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Julia Cohen

Julia Cohen is the author of COLLATERAL LIGHT (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013). Her first full-length book, TRIGGERMOON TRIGGERMOON (Black Lawrence Press), was published in 2010, and her third collection, I Was Not Born (Noemi Press) released in 2014.


"Julia Cohen proves herself a protean writer, engaged with both world and word, playing for keeps. A finely etched portrait of a relationship with a suicidal lover proves but the portal for the author to recover a self and bid it sing. A beautiful, original, and deft achievement."

– Maggie Nelson

"In I WAS NOT BORN, Julia Cohen kindles a pillar of fire that reminds us that we do not always get out alive, that not everyone survives her or his youthful dreams. Like 'breaking into an apple,' the nourishment, the seeds, the core of life pulses throughout this accomplished work."

– Brenda Coultas

"In ways unforeseeable until the very fact of this book, Julia Cohen re-interrogates and reintegrates that ongoing paradox Psyche presents us–figure that refuses to stabilize the ongoing crisis between soul and mind. As of Psyche of old, Eros lurks everywhere, even in absence. But here, resisting the ease of mere allegory, Cohen stitches together differing forms of texts—lyric verse, prose poems bordering on the surreal, brief narratives, excerpts from psychoanalysis—to unfold the agonized reality of a lover's attempted suicide. I WAS NOT BORN opens in the ex- treme difficulty of relations falling apart; it ends in affirmation that word calls out as a lover calls—be it in sonnet or be it in text message—to its dearest counterpart, world."

– Dan Beachy-Quick


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I Was Not Born

The Logic of Jarring in Julia Cohen’s I Was Not Born


Julia Cohen’s collection I Was Not Born (Noemi, 2014) lives in the cleft between lyric essay and long-form poem. This at-once fractured and mythic narrative takes as its central drive the something that unfolds between two bodies when one of those bodies is dealing with the impulse of suicide. It is the story of N. and J., who fail, both independently and together. It is also the story of how that story unfolds, for J., our narrator, both confesses and withholds as she copes with the impossible task of telling.

To say more than that about the story in I Was Not Born would be to populate voids that are very intentionally left empty, as we are not offered a comfortable arc with which to see a pair of people uniting or coming apart. Rather, the narrative follows the laws of collage, where juxtaposition is used to illustrate contradiction and echo. For example:

Jar the crab legs. Jar the white stones. Jar the chrysalis but punch holes through the lid. Jar the sparklers into smoke. Jar my cough. Give me back a pulse. Give me back my pile of paper. My clothing, clean hair. I am sitting on the stairwell is sickness, in pale face, in fragile gown, listening to dinner clink below. I drink juice, swallow ten pills at a time. I was taught to fight this body & no one told me how to stop.

The collection—which provides essays that live independently but also collect to craft a body of prose that explores themes as varied as illness, love, selfhood, and art—is bookended with two longer essays in which we are offered therapy transcripts of a discussion between J. and “Dr.” These interviews work to ground the more lyric and exploratory essays in the very concrete reality of dealing with a traumatized partner, ultimately producing a rich tension between aestheticizing the story and recording the ugly facts. The transcripts, which are highly performative in their employment of colloquial speech, live in stark contrast to the intense privacy practiced in the more poetic places, and calls to mind both the plays of Nelly Sachs—a figure who haunts the book as another woman dealing with a suicidal partner, Paul Celan—and the Socratic dialogue that has become so closely associated with asking questions not necessarily in service of finding answers.

This toggling between moments of grounding realism (“N. introduces me to H.D. & Deleuze, to riding a bike as an adult, to multiple orgasms, to broccoli rabe sandwiches & homemade sauerkraut”) and ontological questions about self and art (“What is a minor person?” “Do I live the way I read?”), suggest that the book adopts the narrative logic of the verb jar. Here jar has two, perhaps contradictory, meanings: to withhold and contain inside a closed space, and also to rupture the familiar through surprise. In this way, we read “if you have patience, jar it” both ways: keep your patience confined and also disrupt it. This is how the book itself jars; it is an attempt to collect and enclose the violent circumstances of living with a suicidal partner through recording and it is also a celebration of the refreshing possibilities of art that embraces instability and dis-ease.

As our narrator says, “Sickness takes a certain kind of patience.” Later she provides an example of the wait:

Who can pay attention the longest? So many songs come from the shower. Laminate leaves or clean out the drain, the grapes, the fury of its avenging families. Flies cling to memory like a cenotaph. Say aaaaah. Say ache.

What is revealed in this short excerpt is the rich possibility that resonates in that twilight space between sentences. A prose artist might desire to close this cavity, to permit bridges to surface where the gaps loom distant. But a poet working in prose here offers few bridges, requesting instead we jump and in jumping, risk. Or, to provide a metaphor more appropriate to Cohen’s uptake, the space between the sentences act like split skin, where the reader’s work is to suture the flesh of the story together. And this is how the book embraces a beautiful array of paradoxes; it is a narrative that offers somehow both a rough scaffolding and an empty casing, the bone frame and loose skin. Here the reader becomes not an audience for but an agent in the making of meaning, for those authorities on disorder in the body—doctors—repeatedly fold. “Say aaaaah,” our speaker demands, in effect requesting we open our mouth in service of the story. “Say ache,” our speaker demands. The book is both literally speaking the word “ache” (ten of its twenty-one parts are titled “The Ache The Ache”) but also—perhaps more so—the book itself is, like heartache or headache, literally suffering from sayache, or the pain that escorts the work of telling.

This ache-in-saying is made most clear in what I might argue is the book’s central conundrum; this is, How do we narrate the story of a human’s desire to end his own life? Or, perhaps more accurately: how do we narrate the story of beholding a human’s desire to end his own life, a human whom we happen to love? How do we narrate the attempt? Not incidentally, of course, the word “essay” comes from the Latin for “to try.” It might be that the only form willing to take on such a grave task is the essay.

If I Was Not Born is an object study in the art of jarring, it succeeds; not only does the book serve as a vessel for the haunted reality of locating the place where the self ends, but it is also an encounter with the suddenness of the unexpected. There is a poignant tension at work here between loitering in the present, arrested by the poem, and moving ever-forward through time, propelled by the story. The paradox performed by at-once feeling suspended and feeling compelled to advance is one at the center of perhaps our most complex human emotion: grief. Here Cohen performs grief to its exhaustion, and we, in reading, participate in “the ache the ache,” both riveted and troubled in the healthiest way.

“How to prolong the lyric moment?” Carole Maso asks in her essay, “Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose.” The answer is Julia Cohen’s I Was Not Born.

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