Poet Laureate 2019
Cathleen Cohen founded ArtWell’s We the Poets program in Philadelphia (www.theartwell.org). Her poems have appeared in Apiary, Baltimore Review, Cagibi, Chrysalis Journal, East Coast Ink, Philadelphia Stories and other journals. In 2017 her chapbook “Camera Obscura” was published by Moonstone Arts Press. Cathleen is also a painter and currently exhibits at Cerulean Arts Gallery in Philadelphia. She received the Interfaith Relations Award from the Montgomery County PA Human Rights Commission and the Public Service Award from National Association of Poetry Therapy.
In this winning manuscript, the act of painting becomes an extended metaphor that conveys the promise and potential of the blank page; the longing to see and be seen, flaws and all; and a subtle questioning of decision-making and risk in both art and life. What the poet conveys most urgently, however, is a desire to memorialize deeply cherished aspects of lived experience amid the persistent shadows of loss and mortality. Here, the speaker’s willingness to risk vulnerability is layered, conveyed through shaking hands that produce watercolor paintings of “jagged petals/more thorn than rose,” and by moments of recognition that reveal a deep self-knowing, as in the lines “…I love most/what I can’t control.”
Employing vivid sensory details that ground us in the real world along with swerves into the dark landscape of the human interior, the poems come to embody what Eavan Boland & Mark Strand call in their book, THE MAKING OF A POEM, an interplay of “sweet dream” and “rude awakening.” In poems that gesture toward the pastoral poetry tradition, we encounter the pleasures of sensory experience: red silk, an amber glaze of light, dogs baying, crunching leaves. The tenderness of such scenes is magnified by the acknowledgment of ever-present shadows. In “Bluer than Sky,” for example, the speaker stands in “spilled light among fragile blooms/ no paint could replicate.” In a poem titled “Teaching,” an art teacher persists with his lessons even as his voice becomes “cloth” and he grows “gaunt as charcoal,” despite eyes “burning / blue as kiln fire.”
In a poem called, “Sharp, Luminous,” the speaker plays with a grandchild who stacks and demolishes block towers, acknowledging, “the point is to be a tower falling, rising / while your bright bits fly out.” In this poem, the poet conveys the surprise and wonder of the grandparent-grandchild relationship and considers where it falls in the broader backdrop of her life, a life in which the speaker is a “…canvas, / stretched to my contours, questioning / some of what I’ve been: / careful sketches, brushstrokes.” We hear an echo of Rilke’s injunction to change one’s life, a mixture of regret and renewed intensity about how we conduct ourselves that can result from beholding greatness or beauty. The speaker in “Sharp, Luminous” seems startled awake by the intensity of the connection with her grandchild, a child whose love and life force comprise a challenge to “rise” even as we yield to the movement toward death.