A few years ago, McDonald’s had a series of commercials where a character would be consuming McDonald’s and all of sudden have a small epiphany of sorts about their own life. They would unexpectedly realize something that probably many people around them thought obvious. In one commercial, a woman chauffeuring her kids around in a mini-van succumbs to this new understanding and announces, “I’m a soccer mom.”
In a similar vein, Bruce Cohen’s poetry collection, Disloyal Yo-Yo, wants to take us through the world we know and startle us into knowing it. It takes a lot to make people contemplate things they take for granted, but poetry does seem a more fitting catalyst than fast food. Life in the suburbs is fair game. A significant number of people have grown up there or live there or watch hours of television set there. The catalogue of things we all know about the suburbs could begin like this: they’re boring, neighbors don’t really know each other, family is a trial but we love them anyway, there are things going on behind closed doors we wouldn’t expect.
Where Cohen succeeds the most in this landscape is when he is able to stop us - through repetition, an image, a complex simile or curious observation.
. . . If I think about it,
leaves cover trees less than half the year
but I think of the natural, sober state
of a tree as having leaves, not being bare.
In another poem, a man walks into the electronics section of a department store where
. . . hundreds
Of televisions were turned to the same movie.
All those TVs & just one sluggish story, but
The color was not exactly the same in any two.
Many observant people have such realizations and don’t know what to do with them. Combine that with gridlock, repeats of Law & Order, cancer and a mortgage and it’s enough to turn one to drink. Or to poetry.
The dark wonder inherent in everyday life (or as Cohen calls it - the “inky newsprint of our dailiness”) is carried out in a series of poems titled, “Domestic Surrealism.” In these poems, the poet marvels at many things about modern domesticated man. Why does he give in to road rage? Why is he intrigued by the voices of female telemarketers?
Because so little is delectably dangerous anymore.
Because women don’t fold small notes into our hands,
we transparent men, hypnotized by too much
America, tailgate and honk at the slightest mistake.
The belief that the days could be redeemed by some element of drama, whether disturbing or glamorous, is a tempting one. Cohen seems both to tease us into believing it while dismissing it at the same time.
. . . Really, all we want are diversions –
Fathering children to see how the harm done
is no different from any boy secretly playing with dolls.
Or some other game, where we accumulate extra lives.
It would be interesting to know when exactly boredom entered the human psyche. One doesn’t think of aboriginal man as suffering from malaise or ontological despair, though perhaps he did. Most likely some scholar has already pinpointed the date. Whenever it happened, many can now relate to Ezra Pound’s sad proclamation, “the days are not full enough.” Or perhaps, it’s better to go to John Berryman, a favorite of the poet’s, who was heavy bored.
In the poem, “The Missing Thirteen,” Cohen addresses Berryman during a meditation on water, how humans are 87 percent water and 13 percent something else. He writes that the missing thirteen is what makes us “discreetly attach ourselves to our desires/ like a girl at a party who places her hooks/ in an older boy with a car.” More dramatically, he later writes to Berryman, “That water must keep you distant from God.”
Is it the missing thirteen that makes people try to transform experience through word and image as well?
Every subscription card to Poetry magazine is inscribed with the editor’s optimistic and assuring promise for poetry, “. . . in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”
As if to meddle with this idea of poetry, the final poem in Disloyal Yo-Yo concerns a suicide note that cannot be published due to lack of funding. In Cohen’s poetry, the rewards for more fully inhabiting life seem more complicated and don’t preclude the impulse to destroy it, as Berryman eventually does.
In “Voyeur Voyager,” Cohen writes,
. . . The monotonous days fill with color
the way a mouth fills with blood after
an unexpected punch
The lines could be read as a humble but not low expectation for poetry; an unexpected punch, more color to our days. Before we get on to the next thing.