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Sample Poems by Nan Cohen

A Northern Winter

In my dream I watched the pale children of the north
in their bright hats and jackets.

I had a child there and I sent her to play among them.
Waiting, I picked up stones beside their playground.

When it was time to go
I called her to me by her foreign name.

I closed our door and we were sealed in
behind the double panes of glass.
Anyone could look in and see us,
me heating soup on the narrow stove,

her turning the pages of a picture book
with rosy hands, long sleeves overlapping her wrists.
But no one did.  It was dark already

and no one wanted to linger.  They hurried
home to their own lighted windows.

And it was my fault we were there.
Something I’d wanted to prove.
All I had learned so far

was a little geology:
where the road cut into the hills, I had seen
white tracks where the glacier passed
and the broken rocks it had thrown to the ground.

 And already it was too cold to play outside.
The ice was coming back.  I hadn’t learned
anything about winter, and yet I’d wanted to walk
into the teeth of it, holding a child’s hand.

Rope Bridge

It twists and bucks in the wind, or under the weight
of a white man, twenty, a college student, who moves
from rung to rung, knees bent and locked, hands tight
on the swaying rails.  It’s not really dangerous,
the sides are webbed, if he slips he won’t go through—

not all the way.  But he can’t keep his trunk
centered over his feet, can’t catch the rhythm
of the tilting slats they ride, and he wills each one to lift
and lurch him forward, whereupon the bridge
pitches as if to mock his clumsy steps.

At last he struggles forward to his goal,
the end where the ropes rise steeply to meet
a plate of anchored metal.  And coming to meet him
a woman folds her clipboard to her chest,
her hair ruffles in the wind—he wasn’t imagining things,
it’s a windy day, the bridge still sways and rocks.
His legs are a little weak.  She smiles at him.
tucks her hair behind her ear, says “Just a few questions.”

I don’t know what she asks him, only that later,
when his pulse has slowed, someone else gives
him a test: The assistant you met at the bridge—
did you find her attractive?  How attractive?
__Very  __Somewhat  __Not at all.

What does she think of him, does she prefer him
to the control group, the men who visit her
one by one in her office, her clipboard flat on the desk?
Does she feel tender toward him as he comes to her,
 staggering like a drunk, groping half-blind,
walking his hands along the graceful ropes?

For he is the one most likely to answer Very,
since he is now part of a classic experiment
on the attribution of a heightened state
(his quickened pulse, the trembling in his knees).

And one by one, the men who crossed the bridge,
who did not fall, chose love for their reward,
saw it coming to meet them, smiling in welcome.
Who would say: it is fear that takes my breath,
that wets my palms, that spins my heart in my chest—

the fear that sleeps in me, easily roused
from its light sleep, with wind, with ropes, with words?

Distinguished Poet of a Small Country

Every several years there’s another prize
for this favorite daughter: once it was a silver bowl,
presented by the government and engraved with a phrase
from her best-known work, but once it was a sheep,
which lives on at the village that presented it to her:
it is never slaughtered and every year they send her a tithe of its wool;
and when a prize is given through the university vote,
the students throw a party to which everyone wears blue jeans
and becomes quite raucously drunk.

Even in a small country, not everyone reads poetry,
but the Iliad and Shakespeare are taught in the schools,
and when a living poet is presented, it is always she,
so that bricklayers know her name, and politicians,
and (more remarkable still) professors speak well of her.

Everyone knows that she lives in a small house
(she writes about small houses, and the dens of bears,
and the places we clear around ourselves to live in)
outside the capital city, and cultivates fruit trees,
and prefers the middle of night and the early morning
and draws her shades and sleeps in the afternoon,
so that sometimes in winter she writes only very darkly.

She has been translated once or twice in neighboring countries,
but not very well, as far as she can make out.
She wonders how much of the world would be her audience
if her words were released like a handful of birds
toward the ten million trees of another language—
but surely everyone is busy making their own houses:
could her poems weave themselves into a thatched roof,
 or clear a square of jungle, or cross a busy foreign street
and not get hit by a cab?

She travels, though; she shuts up her house
and goes away a month of every year,
taking a packet of her favorite coffee,
which seems like a different drink in each town’s water.
And she brings back things to hold things in,
a brass lota, a pottery jug.  Containers crowd her house.
And when she walks around to think up poems,
she touches these objects, puts her lips to their lips,
speaks into their foreign interiors,
fills up their mouths with her words.


I do not know from what part of the world
I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.  —IV, 5

The direct stare will get you exactly nowhere
with the supporting character.  First, he's not looking at you.
Student of archaeology,
he sifts the layers represented in the castle;
he divines the origin of each sentimental knickknack's
placement on an occasional table, he understands
the mat and doily on the piano, the subtle geography
of Louis Seize, Queen Anne, Arabia, Delft
accumulated in various regimes, the tectonic shifts
of braces of photographs, portraits groaning on the walls—

but always he looks back to the prince, to catch the very eye
of fury and confusion, as if the shouts, the crashing into chairs,
the whispers and popping of knuckles were a language
he might learn, or at least make into sense,
given enough time and his accomplished diligence.
Study makes the scholar a stranger to his home,

so don't look at him.  Take as read
the faithful friend, and instead look where he's looking.

Student of astronomy,
he knows some things can be seen with the averted glance:
color lives in the center of the eye (a man slips
behind a purple curtain; a distraught girl
in draggled lace and grass stains
hovers at the hem of the audience, sighing)
but black and white thrive on the verge—

he thinks of Andromeda's velvet
drapery, the other galaxy
that hides behind her skirts, that only appears,

like a flaw in a lens, when you look askew.
Safer that way.

Look at Horatio, and you'll see his friend the prince.
But stare at the prince, and you'll see his galaxy's
peculiar movement around him,
his starts and jags, beyond the power
of a friend's equations to describe.

Student of literature,
he knows the poet's trick of examining
the sagging porch in lieu of the fight with the wife,
the bauble to talk about Beauty, all the old dodges and feints.
He himself is not a metaphor;
he can't say what he came here for.