Ira Cohen, Poems from the Akashic Record
New York: Panther Books, 2001
published in Rain Taxi (Minneapolis) 7:1 (Spring 2002)
Like a genie making a mad dash, Ira Cohen is not easily contained. A longtime traveler to Paris, Tangier, India, Kathmandu, associate of the Beats and the international avant garde, since the early 1960s he has been an active poet and photographer, yet his work remains hard to place (and to find). It might well be that he is most at home transmuting signals from far and near, perched in the midst of his native Manhattan, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice.
Poems from the Akashic Record is, above all, a book of remembrances, but in the spirit of its title: the Sanskrit akasha, toward the shining, the heavens, as to invoke God’s memory book of past, present, and future. Brimming with tributes to friends, mentors, family, and accented by his enigmatic photo-portraits, Cohen’s book does not so much mourn the loss and passing (Jack Smith, Paul Bowles, Angus Maclise, Gregory Corso, his mother Faye) as it celebrates the sparks they left or that others continue to leave in the poet and the world. Indeed, such is his belief in the prophetic role of poetry that time itself is turned inside out. “Elegy,” for instance, was written not after Brion Gysin’s death but decades earlier when they first met: “You have left. We lived on the edge of the sea’s awareness ... You are the clarity of death above the staleness of towns. Above the pinnacles isolated as men crowd doorways you ride the mystery of shapechanging.”
Though mostly of recent vintage, many poems date from previous decades, so that the book’s intuitive order allows the poet to be “a not unhappy / ghost remembering everything, the warp & woof of memories ... / Dream shuttle makes me exist everywhere at once” (“From the Moroccan Journal 1987"). It would seem there is no beginning or end to the book, in the steady weaving of ordinary details and his tender regard for those close to him, but rather a constant seeking: “I spent forty years taking photographs / trying to find God’s face--- / Today I left my camera at home ...” (“Credo”). Attentive to mystics and seers of every stripe---his film Kings with Straw Mats (available from Mystic Fire Video) documents India’s wild festival of holy men, the Kumbh Mela---Cohen nonetheless writes with an honest conversational voice, inhabited by a sort of divine laughter. “The miracle is in what one still has or in what / one has given away ... / My father dreamed of losing something in the subway / as he was dying / And God, did he ever dream he could lose / a galaxy, could a universe be misplaced, forgotten / while standing in line at the Post Office?” (“Can Writing Bring It Back?”).
In the end, the body is but a point of departure, for he would build a loose, farflung community wherein all might “bathe in the shimmer of liminal possibilities / Decenter your vision & cross / the border of human nature / Your mind is a diagram, / your heart can swivel in any direction / but if you can’t shake your ass / you’ll never make it to the other side.”