rev. of The Cartographer’s Vacation by Andrea Cohen

Issue #81
Spring 2000

The Cartographer’s Vacation 
Poems by Andrea Cohen. Owl Creek Press, $13.00 paper. Reviewed by David Daniel.

With its aesthetic roots planted in the tradition of American Surrealism, Andrea Cohen’s first collection,
The Cartographer’s Vacation, is delightfully unfashionable. Cohen might well have hung these lines from her poem “Instructions for Writing” on the cover of the book: “Don’t let facts / distract you / from the truth” lines which seem both to guide her and to distinguish this interesting volume from most of her contemporaries, who tend to support their poems on autobiographical data rather than imaginative vision. While Cohen does, if somewhat elliptically, trace a specific familial history, more importantly, as the title suggests, she attempts to map and then navigate a dignified, coherent course among the contingencies of destiny.

The first of the book’s three sections focuses on the narrator’s childhood; these poems summon up a ghostly world in which the losses of the past haunt the present, and in which the present, too, seems to haunt and revise the past with its wisdom. In “Memory,” Cohen conjures the absent mother as it begins: “Quietly the snow begins / falling filling / the windowsill / like a glass / of milk our mother / is pouring.” “How long ago,” the poem continues, “she began. . . . We expected her task / to take forever. . . .” It didn’t. An entire house is being auctioned: “Save the one window / we kneel before / fingers plugging our ears / fending off the shackling / laughter of the wealthy snowmaker / and his machinery / for which we pawned / our tongues / for which we’d pay anything.” While this borders on sentimentality, a charge to which this section is particularly vulnerable, the strangeness of Cohen’s imagination the surprise, for instance, of the word “machinery” gives sinew to the sentiment; this
strength, evident in a number of poems, allows her to explore sentimental territory gracefully.

However effective many of the early poems are, the book improves a good deal in the second and third sections, in which the work turns more outward and Cohen’s spirits seem to gather flesh. This earthliness anchors her extravagant imagination, allowing a much broader, subtler range of expression; many of these poems are ambitious, richly ambiguous, and wonderfully witty. In “Calendar Maker” one of a number of persona poems the narrator states, “I predict nothing / but merely load the dates / like bullets / in narrow chambers.” One of the calendars lands in the office of a young mechanic who “yanks Miss April / from her nail” when he sees a young woman, his wife-to-be, it turns out, approaching, “with an open map / and a question / he’ll take / a lifetime answering.” Whether the accidents of the future hold a bullet or a lifetime of love, Cohen at this point in the book has clearly decided to resist the lure suggested in the first section of a dimly lit past, embracing the darkness that lays ahead: ”
When you look ahead, / think of Lot’s wife, / when you look back, / think of Lot” (“Instructions for Writing”).

In the final, and perhaps best, poem, “In the Cemetery,” the narrator, driving “undestined until a cemetery / pulls up,” discovers “My name’s not here, / but scattered across the country.” After a moving, darkly funny litany of people and places, she evokes finally the “anonymous on another continent, / ashes lost in a countryside / I’ve visited only briefly, / eating sachertorte, sampling schnapps.” She then seems tempted to rest among the dead surrounding her, where the grass, grown taller, “might hide me if I stopped.” With characteristic dignity, she does not stop: “What’s left of my family / has enough to mourn, / and in a kitchen nearby, / someone is waiting for supper.” Continuing the admirable tradition of small presses publishing books that are somewhat out of step with current fashion, Owl Creek Press deserves great credit:
The Cartographer’s Vacation is a serious, unusual, and often beautiful book.