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by Neeli Cherkovski

(from Like a Radient White Dove)

Allen Cohen remains in the eye of the reader and in the reader’s heart. His gentle voice will no longer echo at public readings, but this posthumous volume brings him to life again. It lifts the silence of his passage and gives his poetry to all who would listen. Readers may feel the blood of the poet rushing down the lines herein collected. Here are cosmovisions – songs born out of the streets, rising into the sky. They are like clouds bumping into one another until they find a harmonious oneness. Allen helped to make San Francisco, his chosen home, a living poem. For nearly forty years he kept a candle burning in his brain for the wild sidewalks, the crazy coffee house encounters, and the spontaneous gatherings of solidarity in the face of the ugly machine of the unpoetic that grinds away at dissent and the experimental mind. Alive in his poems are explosive images. The reader will find them amid the most ordinary of lines – small jewels, really haiku-like gleanings that make this book of selected/collected poems a treasure.

The poet’s words tumble down the hills of San Francisco, rise to the heights of Twin Peaks, and dazzle the morning fog as it sweeps gently through the city. His writing reflects devotion to the joy of language and its capacity to give the listener new meaning. It is a pleasure to witness Allen’s unique voice as it flings open magic doors and windows from which to illuminate. Poetry is where he placed his faith. It was his tool toward liberation. He did not experience it as an academic thing, or even as a literary thing in the sense of journal publication and public notice, but as something indigenous to self. It was, to play on a phrase by Pablo Neruda, ‘his bread,’ – something he could not live without. He lived with it in an environment of like-minded people with whom he shared the dream of building a commune of desire not predicated on commerce or a war economy.

This editor of The Oracle, who helped shape the hippy revolution of the 1960s, loved San Francisco. He celebrated its uncompromising otherness in the face of a colder, harsher America. Throughout the decades, Allen’s writing responded to an ever-changing world with anger at oppression and enthusiasm for the wonder of daily life. He wrote strong reactions to the Vietnam War and the Desert War, all the time affirming the intrinsic value of poetry as a means for personal and communal transformation. His poems ranges over many social and political concerns and the scenes he sees in the ordinary. In “Amazing Things” he jumps Zen-like into the beauty and wonder surrounding us.

    . . .Then you leaped up,

    went into the bathroom,
      and asked me to look
        through the long skylight.

     There was the tall pine tree
      pointing to the bright
        planet Mars and just

    to the Southwest of it
      the full moon lighting
        the real sky.

    We ran back
      to bed naked
        in the cold night.

The poem asks what can we find meaningful in those places where we often don’t think we can find anything of value? Read in its entirety it is a welcome piece of news – We are free to see, “There below in the garden/it was raining/from inside the earth/up to the sky and/back down to the earth.”

“Remembrance of Allen Ginsberg” is a tribute that spans nearly forty years of knowing. The poem is an open-hearted history leaning-in on Ginsberg’s immense spirit and its influence on the younger poet’s sense of being. “Life became molten, / spirit and matter merged. / feeling flooded / the dry wound of mind.” Here is a record of transcendence, the sharing of consciousness, and the dispensation to go into the depth of things with a clear vision: “Somehow the light must pass through time / incandescent, melting and passionate / the fire must burn through time.” Fire takes on time – a beautiful thought Allen knew that poetry plays with fire, fences with time, and strives to build a shelter from all-consuming flames. Poetry hopes to be timeless, but is ultimately brought down by the passage of what we call time. Yet, Ginsberg stays alive in Cohen’s elegy, not only as we read it, but in what we take away from the reading.

The poems in this volume, like the one’s already quoted, are unliterary at time as in Charles Bukowski’s writing. In some of the later poems, Allen deals with mortality “Nothing is wrong, / life and death / not even a flicker / of time and flesh.” The lines are from a poem about his experiences teaching in a public school classroom, He is touched by the miracle of finding a path to an awareness beyond the here and now. “The god is me / I am the god / and so are you. . .”

“The Dreamwalker Takes Death As a Lover” is a piece in which Allen muses over the direction of the peace movement. The poem begins with exquisite simplicity,

     The world is existing
        to much in my mind,
    My fingers rarely
          touch it anymore.
    The end comes closer
          with each headline.
          each new weapon,
          each new war. . .

For all of this, Allen’s mind understands well enough that down in the house of language he will sort things out, retaining humor and compassion. He announces, “My cells are hysterical/with desire and timelessness.” The poetic impulse is always running alongside of him. He is flooded by history. “I reach out, I hide, I dream.” It is a notebook of the ‘now’ leading to a litany of what is happening in the commonplace world.

There are poems mined out of bus rides, birthdays, the loss of love and the beauty of it. “Return to Table Mountain” is a song for nature. It knocks on the door of the seasons and swings across vistas we all know, and often overlook. Here are snapshots of “late spring rain” and “coastal gloom.” It is all part of a context – the poet out in the country desiring a circle of hope to be born of deep communion with common roots.


    these are the meadows
          I cleared of piles of rotting wood
               with Joel and Colin.

    There’s the fences we stretched
          to encircle 2 acre garden –
               silhouettes of planting, weeding, harvesting.
    Here’s the round house I built
          with its mandala skylight
               etched in my vision.

Allen Cohen’s cool simplicity makes his vision attractive as he explores wondrous ways to deal with a society where greed, envy, and the thirst for power choke creativity. His means was to look for harmony through words that would free the mind to be free enough to keep good things growing. His Table Mountain poem concludes with

     until they are their own government
          their own school and their own religion
               and this land is protected
    by this generation
          and the generation
               that is growing here

    and these new blessings
          will go on longer
               than the old sins.