Science writer turned prize-winning poet Susan Cohen combines both in her new collection
“I’m staying among strangers,” Susan Cohen declares in the “Letter Home” that opens her new volume of poems. A page or two later, in a description of two people viewing a painting, “our heads bent / to the same work of understanding the world,” she admits “Still, I have no idea what you are seeing.” This sense of isolation and detachment, and the corresponding longing for place and connection, run through these poems, which weave together several strands of observation. Her background as a science journalist informs several poems reflecting on lessons from “science news”: the previously unknown glow of amphibians illuminating “how much we cannot see, and yet we stomp everywhere,” while the lost legs of ancient snakes remind us “some prospect is no longer within reach.” She envies the jellyfish for “living without architecture, outside of history.” Yet she also writes love poems from the vantage of long marriage, and studies Yiddish as a way back into memory, heritage, and history. And yes, she surveys the contemporary horrors of school shootings, racial violence, and environmental catastrophe, but reserves her most important lesson for her closing image, which also furnished the book with its title: amidst the ruins of yet another California forest fire, she observes how “the flames choose what to burn / in this raging democracy of fire,” leaving the survivors to set aside their differences in recognition of their “shared citizenship of flesh. / Here’s to the live and kicking, / those with hungers and with thirsts.”
“A thread of elegy runs through DEMOCRACY OF FIRE, Susan Cohen’s wise and wonderful new poetry collection. Tenderly, precisely, these poems record a litany of the world’s ongoing losses: ‘Greenland’s ice sheet pooling like tears into the ocean,’ elephants, beetles, democracies, ‘languages left behind like cloaks,’ and ‘our own bones interred without ceremony.’ Cohen shows us our interconnectedness, a reminder of both the beauty and value of what’s at stake. Yet, paradoxically, this vision makes Democracy of Fire a deeply comforting book. Of the planet Mercury she writes, ‘…a pinprick ablaze for longer than our species will exist…Between us and it, there’s a distance far beyond air, and beyond despair.’” —Ellen Bass, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets & author of Indigo.
“At this historical, political and ecological moment, with democracy and our earth aflame, could there be a more timely or relevant collection than Susan Cohen’s powerful, wise and deeply humane book of poetry, DEMOCRACY OF FIRE? Here, the many losses we experience both daily and across time—losses both cultural and personal—are mitigated by the act of memory and a faith in, well, the facts of our world and our capacity for intimate reckonings. Once again, Susan Cohen has shown herself to be one of the most compassionate recorders of our complicated times.” —David St. John, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets & author of The Last Troubadour: Selected and New Poems
“Susan Cohen shows how science and poetry can interact, not in opposition, but with insight and wonder. Attentive to visual detail, these poems are rhythmically alive and play with language, finding ‘inside languages, a lung and its lunge for breath.’ They create micro-arenas where human limitation, adaptation, evolution, and climate change are handled with care. Replete with dense, rich sounds—‘marbled salamander, Cranwell’s horned frog, newt with neon stripes’—they are also willing to embrace mystery: ‘if you can learn to love the fist of darkness, let it close around you.’” —Arthur Sze, winner of the National Book Award & author of The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems
Susan Cohen is the author of two chapbooks and two previous full-length collections of poems, as well as co- author of a non-fiction book. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and faculty member of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before studying bioethics and poetry at Stanford University while on a John S. Knight fellowship for mid-career journalists. Her numerous journalism honors include a grant from the Fund for Investigative Reporting and two Science in Society Awards from the National Association of Science Writers. In 2013, she turned her full writing attention to poetry and earned an MFA from Pacific University. Her second full-length collection, A DIFFERENT WAKEFUL ANIMAL, won the 2015 David Martinson- Meadowhawk prize from Red Dragonfly Press and she's received recognition for many of her individual poems, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award from the Center for Women Writers, Harpur Palate's Milton Kessler Memorial Poetry Prize, the Red Wheelbarrow Prize, and the Annual Poetry Prize from Terrain.org. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Review 25th Anniversary Anthology, Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Los Angeles Review, Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Review, Tar River Review, 32 Poems and dozens of other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California.