur­ing hold on the present, and the ambiva­lence at the heart of even our clos­est bonds — with our chil­dren, our spous­es, our par­ents. Per­haps the book’s great­est strength is its bal­ance of lyri­cism and clar­i­ty. Cohen is a mas­ter of the loose­ly iambic four- to five-beat line. There are dozens of lines in this book worth under­lin­ing for their gor­geous mar­riage of sound and mean­ing. Some of the best lines in the book are in To a Young Hack­er,” an ele­gy that takes place at the young man’s funer­al. Only the hole in the ground was will­ing,” Cohen writes. And, Even the rab­bi fal­tered at the thud.” Cohen is com­mit­ted, beyond beau­ty and lyri­cism, to pre­ci­sion. Such clar­i­ty and exac­ti­tude is rare in any genre, but to find it in poet­ry is par­tic­u­lar­ly exciting.

The Year I Read Anne Frank’s Diary” is a deft col­lec­tion of images and unan­swered ques­tions from a child­hood spent out­side of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties: how many of you are there?” / As if I’m me and oth­ers, too.” In Cham­ber Music,” sound and mean­ing work togeth­er intri­cate­ly to por­tray an ulti­mate­ly joy­ful birth scene with open-eyed, unsen­timental clar­i­ty. I was scram­bling on my elbows / up on the bed, fran­tic / to back out of mater­ni­ty,” Cohen writes. Across six short stan­zas, the poem and the speak­er move toward full aware­ness of the huge pres­ence of a new baby, a change of life.

The poems of Throat Singing pos­sess a cool, con­fi­dent author­i­ty that makes the read­er feel safe in the speaker’s hands no mat­ter where she takes us. How­ev­er, there’s a cer­tain neat­ness to much of Cohen’s work that can feel con­strict­ing, espe­cial­ly in terms of tone — a sense of events com­fort­ably past, or already-under­stood. This neat­ness is, of course, tied up in Cohen’s for­mal bril­liance, but it would be fas­ci­nat­ing to see the result of this supreme­ly skilled poet loos­en­ing the reins.

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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