Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Groundless Ground: Poems 2010-2014 by Jim Cohn: A Review

The Groundless Ground: Poems 2010-2014 by Jim Cohn
Museum of American Poetics Publications, Boulder, CO, $20.00

Reviewed by Kirpal Gordon (2,079 words)

          Jim Cohn has created in The Groundless Ground a multi-valanced voice that re-conjures the genre of the meditation poem for he not only reveals the everlasting now by deftly erasing the illusion of time, he provides readers with visas to other realms of consciousness. In short, these 93 works of verse deliver a meditative experience, or as he writes in the “Author Introduction,” “Groundless ground—this is what The Poem returns to us.”

In the opening poem, “In Which Room Do You Reside?,” its conversational ease, uncertain second person address, its mansion as metaphor of being, the music of its lines when read aloud, the duet of roman and italics down the page and its hint that that outer space is inner space all conspire to provoke that “you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is” sensation:

In Which Room Do You Reside?

Are your walls made of names?
Were there so many hands
You needed several minutes
To realize your clothes were gone? 

Does it follow you, wandering yellow fields,

Across nations without borders,
Alone in moonlight, racing
Through deep space?

Are you standing in a city that never sleeps?

Like a person in a stout wind,
Understanding what the heart cannot,
Flush with dreams,

Clear as lightning on your eyelids,

Shaken out of this world,
In a room where you stand up for others,
Reconcile contrasting impulses.

 16 January 2010

          The awakening in the last stanza ends in an action that also acts as a gateway to the rest of the collection: Shaken out of this world, his reconciliation of contrasting impulses has him re-working perceptions, paradoxes and polarities which suggests to this reviewer that a Cohn poem is at least in part, however non-denominationally, a koan, that is, a literary form from Chan and Zen Buddhism using a story, question, dialogue or statement to provoke in the reader great doubt/seeing clearly. In Cohn’s case it can also be hilarious, irreverent and spooky. Check his twist on encountering his doppelganger while under the influence of what George Harrison once called the “dreaded lysergic”:

My Double

I met my double at a Grateful Dead concert in
Palo Alto, early February, 1973.
I was peaking on LSD. It was intermission.
He walked right past me. I had a twin.
I said to him, “You’ve got some licks that are out of this world.”
He turned and said, “They were all yours.”
Seeing him made me feel at peace in the world.
I didn’t go after him. I never saw my double again.
Isn’t this the secret you’ve been keeping all these years?
(You want us to be together.)
I fell each day, between then and now,
But always to a higher place.

5 June 2012

Note the narrative elements used to convey the scene: brief sentences, scant details, short quotes and that ending couplet that resolves the opposites of falling and ascending into one event. The twelve lines are dreamlike a la Borges yet the suddenness of the meeting feels so real, thanks to Cohn’s knack for layering and combining all sorts of tropes---the rhetorical, the indeterminate and the non-sequitur---in a mélange of voices from another room, another time or another dimension revealed in jump-cut, serial-surreal edge and Hydrogen Jukebox compression. He’s an American Vajrayana word warrior singing the mutual arising of phenomenon, the wonder of aliveness, and “the inarticulate speech of the heart,” but it’s the alternation of the declarative and the speculative with the insightful and the off-hand comment that gives his works an element of comedy with which to mediate buried truths. In “Hell or High Water,” he writes, “A central fact of Futurism is the / Acknowledgment that / Apocalypse already happened. // Everything is alive. The past is living. / All points of space & time are accessible. / I tried to say hello, but you were sedated with aphorisms.”

Andy Clausen said of Cohn, “His voice exposes the hard truth yet it gestates that hope one is tuned to after one has given up hope and right action is its own reward.”  Like much of the verse in the book, the poem below, illustrated on the book’s front cover, was inspired by current events over the last four years, and per usual, gets right to the heart of the hard truths Clausen references:
Poem Writ 50th Anniversary MLK “I Have a Dream” Speech

“Jim Crow may be

Dead,” said Reverend Al Sharpton

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,

“But his son,

James Crow, Jr., Esq.,

Is very much alive.”

The workers still

Act like workers,

But they have no work.

Businessmen still act

Like businessmen

Except they have no business.

You sow. Somebody else reaps.

“So say we all,” says the jury foreman after reading

The verdict. When asked

How I escaped detection,

I answer, “George

Washington was Zorro.”

Rebellions are contagious, conformity a disease.

I feel like debris, a junkyard of

Selves—all someone else.

Why is it that the only war

My country is winning

Is the one against The People?

 28 August 2013

His first two stanzas “keep it real” narratively and politically while the third stanza explodes the narrative like a surrealist parlor game, all to set up that final stanza where our rebellions become disease and our debris become us, how at war with our own humanity we really are, underlined by “a junkyard of / Selves—all someone else,” a scary truth about commodification (and meditation), and like his shift from George Washington/Zorro to the now of the 99 to 1% equation, a great set up for the rhetorical question in those last three lines.
            In “The Lean Years” he further brings into the present echoes of the past that, a la

Chuang Tzu and his butterfly, suggest relationships overlooked:

The Lean Years

Empty clouds, gullies, forests and hills,
The mansions of the rich remain,
But they all have new masters.

The lean years have been here a while
And every year they just get leaner.

I read Li Yu’s
“How Can a Man Escape Life’s Sorrow and Regret?”
This—by a man who saw the destruction of his empire, rape
Of his wife by the one who’d overpowered him, incarcerated him,
Then poisoned him
Till he bled out every hole.

Man, born of woman, has but a short time to live.
Hold your cards close, if you’ve any at all.

This is why I hand the girl in the blue dress my axe & say,
“That I might reach you, O Heart,
Black site of sorrows."

26 August 2012

That haunted, final stanza! He’s outlining more than just a trace of the troubles in seventeenth century China under the late Ming Dynasty; he’s certainly sketching a correspondence to the USA in 2014, but to this reviewer he’s also inviting the reader into a larger appreciation of events, above-below-and-beyond history, to a music of the spheres where words align the unseen worlds of the non-corporeal co-existing within and without us.

In “Where My Poetry Comes From,” he writes, “In antiquity, it was common to assume a cosmos consisting of ‘many worlds’ inhabited by intelligent, non-human life forms.” He mentions Epicurus’s infinite universe, the Talmud, the Vedas, the categories of angels in the Catholic Church, verse 42:29 of the Quran, Immanuel Kant’s cosmic pluralism, “Crazy” Zhang Xu’s exuberant but illegible calligraphy and ends the prose poem: “My own transnonspecific semantic influences go back before invented or primal scripts. My poetry is a relic of the original Lingua Cosmica—the wordless open nature of asemic writing considered a universal style of expression by which characters do not need to retain their traditional forms or speak words.”

            Asemic means “having no specific semantic content,” and perhaps Cohn suggests that the reader, like the viewer of abstract art, deduce meaning on her own. Hence the reference to the lingua cosmica, an artificial language invented by Hans Freudenthal in 1960 to communicate with extra-terrestrials. The Quaranic verse he cites could also imply ET life, and who else but celestials dwell in the lokas sung in Vedic literature? As S.A. Griffin writes, “Cohn’s Ground is the champagne of angels.” As for his own place in such a universe, he writes in “My Legacy,” “I look at my legacy like this— / Intergalactic mystic archeologist of / Multiple timeline word gems— / The keys to the locks. All the locks.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the props he pays to the cosmos and the Akashic record, Cohn is also making it new/making it ancient by calling out, creating and cohering a poetry community on earth. Mixed in with his impressions of the Obama presidency and the woe of the world today, he celebrates in recollection and re-cognition the work and life of Amiri Baraka, Pete Seeger, Gary Snyder, Jayne Cortez, Chogyam Trungpa, Wanda Coleman, Audre Lorde, Elvis Presley and a kissing nun, Ted Berrigan, Commanche Chief Quanah Parker, John Lennon’s “God” and Bob Dylan’s Superb Bowl commercial. His prose poem, “Revisiting Olson’s ‘Projectivist Verse,’” is of the deepest appreciation and a first stop for readers unaware of his postbeat scholarship, though one could start with “Jim Cohn’s Top 600 Movies,” a list poem of films he composed on his sixtieth year that illustrates his postbeat perspective.

However, it’s in the praise songs and elegies to his elders---the writers and teachers he, an elder himself now, most admires---that gives the collection its most human touch, accomplished without forfeiting his ear for the non-human. In “Memory Ashes,” it’s the interplay of the one with the other that resolves the duality and uncovers the fullest story:

Memory Ashes
Above Great Stupa of Dharmakayna,
Up trail leading to Marpa Peak,
The Dharma Lion memorial is so striking
Even fearless Anne Waldman gasped back tears.

 Here in this John McCann oatmeal canister are
ashes of Allen Ginsberg, poet.

Peter Orlovsky, who inspired Allen Ginsberg
With love & poesy, banjo singing songwriting
Oracular Peter Orlovsky, personal trainer
To sons and daughters
Of nobility—

 His memorial in outcrop, a few steps away—
Remains in plastic bag.

As soon as we begin burning their photographs,
Shelley’s west wind whips through the trees.
Eventually, the wind dies.
Their images are no more.
Blue sky—all for show,
All for emptiness.

In this place, these words were said:
“O Compassionate Ones, these people—
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovksy—
Have died without choice, with no friends, no refuge, no allies.
They have entered the great wilderness.
They have gone where there is no solid ground.”

 Shambhala Mountain Center

28 August 2010 

To “where there is no solid ground”: his meditation on the beyond is deepened by the compassion he feels for those entering the beyond. In the case of Allen Ginsberg, Cohn has more in common with his mentor than this one elegy can contain. For one thing, Cohn has grokked Ginsberg’s intent to present the oral-aural side of the poem/song alongside the written. Cohn, a musician blessed with impeccable time, knows how to work a deep pocket with a pianist, and in the happy accident of a recent recording, Venerable Madtown Hall features Cohn and his rhythm section with ten of the poems in The Groundless Ground. In a multimedia lagniappe, one can read the verse first before listening to the poem on the CD or watching Cohn speak the poem on the DVD with the band. Click for a taste of all three, but start with “When Hard Times Take Everything” because how Cohn achieves a nondual unity ‘tween spoken lyric and musical note on the DVD is the fullest expression of what Cohn is doing with language. Once again, he’s got that ghost-like trace---in this case, Woody Guthrie---that makes his work larger than the sum of its parts:

When Hard Times Take Everything

            May you and your neighbor never turn
           Against one another
When hard times take everything.

           The late afternoon sun is hottest.
           Who can judge another’s happiness?
Unbroken gloom is all over the world.

           Deep canyons, abandoned mines.
           Some things you never get over—
The not-known unknowing.

           Others just leave you scarred.
            They come up like giant twisters.
You remember rolling in their arms.

           Many life forms have evolved beyond us.
           Although their transmissions are murmurs,
They grow within our children and transform who we become.

           There was great sacrifice among the people.
            It’s not simply that the moon
Thinks about things the rest of us haven’t.

 24 April 2011