11 April 2012


Route (Immaculate Disciples Press, 2012), the most recent collaborative chapbook by Julia Cohen and Mathias Svalina, contains two poem sequences: “Black Metal & Ice” and “Two Sisters.” The poets composed the first sequence as a series of twelve, relatively short prose poems; they wrote the second sequence in prose as well, but as one long piece without internal titles dividing it into smaller subsections.

The poems in “Black Metal & Ice” tend to be “Fragmentary & obscure” exploring the “infernal regions [and] southern most caches” (13) of the poets' minds in order to create a shared “terra firma” (13), or solid ground, which is populated by such images as “a man of straw & scurrying alarm & a letter iced with waiting & livers of goats” (10). Take, for instance, the opening poem “Natural Death,” which provides an example of one such ground:

The boys twine a garland for judgment & the girls another for the heroic age. Scientific bodies presume something similar to the sound of breaking glass, the power of laying the storm. It is precisely the persons most intimately concerned with blood who are quiet detractors, who damage the explorers' reputation. The storm. The storm abandoned by blood. Outwintered by secrecy, all who meet drop their faces to the earth. The crew, betrayed by large maps, returns to exile. And if they were to die a natural death, pleased with their last words, the after is still the storm. (7)
Although the subjects of the poem “die a natural death” and they are “pleased with their last words,” the poem concludes pessimistically, at least in the sense that a “storm” still rages. The intimation of cataclysm brought on by a storm lingers throughout the sequence in the form of “famine,” (9), “The isolation of a heavy meal” (11), and “a bad heart” 12); indeed, it would appear that “Defeat is certain” (16). But the poets, ultimately, provide readers with a possibility of hope. Within these fractured and “Misshape[n]” (18) vignettes, “Occasional relief crosses” their “unknown surface[s]” (12) and results in a “victory” (18) of poetic impulse, the imagination, and collaborative spirit.

“Two Sisters” follows a more straightforward, but still relatively oblique narrative about, yes, two sisters. The poem begins with the sisters floating on an umbrella “in the ocean's chop” (21) where they “read all the great books & perform them in the bruised sea air” (22). We soon discover, though, that the siblings are on a journey to “the city to find the man who paints the pictures” (25). After arriving at and traveling through the land where they encounter temples, scientists, and caves, the sisters' desire for adventure is “sated” and “they leave in the brick boat” (30).

But even with this loose narrative structure, “Two Sisters” is more painting than story:
Sitting on the chapel steps, the man who paints the pictures braids the pictures together for a bed sheet. When he sleeps the pictures tell each other how they met. They become families, winding themselves into linen. (25)
The above excerpt can be read, to some extent, meta-poetically: the prose poems are braided together by two poets, perhaps from “pictures” or dreams that come to them while they sleep, the fragments of which are found upon waking in the bed sheets and linens. The leftover “pictures” found upon waking allow for them to “crawl inside [the] echoes” (29) that remain and preserve the memory of “how they met.” But more important to this collection, it would seem, is the braiding-effect that the collaborative process offers. While exploring “the dim frontier” (23) of poetry, integrating multiple perspectives into a poem creates a more expansive vision because: “The smaller sister sees everything from the feet to the waist” (24), whereas “The larger sister sees the pictures from the waist up” (26). Through braiding their visions, the poets offer us a more complex and complete picture.

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