On the Shelf: Andrea Cohen

The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.

I’m reading a couple books in conjunction with a terrific show, Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

In The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (edited by Stephanie Terenzio), there are gems like this: “The intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is the real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss.” And this: “I find it sympathetic that Parisian painters have taken over the word ‘poetry,’ in speaking of what they value in painting.”

In Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles 1954-1956, we get O’Hara riffing on Motherwell, Guston, Smith, and others. Of the newly opened Guggenheim, he muses: “[it] is urbane and charming, like the home of a cultivated and mildly eccentric person. The elevator is a good idea too; I wonder if anyone has ever taken it down.”

Also art-related is Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, by Liza Kerwin. It’s an inviting sort of cultural history in the shape of lists both practical and poetic, with Joan Snyder’s 1976 response to “What is Feminist Art” and Vitto Acconci’s instructions on what to do when his flight to Halifax crashes. And an undated voucher that Gordon Newton presented to Samuel J. Wagstaff delivers these line items: rent—$50; material—$30; food—$15; bad habits—$5.

Everything was cheaper then.

In poetry, I’ve been much enamored by the hefty and soaring FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, an anthology edited by Geoffrey Brock. I’m discovering so many poets new to me, poets who make me want to be, if not a twentieth-century Italian poet, something close to it.

I’m a fan of Zephyr Press and especially admire their translations of Eastern-European poets. And I’ve been taking pleasure in Shang Qin’s Feelings Above Sea Level (translated by Steve Bradbury)—prose poems that bring Russell Edson to mind for me.

Also in translation, I’m looking forward to Dark Elderberry Branch, a collection of translations of Maria Tsvetaeva, edited by Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky and forthcoming from Alice James, and I’m excited to read Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (translated by Christian Wiman).

I’ve been reading a good bit of Adrienne Rich’s poetry and prose lately, both in preparation for a tribute to her at The Blacksmith House and in preparation for the day at hand. I hear myself saying thank you out loud as I read Rich. It’s a gratitude for her commitment to what she affirms, in Arts of the Possible, as the only history that grounds her: “the history of the dispossessed.”

That same engagement runs through all of Naomi Wallace’s plays, and I’m looking forward to reading and seeing “The Liquid Plain,” which premieres as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next year. Fearless is a word that gets thrown around a lot, so maybe the better way to describe Wallace’s work is fearful: borne of the fear of not being faithful to the harder questions, of not skirting the high-risk zones. That’s courage.

One nonfiction book I’m awaiting is Gail Caldwell’s next memoir: Falling Somewhere. What I always loved about Caldwell’s criticism was that she talked about what it is to be human, as opposed to the plot line of a book. That’s what interests me.

And my reading is informed by good luck. There are always individual poems that find me or that I find, and that discovery sends me racing to the poets’ books. Examples of late: “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken and “The Exhibition of Bodies,” by Ciaran Berry, in a recent issue of The Threepenny Review.

Fortune also comes in the shape of what I find at the Truro (Massachusetts) dump. Or rather, the swap shop housed at the dump. There, more than a few great twentieth-century writers and readers have parked portions of their libraries. And I like to think that even if I never read that collapsing copy of Ulysses scavenged from the dump, a better reader has and will.

Andrea Cohen’s most recent poetry collections are Kentucky Derby and Long Division, both from Salmon Poetry. She directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poem “Cherries” was published in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion.