by Uri Hertz

This article was originally published in Poetry Flash to announce publication of On Feet of Gold, by Ira Cohen, Synergetic Press, London, 1986.

Ira Cohen is a world-travelling poet, photographer, filmmaker, shaman and self-described "literary hustler" who has been turning out work in all these fields for over twenty years. His mylar photos were printed in Life and Avant-Garde in the sixties. The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, his wildly psychedelic film odyssey, an underground classic. Editor of such groundbreaking international literary publications as Gnaoua and The Great Society during the sixties; Cohen writes poetry which reflects an incisive mind and cinematic eye, a surreal imagination, a relentless sense of humor and a religious obsession with eroticism and death. Finally, his poems published in various chapbooks and literary magazines over the past fifteen years have been gathered with some of his unpublished writing into a single edition of selected poems where his work can begin to be seen as a whole. In "Imagine Jean Cocteau," the poem which opens On Feet of Gold, Ira Cohen writes,

Imagine whatever you will but know that it is not
imagination but experience which makes poetry,
and that behind every image,
behind every word there is something
I am trying to tell you,
something that really happened

Cohen's poetry is constructed out of interior and exterior experiences spliced together in a surreal constellation. Their transposition onto the magnetic fields of the poem produces a mosaic of reality with its elements relocated in time and space

    You told all the shadows to dance for me
but in my heart the clock stood still
                              for Death on New Road,
there in the platinum pendulum & reflected
in the glassed in face of Buddha
What was that dog carrying a flattened corpse
with no back legs
                             startling us on the way
down the hill?

(from "Rudraksh")

The uniqueness of the moment when the poem is being written, its resonances with memory and dream, charge the poetic instant with a Baudelairean impulse to be "anywhere of this world,"

It's lovely to have Bombay outside
   remembering a ship covered in black
          & to know that there's an endless profusion
          of empty beaches to wander from

(from "Bombay Black")

Ira Cohen's maverick stance and his geographical isolation during a decade spent in Asia have obscured his place among his contemporaries. American poets with whom he shares a poetic bond include fellow Bronx bards Jack Micheline and Jack Hirschman; Angus MacLise, Cohen's friend and travelling companion who met his end in Kathmandu (see "Ballad of the Gone MacLise") in this collection; Michael McClure; and Philip Lamantia. What is shared by these poets--whose writing is not at all similar--is a sense of the poem as incantation transporting poet and reader or listener to another reality.

Younger than the Beats, Ira Cohen is a prototypal hippie who, like his friends the Becks of The Living Theatre, left the country to escape the constricting web of American society going into the seventies. Severing his ties with the West, Cohen spent most of the following decade in Nepal and India. On Feet of Gold is the chronicle he brings back to us upon his return. Each cycle of poems traces the trajectory of geographical and interior travels, evoking time and place in an incantatory poesis of memories, perceptions and imaginings united by language in the precise recounting of experiences, occurrences, stories and events.

The poems span a vast geographical range encompassing Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Included here are Cohen's opium-inspired verses from the earlier chapbooks, "Poems from the Cosmic Crypt" and "Gilded Splinters," along with poems from India ("Messages from the Subcontinent"), Germany and Holland ("The Stauffenberg Cycle") and New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles ("The Return").

Ira Cohen's poetry depicts the correspondences between his interior and exterior journeys, sparked by an awareness that "the song of man rises / from the fall of man" ("April Snow"). There are many poetic, spiritual and underground traditions running through these poems. Cohen's eclecticism is wide ranging, with an integral core rooted in Asian shamanism, the Sufi poetry of Rumi, Cendrars' great travel chronicles and Lorca's duende.

Death was your lover in a rain of
               broken obelisks & rotting orchids
in the tangled rose of a single heartbeat
I offer you the shadow of a double
two heads held together at the bridge
                  of the nose by a nail of opium
in the long night's dreaming
              & a memory of water poured between

(from "An Act of Jeopardy for Garcia Lorca")

The recent poems are moving closer to the colloquial rhythms and dissociative jumps of Cohen's unique way of talking:

When Lionel saw The Invasion of Thunderbolt
it was upside down. it was then that he told
me that the images should be sent to Jerusalem
for safekeeping.
That was before they smashed the dollar and
sent the yen soaring. After 19 days
with no sleep, all the bankers of Europe
appeared at the door of rags & brought an
invitation to the secret city, from the
Eastern Wing of the Great American Seal

(from "Notes of An Alchemist")

Notorious for his rambling, freely associative monologues which wind up making another kind of sense, Ira Cohen bases his writing on natural speech. He has gradually brought his poetry together with his life to the point that he is the poem.

On Feet of Gold finally gives us an indication of Ira Cohen's stature. Up to now, the full measure of his work has remained undetermined and his place in American poetry undefined. With the publicaton of these selected poems, it becomes clear that the scope and power of On Feet of Gold put Ira Cohen at the forefront of American poets writing today.



                                                 He said paint ships
                                                 So I painted ships
                                                 He said paint mountains
                                                 So I painted mountains
                                                 He wanted hills
                                                 I gave him hills
                                                 But they were my ships
                                                 My mountains, my hills

                                                           - Spoke by Jack Micheline

Buddha sits in the shape
of a bell
He wears the smiles of children
on his fingers
In the kingdom of the eye
we reverence both Sun & Moon
filling their begging bowls
with real rice
Odin gave one eye
to gain back the knowledge
he lost
& he saw that it came pouring
thru his nose
The tears of the hungry ghost
run down the face our dreams
This is the story of his temple
In the eyes of the God
the dog is reflected
In the eyes of the dog
you can see the God,
the face of our civilization
with the plastic money mirror
bouncing flat light off the cross
On the drunken path
he gave it away
The colors, the lakes,
the karma of a goat.


                    for Edouard Roditi
                    (A.K.A. Wolfman Gold)

Two dancing sugarcubes in the Mevlana Cafe,
that's what we are, Edouard, that's what we are
Crushed red paper rose, raki in front of our nose
The drummer is singing your tune, Edouard,
the drummer is singing your tune
Nor have I forgotten your breath covering the window,
Edouard, there in the half light
where we sometimes live or die without uttering a cry
Do you remember the shy Japanese photographer,
Edouard, the one who came over to you in a gay bar
and said, "Kingsize?"
And where is the human skull you carried thru customs
from New Guinea wrapped in dirty linen, Edouard?
Where is Chafik's smile, the one Caroline caught
in a wet plaster bandage, can you remember, Edouard?
Can you remember?
Are you still cruising the fallen foam from under
the brim of your straw hat, Edouard?
Have you finally deciphered the Mediterranean coast?
Chosen thrice, will we finally be set free, Edouard?
Will we finally be set free?
Are the muggers still lurking in the shadows, Edouard?
Did Lorca remember the night you spent together, Edouard?
Did Schroder Sonnenstern thank you for discovering him?
Will you be back after the weekend, Edouard?

When the mold was removed from your face
we could see your eyes shining w/ a special brightness
like the eyes of a German shepherd
glistening in the rainslick streets of Paris
after the last Metro left the station
You were the most cultivated Queen of your generation,
polyglot & polymorphous, you had it all
"Goodbye, Hart Crane," you said-"That's not for me."
I remember when you showed up at my door in the Tangier medina
completely by chance & drawn by the trance music
played by the Jilala
And I know I will see you again at the Cafe Maldoror
surrounded by surrealist myrmidons or at the Bar de la Marine
among the found objects salvaged from the great flea
market of life--It's always good to see you, Edouard
You are the excelsior which fills empty boxes,
you shine like a light at the end of a long tunnel!

P.S. Timothy Baum just called from the airport.
He wanted to say hello & convey the regards of Kurt Seligmann
who sd., "Words do not fall into the void."

                                               June 12, '94

for Kazuko Shiraishi

It all started with Kazuko saying,
"I want to invite you to my birdhouse"
Then I discovered that stamp
with her picture on it, the pink
leadbeater cockatoo with 7 pointed
                                         white crest,
sharp little beak. red rimmed eyes &
white wings sitting in a tree in
I knew that I was the brown owl
from Cape Verde, doomed to be up all
longing for live meat like the wounded
I once forcefed every day in Kathmandu
Then I couldn't get the birds out of
                                            my head
I remembered how writing evolved from
the flight of cranes, the calligraphical
formations, the bird tracks in the sand,
Palamedes & Valmiki-
Then Attar's Colloquy of the Birds
started by confounding me
I too wanted to fly into the center of
                                               the sun/
Then there was the magical Kingfisher of
my childhood, the crow who flew with
                                               burning wick
in its beak in order to describe Dharma,
that Pondicherry bird of South India
calling all night, "I've got a fever,
I've got a fever!" - the fever bird
                                   we called it
I remembered the feather floating to the
the brilliant plumage, Quetzalcoati,
your triple eyed peacock feather given
to an Emperor of China by the King of
This is not a poem, but a pastiche
of swallows & toucans,
a hymn to flight,
a tenderness for pigeons,
your woodpecker which let spirits
escape from trees,
big birds which can't fly,
to the face hidden beneath every wing,
to the falcon's lure,
to the blinded birds, lyre birds,
birds which are good to eat,
parrots & magpies,the whip or will,
the egg of sleep.
"I want to invite you to my birdhouse,"
                                                  you said.

                            Tokyo, July '88

For Lakshmi & Andre
(Or Frankenstein in the Park)

Sitting with Mister Baum taking the November sun
in Central Park, our backs against the slanted
windows of the Metropolitan Museum
where smart sunbathers come & sit out of sight
behind the gently sloping knoll, not so far from
where Jennifer Levin was strangled by that shitheel
White West Highland terriers look out in a perfect triangle
like Temple dogs in China or Nepal
You wouldn't ever know that the cancer is slowly spreading,
that a few cans of tuna are not enough to save the day
We don't know where the girl is,
she was an artist who tried to kill herself,
put a gun in her mouth & blew away both of her eyes
She, too, surviving to this day
You'd never know that even the sun will not shine forever
Can we take consolation in some distant sun or star,
some parallel universe which just is, in its own way,
not better or worse?
A play with or without an audience still plays
while we lay our snares--
The other day Karen called to ask me Frankenstein's
first name--She had a bet & then I said. "Victor,"
but today I thought Timothy, Alfred, Gregory, Andre
Frankenstein indeed
Ira, Raphael, Lakshmi, Faye, even David Frankenstein
and then I began to laugh inside & when the laughter subsided
I saw the joke & the power of the name
& what power it holds over all that cries,
that lives or dies inside
"I yam what I yam." Popeye said
& in this man, perhaps for a moment, touches God
Everyone assumes that Frankenstein is the name of the monster,
but there is no monster,
only the myth of a maker who no longer exists.

Ballad of the Gone MacLise
for Angus MacLise died Summer Solstice, June 21, 1979

In the poem one can lay down
the heartline, the harp can bring the tears
muffled by the sound of the drum,
your gamelans cut by the Buddha's knife
of compassion
Down at the Snowman I heard
them discussing your cremation
A dervish has fallen off the roof
the tall skinny one with the coathanger shoulders
I know the way the pillars of the Vision
trembled before you in the sunlight
You saw the door of Konya open in the slums
of Brooklyn where light shafted thru abandoned
factories in the amphetamine dawn
Now the shades of Mecca are drawn for you,
           the five Dhyani Buddhas transcend your
& await your burning w/ cloths of the 5 wisdom colors
Your unsatisfied cravings fly out of the pyre,
the blessings of your friends crackle w/ ghee
the white and black til seeds (sesame) burn in
the untrammeled day & still you are wandering
passing thru the Bardo Keyhole -
Listen once more to those Tibetan horns,
they are calling you past Freak Street
where you sold the White Goddess for junk
Forget all your regrets & go now w/ the egret,
put on your robe of sky -

The Vagabond Maverick Poet MacLise
has left these burning halls,
the windtraps are wild with sound
I see your hands beating a Persian rhythm
on suitcases of itinerant dreams,
I hear the droning of Beelzebub's flies
making clear the ghastly way,
an opera undone by a chorus of 108 Mahasiddhas
singing your discarded lists of cembalums,
symphonic poems, untold futures
You bummed cigarettes from Ram,
borrowed time & change from Krishna
Now that your balance is finally broken
go in peace to the Buddhafields
nodding in to the sound of your tartan
The bane is over -
A new wheel is spinning its song
Tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock
we will meet at the Vidyaswari Ghat
For you it's free, this one way ticket
which is non transferable
Remember that before you try to come back
May light mantle your shadow &
may you not see what is not to be seen
Farewell, MacLise, thawing on the Riverbank,
I do not expect to meet your like again,
Farewell, brother, the shadow of Don Quixote
lowers its lance & you are overstood.


Inside the Phantom Bubble
a shrunken city is held suspended
by magnetic grapples
in a state of perpetual coma
could he then, by opening spirit
escape to the very edge of
Drops of water run down
a timeless vacuum goldenshocks
of white sliding mercury
turning from silk
                            on the tail
of unkept wishes
Under eyelids there is only the wall
                                          of silence
He flickers thru mysteries
turning snowy diadems to fantasy
                                         w/ gold
This man is forever passing,
he sees earth's image become shadow,
this man who sleeps,
All within, we rise.
Showers of stars sparkle everywhere
A procession of strange hunchbacks
                                       & dwarves,
a windless calm
                             Head thrown back,
eyes upward,
whispered moment of immortality.

From the Whole Megillah
A Crystal for Bob Kaufman

Giant grids of television
beam God's exile
The surgeon of the nightsky
restores dead things by the power of sound
Chong Lee develops the Jewish
Dada questionmark unconcerned
about the future of revelation
Roaches check in, but they don't check out of the Black Flag Roach Motel
Wearing forks in my eyes
I look for love on a two way street
wondering about the classes of the silken bay & how low
the fallen have fallen
You try to breathe out what
the nightmare nurses forcefed
your sensitive heart

You try to remember the gold cross
on the blue field of your third eye
throwing words on the wind of waste
If it is only God who knows
how to be silent
why then the incessant babbling
of His own most alien part?
On the windowpane of night
the cactus etches your portrait

Out of hunger they ate their books
                                in Leningrad
Jack London's hands wouldn't stop peeling
                                   (Mel Clay)
Then I met Sylvia Sidney on Powell Street
wearing a Chinese lampshade
On her honeymoon flight to Gibraltar
The Princess of Wales vacuumed the carpet
while the eighth IRA prisoner
fasted to death on the 73rd day

I believe in the impossible musics
written on the back of the tortoise
David Moe sez that his nose is a light
Kush on the African thumb piano
signals assent
Victorian nepotism bristles earwigs
of pioneer gorilla cults
Nietzsche cut thru the slavery module
the German system builders
On the jukebox that same old jazz
speaks of midnight orlon,
styrofoam blues
All we need is one millimeter of space
under the auspices of our own energy

Total pink absolutes
cover the language of intuition
made sacred by ceremony & spirit
Nature realizes our existence
Vibratory sheet music sings
of departed sailors
Don't tell me it's time to leave
I'm still coming as you cry from
O Goofball Sphinx, we sing your Sovereignty.

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