An ear that seldom errs. Seldom, not never.

cohen-575.jpgHomepage photo via Flickr by Joe Wolf

His language is pure.

So pure.

Pure “like water”

“like the air is pure”

“pure such as desertpure.”

“One hears in his work every register of the Hebrew language.” From a website.

And from a linked site: “[…]and an unerring ear for political provocation[…]”

Not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for him. The world. And his mother’s kitchen in Pardes Hannah.

“Hannah’s Orchard,” the translation flattens it, bulldozes.

An ear that seldom errs.

Seldom, not never.

He was born in 1948. In the spring. He used to say: How great is the God that allows a poet to be born at the same moment as his country! Let us praise Him! Let us praise Him with flute and timbrel! (An adaptation of Psalm 150. Hallelujah.)

He’d never been out of Israel before. I was managing the stockroom for his cousin then, who said, you’re a writer, too (even though I hadn’t published), why don’t you take my cousin out tonight, I have to meet a girl in Queens?

That’s how I bought him his first dinner in New York. He’d wanted Italian, but I took him to Chinatown thinking I’d show him how Jews ate. He ate the lo mein then made me take him up past Canal. For dessert we had pastas, nipped vodka from a flask for caffè corretti. That’s the night I became his translator.

A wonderful reader of his own work.

If you ask me he’s too goddamned dramatic.

When he reads in New York he really reaches for those gutturals: Chayim, “life,” he spits that one up from his gut.

Chayim means life, but it’s plural, he said to me once, only in Hebrew is life plural.

That was at a Harlem soul buffet.

Later I’d read that same comment in interviews and stopped feeling flattered, stopped feeling impressed.

He accused me of being “an American girl.” I accused him of flirting. He said, guilty, then asked which flower was my vagina more like.

I first met him when he came to Brandeis.

After his reading my professor took us out for pizza: the professor, myself, only three other grad students in the advanced translation workshop. All poets themselves. Who else translates poetry? And obviously him. J.C. His Eminence, His Wordship. We argued about the settlements. He said they should be dismantled. I said what’s built is built. He said you’re right, that’s why they should be dismantled. He quoted quod scripsi, scripsi, then said, but that doesn’t mean I have to read it, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

He was very attractive. He accused me of being “an American girl.” I accused him of flirting.

He said, guilty, then asked which flower was my vagina more like: Lilium martagon (Turk’s cap), or Lilium orientalis (which he said was a newer flower, a hybrid they made in a California laboratory and, though he said it was beautiful, he said this with distaste).

He was great with botany. And with sex. “The bedroom.”

Essentially he was asking was my vagina big or small. Did it pucker and open up or was it closed. It opened for him.

I wrote a poem about it.

Want to hear it?

We fucked dumb at his hotel. (Jokingly: he had me sign a cocktail napkin proclaiming consent.)

After, while I peed, I asked him, would you ever write a poem with the word Hilton?

He said (his accent so heavy):

when you have

much guilt and

your cheese is


time to go

to the Hilton

Let’s get an omelet, he said.

I’ve been reading Cohen for thirty years, since his first journal publications and chapbooks after the Yom Kippur War. Not to get too academic about it, too “inside baseball” (this is, after all, an informal interview), but poetry in Israel went a number of different directions after the militarists were finished. That fighting generation, their shira meguyeset (“mobilized poetry”). No more elegies to tanks, no more rehashing of Biblical style to praise the planes, the martyred bodies. Political consciousness meant not just survival. Or Israeli survival came to mean the survival of Others, too. The poets tilted more and more Left, peace-oriented. They refused military service. Refused to be published in certain journals, by certain publishing houses.

Also they became: interior.

Poets were allowed to be individuals.

I remember my father, as he would say Of Blessed Memory, who wrote Yiddish verse himself, saying to me, “Hebrew is not the tongue of individuals” (he used English to say “individuals”). Have you read that book by R.K. Szerkesztowicz?

From that book by R.K. Szerkesztowicz:

“According to Cohen, Israel’s politics were originally a poetics, and its military tactics merely implementations of national verse. In Time and Time, he reminds us that when Jews first ruled Jerusalem, there was no call for poetry. Then with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewry was thrust into history, or Exile, with a return to Jerusalem representing history’s end, as if the Messiah were not a person but the reunification of a People with its Land. In Exile, in Cohen’s chronology, the Mosaic Law fostered textual interpretation, which, in turn, fostered secular letters; religion turned to a religio poetœ—a faith in poetry, or aesthetics, with wordmakers serving as surrogate priests. Their liturgies were odes to an idealized Zion—a Zion eternally of the future or past—and their panegyrics will live forever even if Zionism won’t. Cohen’s poetry insists that the tragedy of Zionism is that history will outlive it, and that governments can never accomplish what should be the province of metaphor, or an almighty Divine[…]

Not writing about the Holocaust got him more attention than if he’d written a thousand-page poem called Holocaust.

“Nowhere is this tragedy better evinced than among Cohen’s own metaphors: A Siberian street prostitute, in the cycle Corners, is Zion (‘She is Wednesday Zion’), who can either be bartered for, or killed for, or in the process of both be killed herself. In Empty Plates, ‘my heart a jelly donut’ will be devoured by a recent war widow and so while the heart is annihilated, the metaphor is too.”

J.C. liked: veal kebabs, lavender shisha.


Coffee/cigarettes (menthols, black beedis), a low olivewood table grained greenveined like the legs of my mother’s old friends, he once said.

His favorite American poets were:

He wanted to write a poem in two parts, each dealing with a different definition of prolepsis:

The linguists, he said, define prolepsis as “speaking about the future as if it were the present” (and so the Zion that was founded in the year of his birth was but the proleptic projection of X centuries of poetry that used Zion as metaphor), while the Greek epistemologists, he said, define prolepsis as an amorphous preconception that leads to later knowledge.

Like a philosophical term for intuition.

A feeling.

Don’t ask me why, he signed letters to me: Harareet.

That’s that actress from Haifa who starred opposite Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.

She was gorgeous. But he never met her. She lived in London. He liked redheads. Gingies.

About prolepsis: The first half of the poem was to predict the second half of the poem—predict its images and language. And the second half of the poem was to be filled with dread of failure.

Certain failure.

His parents were refugees from Germany. The Cohen family had owned the third-largest private residence in Cologne (which didn’t mean they’d been Cologne’s third-wealthiest).

J.C. never wrote about the Shoah. He got attention for that. Not writing about the Holocaust got him more attention than if he’d written a thousand-page poem called Holocaust. And filled the ditch of each verse with corpses. His parents emigrated late. 1940. Maybe even ’41. Spent all their money getting out. They were dictionary definition yeccas. Hard asses but they had class.

Our father wore suits. And on Fridays he wore the three-piece with a vest conscientiously buttoned. That’s why my brother never wears suits. That’s why I never do. He didn’t even wear a suit when they gave him that prize in Dublin and Dublin was a fortune. Fifty thousand he squandered in a year. Maybe it’s because I’m a doctor that whenever we meet, and lately it isn’t that often, maybe once or twice a year, he reminds me of this fact: Because Israeli doctors don’t wear neckties, it’s such “an informal culture,” “a Mediterranean culture,” they spread less germs than do their Western counterparts. Ties, rarely laundered, are rank with germs. But I’ve never known my brother to be fastidious. I’ve never even seen him wash his hands.

Once he tried to fuck my friend in an airport. When she said no he complained about how expensive the drinks were. He said he must’ve spent half the money he’d ever earned at airport bars.

Our father was difficult.

A doctor, too.

J.C.’s mother was my piano teacher. From her I heard he was a very bad pianist.

He was so bad, his mother said, he might make a good composer one day.

My aunt, his painting teacher, complained he had poor eye/hand coordination, and couldn’t draw from life.

Which, you know, is not his reputation.

His English became as fluent as his Arabic. And of course his German and of course terrible French. But his German was obviously excellent because his parents spoke it. He spoke not a word of Yiddish. We met three times a week at a diner on West 90th. He had only a year or, as he would say, two semesters. He was teaching at Columbia. We didn’t read or do literature. We studied grammar and did exercises in workbooks. He’d mutter to himself while he ate eggs, he always ordered eggs, I would have been I would have had. He hated Columbia. I would have been I would have had. 365 Riverside Drive.

We had two children together, twins. He wanted to name them Romulus and Squeamish.

Would have to have been.

Would have had to have been.

Present perfect continuous amused him to no end.

He wanted to learn enough English to work for his cousin if he had to. The cousin I’d worked for. His cousin imported carpets and had a showroom off Times Square.

This was 1976.

He paid for my divorce.

Dear Eds.,

Appreciate your inviting me to contribute to your festschrift. Unfortunately I have nothing kind to say about this poet. Not of his translations of me nor of his poems. (That came from Ushant in a calligraphed envelope. Thick deckled paper, fine nib.) (Subject: COHEN REQUEST)

Tell him he owes me money. (Subject: Re: COHEN REQUEST)

Tell him he owes me.

Tell him he owes.

Was not “O.O.O., Festivals of global poetry” fly him, nor Russian Pen, from Moscow to Tbilisi “roundtrip”—was I.

Okay, I lent money for Orli his girlfriend—a dancer at the time—to have an abortion when he came out of the army. And then when he refused to serve reserve duty, and so was sent to prison, I’m the one who checked on his parents every week. I was always like that, too giving. It’s bad to be that person and be surrounded by artists, by poets. I knew Yossi since before we were born. It feels like sometimes, I wrote his poems.

I’ll explain: He refused to serve after ’73, served his prison year silently, heroically (especially given how they attacked him in the press). Journalists, I mean American journos in particular, assume you don’t fight because of some large overarching opposition to Israel or to Zionism itself, which is true only half of the time. True for the crazies. The bearded. The other half is that who you call the refuseniks are freaked. They have specific refusals, specific objections. They don’t want to die in Lebanon. They don’t want to die in Gaza. No grave east of Jerusalem. Who who has sex and goes religiously to discotheques wants to be murdered for the sake of Hasidim?

He once said to me: Current historical purpose of Hebrew poetry, to create noble savages. To create poets to become envied by Jews who don’t speak or write in Hebrew.

That’s world-historical. That’s Dryden: I’m as free as Nature first made man / when wild in woods the noble savage ran. For Israelis I’m just the troublemaker.

But the government and I, we’ve become very similar: They kill children, I murder poems. (J.C. spent the Sharon administration editing, read: rewriting, his juvenilia.)

He read, of his contemporaries: Levin, Laor. Avot Yeshurun, but he was older. (You had to get him drunk for him to admit his obsession with Pagis, and with Paul Celan. Though he translated only du Français, which was perverse.)

He drank whiskey and became something of an expert, often trying to convince his physician brother to open a whiskey bar. Something luxury in Tel Aviv, “near the hotels” he’d always say. His brother the vascular surgeon. When I fell in love with him he was living in a small apartment off Shenkin Street, which wasn’t the cesspit it is now.

Or it’s just that the tourists then were more bearable.

Hippies. Which transliterated to Hebrew begins with the letter hey, but which older Israelis, his parents’ age, tended to pronounce as if it began with a chet: chippies (alternately khippies).

We had two children together, twins. He wanted to name them Romulus and Squeamish.

I wanted to call them after my uncles.

He left me for a woman in Cologne. A harpist who ran a museum or a gallery or publishing house or something. A gallery that had a publishing house, he could speak to her in German.

I wasn’t sad for him to go.

My husband works for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical. We’re living now in Zürich and very happy.

He calls drunk late at night from Moscow. From New York. From New York. Collect. Reverses charges. From New Haven and Cambridge, Los Angeles. Berlin and Cologne. Haven’t talked to him in years.

Wouldn’t want to.

Peace is not in his best interests, the kind of poet he is.

He’s better alone than at a party.

The collections are better than the poems.

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel is Witz. A new edition of A Heaven of Others appears in April 2011.

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