Book Review: Sparks and Disperses
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A radiantly contemplative collection about art, friendship, and place
Sparks and Disperses is an exquisitely crafted poetry collection by Cathleen Cohen. Each poem is small, fitting on a single page but opening an entire vista.
As the collection opens, she is making new friends who are Muslim Bedouins, and they are living in a landscape of olive groves and jasmine, tasting “fresh baked flan, / green apricots, baklawa” (“Lakiya”). She teaches the children at their school. “How shocked they were / that first day I arrived, choking / in a tight, wool scarf” (“Guidance”). The place names—the Gulf of Aqaba, the Galilee Sea, Mt. Meron, Beersaba’h—indicate where she is on the map, while the political names of the borders, such as Israel or Palestine, are not provided. Cohen focuses instead on the children’s poems: “cotton clouds, slices of green, / words like sweets” (“Like Sweets”).
After that, most of the poems seem to occur at her home in the United States. (Cohen was poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania in 2019.) A state name like Pennsylvania would, however, be a politically defined place name of the sort that is not provided within the book, so this is left partly to the imagination.
One especially arresting poem is called “After the Sale.” “I am not of this / ancient farmhouse,” she begins, incontrovertibly in denial, as the poem’s title has already told us the farmhouse has just been sold. She insists she does not belong to the pond, either, “frozen that winter our brother went sliding in his fashionable silk coat,” nor “the lawn / where our son was wed.” In a chilling double negative of vanishment, she tells us she no longer belongs to the transitional scene of “the blue heron, / leaving.” In another poem, “As We Lift,” she protests: “I refuse to paint one more still life / in this house.”
The collection heavily emphasizes her passion for painting, and many poems describe vibrant colors like phthalo blues. In the poem “Double Portraits,” she paints with a friend. “My friend strokes layers of amber / to scaffold my cheek bones,” she begins, as they spend the day posing as models for each other. Whatever the nature of the portrait her friend paints of her, the image channels her ancestry: “I stare into winter. My mother / has been in hospice for weeks. / Her eyes glint from my face. / How did he see this?”
Throughout the book, the atmosphere is mostly one of tranquility and natural beauty, though with notable exceptions. Several poems at the beginning center on the possibility of gun violence, especially in schools. The awareness of the possibility of violent disruption may help establish Cohen’s own appreciation, as well as the reader’s, for the quiet contemplation that characterizes the majority of the collection. In another poem toward the end, a police officer euthanizes a deer. That scene, still so crisp in her memory, seems to enter her artwork in an impressionistic way as “blue fog” and “umber fragments.” (“Sorting Yellow Tiles, I Remember the Deer”).
The mysterious “If There Were No Whisperer” may suggest a connection between painting and life. “So much / turns to bone, / bone and fire, / quick to revive. / Our fingers stiffen.” The hand holds the paintbrush, the paintbrush introduces living colors, until eventually the fingers no longer cooperate—this is one possible reading. One might recall how some paintings have a quality of aliveness, unlikely to be the sole product of the paint squeezed out of the tube but rather also of the energy brought by the artist’s hand. “Perhaps it’s foolish to try / to purchase iridescence,” Cohen says in “Sun-Touch Plus,” “but I’m obsessed.” The paint from the store, but also the artist’s persistence, makes it shine.
Readers sense color, the angle of sunlight, and the passing of time in Sparks and Disperses. We are surrounded by the shouting voices of friends and colleagues near and far: the “sweets” that draw us into the intimacy of the poet’s home and the chance to watch her paint.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Print Length: 126 pages
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