Oct 22 2022
Poetry review – MARTINI TATTOO: Charles Rammelkamp is susceptible to the charm of Elizabeth Cohen’s poetry
Elizabeth Cohen’s charming new collection begins with a boozy seduction. The speaker of the first poem, “Drink Me,” lures us in with an enchanting promise, whispering in our ear,
I’m your last cocktail of the night, see how you eye me, little wolf girl see how you graze my lip, lick my skirt?
In the next poem, “The Zigzag Line,” the speaker asks the reader, offering a similar invitation:
what wet dream could be wetter than this waking wet dream o sauce and the jimjams the afterstumble throb
The alcohol metaphor carries us through the first of the five sections, and the entire collection is prefaced with an epigraph that states, “According to chemistry, alcohol is a solution,” a clever play on the chemical term that refers to the liquid state of matter, but also the means for dealing with difficult situations. In vino veritas, right? The title poem reinforces this seduction into Cohen’s world:
Blessed be all the dive bar poets & vodka rabbis of the lower east side who poured us their best drinks those last drinks, the on-the-house drinks, the just-one-more drinks
What are the difficult situations Cohen encounters? Loss, essentially. Demise, diminishment. In so many of her poems, Cohen laments the evanescence of things, their impermanence – death and loss. “Slip and Fall” drives this home.
Everything eventually slips across a border Moments, lovers, dogs who don’t come home Even you, yourself, you went off the map
The poem goes on: “We are, all of us / On the edge, daring the precipices / in the slip-and-fall world.”
The poems are divided into five sections and those in the one called “Invisible Saints” are almost elegiac in recalling the dead and disappeared. However, as in all of her work, Cohen is a charmer. She does not beat her chest and cry “Woe is me.” “Dude, Where” is one of those poems about loss – pets, parents, things – (“dude, where the hell / are my parents”), just as “Face It” recalls her deceased mother (who lives in her cheekbones), and “Dirge” her father, whom she oddly recovers in the discarded toothbrush he’d used just as Marcel Proust recovered time passed in the madeleine.
I find my father’s toothbrush the way you might find a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle you’ve thrown away because it was missing a piece
“Amelia, Your Babysitter, Patron Saint of Rubber Bands,” recalls the Mary Poppins-like sitter who was able to restore stability, hold everything together, as with rubber bands, “some beautiful new way / to hold back the dark.”
The poems of the fourth section, “Bad Hair Days,” verge on laments. “Your heartbreak is a mural on the side of a feed store,” a title that brings a smile, is nevertheless about somebody bawling in public. “May I Have” begins: “my heart / back now?” “How to erase your ex-lover in a beautiful canyon” also addresses heartbreak, but offers this comfort: “Passion is a daily drinker // and I guarantee you will find Passion in a bar / every day by 4 with a girl named Lola.” “Arm Candy,” addressed to “Beauty,” cautions:
Beauty, we will all die and we always knew that you’d run away with the circus. It was a certainty. Third act. There you go.
“Bad Hair Day” completes the section but offers a note of hope. Her hair has left her but promises to return. It is bad hair, rebel hair, “hair that says / we will never, ever go back.” How like “the smallest girl in second grade” from the poem, “Girls and Women of My Life,” whose name the speaker does not remember but who climbed a tree on the playground and refused to come down when recess had ended.
She taught me that one thing and we should honor it I think. Girls, women, all of us, always: we do not have to come down.
The poems in the final section, “Even Dead Dogs Understand the Moon,” also address loss, but with Cohen’s soothing tone, her consoling reassurance. “The Canine of Your Bones Is Barking Again” offers this emotional encouragement. (“You thought they were gone forever, but you were wrong.”) “Outer” does the same.
Outer loved us. That’s what we were certain of. It had to, or why bother being so constantly beautiful? And we loved it back, with all its spacey stuff, like quarks, holes, pulsars, nuclear pasta, the smeared birthday cake rubble of exploding nebulae
Martini Tattoo is a delight to read for its clever wordplay but also for Cohen’s comforting attitude and her modest wisdom. You can get drunk on it.