Now that I have unwound from the proud belle hoops
and done the hunting and the leaping--
. . . now the high time is over
let the lines speak
~Helen Degen Cohen, "The Woman With Many Lines" from HABRY
It’s fitting that we should celebrate Helen Degen Cohen’s third death anniversary with a review of her posthumous poetry collection, My Life on Film, released by Glass Lyre Press last September. A co-founder and devoted editor of RHINO Poetry for 39 years, Helen was largely responsible for the continued success of the RHINO Poetry Forum, a monthly workshop in Evanston that thrives to this day. Helen died in 2015, shortly after facilitating the November session of this peer workshop she lovingly tended for decades.
Aside from being an acclaimed writer of poetry, short stories, and novels, Helen also nurtured passions for visual art, dance, and film. Effortlessly leaping from one art form to another, it was as if Helen never stopped seeking new and deeper ways to express her boundless love of life. But poetry was her true love, and all the other art forms fed and informed that love the way a bee might sip from an entire prairie of clover to make honey.
My Life on Film is the perfect embodiment of the way Helen could draw from another art form and alchemize it into poetry. The book’s publication was the work of many loving hands. Led by RHINO’s chief editor, Ralph Hamilton, the “Helen legacy team” includes her daughter, Laura Cohen, along with several poets and writers who were among Helen’s closest readers and friends: Michael Anderson, Ruth Goring, Susanna Lang, and Andrea Witzke Slot. For our last RHINO Reviews of the year, we are pleased to include this review by Bill Yarrow, a longtime admirer of Helen’s work and an active participant and presenter at the RHINO Poetry forum. My Life on Film is only the first of many fruits from the vast legacy of writing Helen has left behind.
All who knew Helen miss her fearless poetic soul and her indomitable life force, but we’re grateful for these poems that continue to “let the lines speak” for her, as she has so much more to tell.
Angela Narciso Torres
RHINO Reviews Editor
November 24, 2018
My Life on Film by Helen Degen Cohen
Glass Lyre Press, 2018. 102 pp.
Reviewed by Bill Yarrow
Posthumous books, like Ariel, are curious creatures. Even if the poems are not edited in any way, there is still the question of selection and arrangement, and, in the case of the Plath volume, the title, chosen not by Plath but suggested instead by Ted Hughes. Helen Degen Cohen’s My Life on Film was lovingly put together by RHINO editor Ralph Hamilton, Helen’s daughter, Laura, Helen’s friends, and members of Helen’s writing group. In a way, that collaboration is quite fitting for a book made of poems about or inspired by watching films, because film itself is a collaborative endeavor involving many hands.
There are certain filmmakers who, despite the collaborative nature of film, stamp their individuality on every film they direct, so strong are their personalities, so singular are their visions. These are the “auteur” filmmakers. Had Helen Cohen directed films, she would, surely, have been one of these auteurs, many of whom (like Fellini, Bresson, Ozu, and Godard) Helen celebrates in this book. Thinking back on Helen, I realize she was a true auteur—in her life and in her art. She had that kind of powerful personality. I remember her forceful opinions and idiosyncratic views. I remember the muscular strength of her vision.
I love the hard work that went into fashioning this book out of a “sprawling manuscript,” but I wish the people who worked on this labor of loss and love had written about their approach, had told us which poems did not make the final cut and why, told us what changes were made to individual poems, told us what directed the arrangement into three sections (“Wand,” “Woman” and “Salo”). In what state of completion or disarray was the original manuscript of 250 pages?
As a reviewer, all I can do is comment on a few individual poems and even there remember that the author’s original intent may or may not have been realized or even known.
The subject of these poems is film, but few of the poems are purely ekphrastic either descriptively or in terms of influence on the speaker (most often Helen) in the poem. Oftentimes, the films in question are merely springboards for Helen’s own imagination, images from films suggesting images in her life. In “Shadows,” for instance, images of dolls running through “spellbinding trees” from Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors lead to a lyrical outburst:
Marichka, Marichka, where are you,
first my brother and now
you too, buried and lamented…
I knew you as a child…
“Dance of the Muses” is a “semi cento,” that is, a poem of “found” lines from Robert Bresson commenting on his film A Man Escaped intermixed with the speaker’s own thoughts. In the poem, Bresson says, “portray nature using nature / but don’t copy it.” The speaker responds, “Good God. I remember only that I woke up suddenly / to nothing, no light in the shift or drift—“ A few lines later, the speaker interrupts Bresson with “Get me a camera, higher power, I hallucinate.”
There’s a deeply personal element to all of the poems here, the inclusion of a personal voice that is alive, alert, responsive, and attuned to image, emotion, and idea.
Now the dance scene in Killer of Sheep
between husband and wife, about
two minutes long (every moment
of the film is a life) and I am the woman
reaching for my man, reaching slowly,
first for the nearest part of him, chest,
then arm, shoulder, then back
smooth as a mountain, its breeze
wrapping around me…
(“This Bitter Earth”)
Helen Degen Cohen’s poems are irrepressibly lyrical, and I will miss her voice. I wish she were still here to listen to, to learn from, and to talk to. We no longer have her, but we have what she left—her work. My Life on Film is a testament to the talent, the passion, and the soul that was Helen Degen Cohen.
Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at Blue Fifth Review, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and five chapbooks, most recently We All Saw It Coming.