Democracy of Fire by Susan Cohen


Review by Catherine Abbey Hodges

In 2021, Susan Cohen’s poem “In Respect to the Jellyfish” won the Red Wheelbarrow Prize. The poem crossed my radar at that time, and I recall appreciating its intelligence, restraint, and beauty. When I encountered it again in Cohen’s third full-length collection, Democracy of Fire (Broadstone Books), I was struck by the further frequencies at which the poem resonates as it’s situated among poems that engage horrific events in global, political, and family history. Such a context lends additional weight to the longing for a life “liv[ed] outside of history” (as expressed in “In Respect to the Jellyfish”). That said, and horrors of history and terrors of the present notwithstanding, the arc of Democracy of Fire ultimately reaches a place “beyond despair” (the concluding line of “Love in a Year of Outrage”) via poems of tremendous vision, originality and power.

Cohen, an award-winning journalist and science writer, metabolizes current events into an impressive variety of poems. For starters, each of the book’s three sections includes three brief prose poems whose titles begin “Science News”—“Science  News: Dung Beetles Navigate by Storing Star Maps in their Brains,” for example. Arthur Sze selected five of them for the 11th annual prize in poetry, noting that the poems “embrace mystery” and “create micro-arenas where human limitation, adaptation, evolution, and climate change are handled with care.” I’d add that these poems, each significant and worthy of an attentive read in itself, also serve as respite from the searing intensity of others that turn their gaze to geopolitics and human rights violations.

“Photograph of Claudia Patricia Gómez González, Killed by U.S. Border Patrol Agent” is one such poem. The photo referred to in the title is not from the scene of the killing, but one the victim’s aunt holds up to show who Claudia had been in life, in her Mayan village, wearing an embroidered apron and squinting into the sun: a 19-year-old woman who wanted to be an accountant and was traveling to join her lover in Virginia. “You can’t get more American than wanting enough money / to count,” comments the poem’s speaker, before turning to a description from a witness of Claudia dead in a “junk-strewn lot less than a mile into Texas.” The poem ends with these lines:

                                                          We’re told it’s wrong

            to make a poem from someone else’s tragedy,

            but she crossed the border and became ours.

Another poem, “Report on the State of the World’s Children,” is comprised of couplets in the voices of children: “They took me to sea in a faulty raft. / I couldn’t swim, but, dead, I could float,” reads the first. Then there’s the poem, lighter yet serious, built from a list of words reportedly banned by the CDC. “Photosynthesis” begins, “Another evidence-based day.” It explains, “This poem is transgender, meaning / surface is one thing but essence / another . . .” and ends

            Remember photosynthesis?

            Soon, someone will insist we

            just call it magic so we forget

            how life depends on light.

And Cohen is versatile, so versatile, spinning news about spiders into the delicate, steamy love poem, “They’ve Discovered Spiders Can Hear Us,” that closes the book’s first section.

Love is its own kind of news, and that love poem is one of several that document moments in a long marriage. Rueful, grateful, clear-eyed, some of them bring the late, great Linda Pastan to mind. The book’s first poem, “Letter Home,” considers other lives the speaker might have had, and other partners, then turns to reality: “But I’m joined with you, sharing the citizenship of long marriage, // both of us tending our borders.”

This is not the only appearance of “citizenship”; the collection is threaded through with the word and its associations: belonging and its opposite, inclusion and exclusion, rights and their absence, human dignity and indignities. Near the end of the collection, “To Thee I Sing” welcomes a newborn. Its title a clear reference to “of thee I sing” from “America the Beautiful,” the poem begins, “On the day of your birth, America danced with fire. Yes, torches / lit your way, streets flash-banged their salutations.” Couplets on the infant’s lineage follow. The poem, a flare of hope at just the right moment, bears quoting in its entirety:

            You who sleep now, plump and swaddled, will grow tall,

            a man whose skin may speak of English or Viking

            or African blood, whose beard may bush out black or red.

            Your first name, picked only for its clink against your last,

            is a revenant, echo out of Tangipahoa Parish

            and your great-great grandfather, white son of a slaveholder.

            Some of your other great greats (names unknown to us)

            stepped into this new world as property. Which corpuscles

            descend from the owners, and which from the owned, as they pump

            through your singular heart? Which eyelash, which fist?

            In an airport someday, you will be asked who you are

            and be required to answer. Nationality: American.

            Place of birth: Portland, Oregon, while it was in a state

            of fury. Your father cradled you home

            in the safety of a car seat through a patrolled city.

            Virus-plundered, closed by curfew.

            If you need to hear such stories, we can sing a lullaby

            about this day of shattering and the violent joy you brought.

            Welcome! O citizen, born under these unfixed stars

            and stripes, you are our nation now.

This infant, hailed as both citizen and nation, imbued with near-messianic properties, could be any child coming into the world with a world of history borne in their DNA. Welcome, indeed!

The final use of the word “citizenship” comes in the last poem of the book, “Fire Season with Rolling Blackouts at the Bodega Bar and Grill.” Californians—Cohen is a resident of Berkeley—won’t have forgotten the devastating fires of several years ago, an eerie analogue to the terrible-and-getting-worse state of the nation. In the poem, the eponymous eatery has posted on a whiteboard behind the bar,

            Everything is free

            for fire survivors, first responders,

            or anyone who needs it to be.

“Generosity is a poem tonight,” and nobody’s concerned about whose vehicle has a gun rack and whose a rainbow flag:

            Just walking through the warped

            doorway that never keeps the flies out

            is a celebration of survival,

            a free offer, a feast, a toast

            to the shared citizenship of flesh . . . .

There it is: a place beyond despair, which is also a further way to think about Susan Cohen’s wondrous new book.