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.