What are your favorite Sanskrit poems
"I'm just a shadow / playing in the grass"
Ira Cohen was a great inspiration to me. I have never learned as much about making poetry from anyone as I did from him. And so I think back to him today with great gratitude.
What is my favorite Ira Cohen poem? - This right here:
This music was meant to be
played for the Gods. When kings
wanted to hear it, it began
Once when I was in India
it occurred to me that if I sat
by the Ganga & wrote a poem
every day & offered it to the river
it would be a great thing to do -
I did it at least once & then
some years later I wrote a poem
in NYC & threw it out the window
for the sake of the wind & for
the memory of days gone by.
(I am nothing but a shadow
which plays in the grass.)
This music was originally just
destined for the gods. As the kings
wanted to hear her, she began
to go under.
I came to India once
at the thought that it would be a great thing
A poem every day on the Ganges
to write & sacrifice it to the river -
I did it at least once & then
I wrote years later in New York
a poem & threw it out the window -
as a gift for the wind & for
Remembering days gone by.
(I'm just a shadow
playing in the grass.)
Cohens Memory is about ephemeral, fleeting, transitory art. It is reminiscent of the practice of the Chinese Zen poet Ku Yün, who publishes his poems on trees and walls or scratches a piece of bark and gives it to the water. At the same time, it reflects the vanity and futility of all human activity when it echoes the statement by the ancient Greek poet Pindar: "A shadowy dream is man."
We do not know when the dream breaks off, when our shadow disappears and the earth no longer knows the place on which it once fell ...
I last saw Ira Cohen in April 2010. In my diary, which is out of print In the single house - a spring in New York (Books Ex Oriente, Munich 2012) says the following about the visit to the then 75-year-old poet photographer:
New York City, JFK, Fri, April 23, 2010
From Penn Station in a yellow cab to Ira Cohen. Bondi, the lovable sleepyhead, opened it. The reunion was extremely warm. Ira was just having his lunch. We talked about the upcoming books. On the Taifor was an old black notebook with a silvered back and silvered cover corners from the 1970s. It contained photos from Ira's childhood, photos of his parents whose wedding invitation from 1929, poems from Amsterdam, Kathmandu, the beginning of the “Stauffenberg Cycle”, photos of Petra Vogt, of Ira in Tangier, notes from a conversation with Ganesh Baba… easily make a beautiful facsimile with the appropriate means. In a short amount of time, copied this poem written in purple ink by hand from a paper-thin sheet of paper inlaid in the black notebook:
The Poet Has Lost His Tongue & Bells Are Ringing In His Ears
July 28, ´78
And in the midst of that secret rhetoric
spoke a truer tongue graved in gardens
addressing black mouth pieces
Akbar never guessed the price
of his throne
What ravishments of shanghaied
would break on his head in pose after remembered
as Akbar sought to escape the miracle
of the worm eaten by the rose
and the rhetoric of the heart hid
as only Akbar knows silent
the sibilance of silenced sirens
under the weight of epochal close
Ira read the poem for me. Then he recited an entire stanza by heart Song to Nothing. I hope that he will get his unbroken memory back! During the last five minutes of our meeting, Ira organized a phone with Bobby (Robert) Yarra, whose publisher has published a biography about Vali Myers that I really want to read.
At the door, Bondi said that Ira hadn't been in such a good mood for a long time!
Of course, Cohen and I stayed in constant contact until shortly before his death: by telephone and mail, as we had done for many years. In the summer of 2010, he was enthusiastic about the new edition of the bilingual book Where the heart rests (Stadtlichter Presse, Wenzendorf), his last volume of poetry published during his lifetime.
And I knew and saw that he was suffering from the effects of various attacks; This dedication from my collection refers to an earlier hospitalization for a stroke 43 new poems (Songdog, Vienna 2009):
Jan. 27, 2008
Rose petals on the table
Remind me of you forever
Ira Cohen felt in his notebook years ago
Ira, who is now in the Jewish Home, Manhattan
Recovering for weeks, tough
Only 3 blocks away from his ancient home
In which his father & mother already died (both
Deaf, so leave when the phone rings
Lights still on, completely
Crazy meanwhile). This immemorial apartment
With the narrow corridors between piles
Stacks, towers of shots, between in the
Room sprawling shelves, there
He is enthroned in the corner of the sofa, the orb
A woman's breast in hand - had it today
On the line, the malevolent Wizard of Oz
His tongue, heavy with drugs
Charmed: "It's never too late for kisses."
Ira Cohen (1935-2011) was a post-beat American poet, photographer, and filmmaker who grew up in the Bronx as a child of deaf Jewish parents. He spent the 1960s in Morocco and America, the 1970s in Kathmandu and, after a three-year stay in Amsterdam, returned to New York City, where he lived until his death, interrupted by many trips.
But I wouldn't have suspected that Cohen's end would be so close. Exactly one year after my visit, on April 23, 2011 - I had just returned from the spring break in Morocco - I read in an email from Bobby Yarra that Ira Cohen had been admitted to the Isabella Rehabilitation Center at 515 Audubon Avenue at Harlem River Park, one of the most qualified clinics in the country, he is in good hands.
To my probing inquiry, Bobby suddenly replied the next day that Ira was doing very badly, but he did not believe that Ira was in danger of death, although he had said he would like to die; he fell and had to undergo knee surgery, then an infection developed ...
I wasn't surprised to hear that Ira was thinking of dying; in conversation he had considered suicide several times in recent years, but rejected it every time because of his children Lakshmi and Raphael Aladdin - he had not been able to live the way he wanted for a long time and had done since his youth: a rolling stone , always on the move, in North Africa, Ethiopia, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Japan, in Sydney, Paris, Amsterdam, London, the USA ...
In response to Bobby's message, I sent my best wishes, but received these lines from him on Easter Monday, April 25, 2011, deep in the night:
Working at the Buddha
I dream that one day
I would be free!
Ira flew away today at approx. 6:30 PM.
Kidney failure was found to be the ultimate cause of death.
The musician Ira Landgarten reported about the funeral: “Ira Cohen was buried on April 27, 2011 next to his parents and grandparents in the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens. During the funeral, a single hawk circled the open grave ... several of us in mourning saw it lift itself up in the updraft. How fitting, this soul bird, typically Ira! "
Yes, what a beautiful sign of the death of a person who had written one of the most stunning poems in world poetry about birds; it is dedicated to the Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi and was published in 2001 as a Bodoni poetry sheet (Waldgut, Frauenfeld):
TOKYO BIRD HOUSE
Tokyo, July '88
It all started with Kazuko saying:
«I would like to invite you to my bird house»
Then I discovered that postage stamp
with her image, a pink one
Inca cockatoo with 7 points
on the white comb,
with a small, razor-sharp beak, rimmed with rot
Eyes & white wings he sits on a tree in
I knew I was the brown owl
from Cape Verde, damn it, all night
hungry for fresh meat like those injured
that I force-fed in Kathmandu, day after day
Soon I couldn't get the birds out of my head
remembered how the writing came out of the flight
evolved from cranes, from calligraphic
Formations & bird tracks in the sand
Palamedes & Valmiki -
Then Attars brought me Bird talks
I also wanted to be in the center of the sun
Then the magical kingfisher appeared
from my childhood on, the crow that with
flew through the air in its beak & described the Dharma
South India's Pondicherry Bird
who shouted all night: "I have a fever!
I have fever!" - Feverbird
we called him
I remember the feather as it hit the ground
to the luminous feather robe, Quetzalcoatl
handed over your three-eyed peacock feather
the king of Nepal an emperor of
This is not a poem, but a pasticcio
from swallows & toucans
a hymn to flying
a delicate container for pigeons
your woodpecker who the tree spirits
large winged birds
a hymn to the face that is under every wing
on the falcon bait
blinded birds, lyre tails
Birds that mouth
Parrots & magpies, goats milkers
the sleeping egg.
«I would like to invite you to my bird house»,
How did I come across Ira Cohen? - In the summer of 1997 the artist Lisa Schiess spoke to me about him in her Appenzell house. She got to know him at a reading with Gerard Malanga in Manhattan and arranged for me to publish Paul Bowles ‘poems in German at Erker Verlag (Not close, St.Gallen 1998) was about to get his phone number.
I already knew the name Ira Cohen, knew that he had dealt with Burroughs and had a long interview with Bowles. But it soon turned out that I only guessed the headland of the continent that Ira Cohen's work ordered. That same evening I had him on the line.
Florian Vetsch, 1960, lives in St.Gallen. He translated the essay by Ira Cohen THE GREAT RICE PAPER ADVENTURE OF KATHMANDU (Books Ex Oriente, 2011) and the poetry collections LETTER TO KALIBAN & OTHER POEMS (Altaquito, 1999), WHERE THE HEART LIES / WHERE THE HEART REST (Raw material, 2001, Stadtlichter Presse, 2010) and, together with Axel Monte, ALCAZAR (Moloko Print, 2021). In addition, Vetsch co-edited, together with Etrit Hasler, IRA COHEN - IN MEMORY OF (Factory Newspaper No. 272, June 2011) and brought A NIGHT IN ZURICH out, a posthumous collaboration with Ira Cohen and Jürgen Ploog (Der Kollaboratör 2012, Gonzo 2018).
The conversation was the initial spark of an enormously productive friendship, the numerous photos and poems, articles in literary magazines by the draft to MAULHURE as well as five books, some of which were published several times.
And already the first conversation was typical of all the countless phone calls I was supposed to have with him: It lasted about an hour and a half and Ira spoke in a kind of ecstatic logorrhea, while I listened intently, because he was an incredibly fascinating narrator.
A few days later an envelope with photos and poems arrived; in the pile of poems many were handwritten. The envelope had stamps, original postage stamps, text sprinkles and bulky, glowing letters: Ira Cohen was also a mail artist; his correspondence with me alone grew to well over a cubit over the years: every postcard, every envelope, every envelope made from it is unique - he even manipulated parcels.
In 1998 I got to know Cohen personally in Erlangen. He toured Europe with the Belgian Nadine Ganase Dance Group and just had his Moroccan text collection Minbad Sinbad published by Didier Devillez, Brussels. He impressively concluded the multimedia performance in the Erlangen Opera House with a few sentences in sign language to show the community from which he descended as the son of deaf Jewish parents that he belonged to them.
In the hotel we talked until the early hours - Ira suffered from insomnia. I remember that that night he surprised me with a subversive statement on the question of the quality of texts selected for an anthology or magazine: "It doesn't matter if it is not that good."
My head was still too full of the academy not to be totally amazed. But the anarchic Iraq was absolutely right: Those who set qualitative standards create hierarchies - and in the cultural context these are often the mirror of the prevailing power relations and processes of social exclusion.
Connoisseurs consider Cohen to be a post-beat poet of the first order; he himself, who experimented with literary editing techniques and called Brion Gysin, the inventor of the cut-up technique, his greatest inspiration, preferred to confess to word alchemy, to Dada and surrealism, to Dante and Rimbaud.
The trance musician, Sanskrit translator and poet Louise Landes Levi had visited her old friend in Manhattan a few weeks before his death. She recorded how he did I am not a beat read the poem in which Cohen says how he sees himself:
I AM NOT A BEAT
I am not a beat
though I have performed
with them all etc.
I am an Electronic
a Naga hipster
to Akashic Agent
an Outlaw of the Spirit
I am the one out of
I am the Bearded Iris,
the flower of chivalry
with a sword for a leaf
& a lily for a heart,
I am the Rainbow - -
a hybrid of celestial
blue in the end,
a message between
I am your shadow in the
your reflection in the
I am the jack in your box.
I AM NOT A BEAT
I am not a beat
although I am with everyone
stood on the stage etc.
I am an electronic
a Naga hipster
an Akashic Record agent
an outlaw of the spirit
I am the one
from a hundred
I am the bearded iris
the flower of chivalry
with a sword as a petal
& a lily as a heart,
I am the rainbow - -
a mixture of essentials
a message between
I am your shadow in
your reflection in
I am your box devil.
The audio recording Louise Landes Levi made a few weeks before Ira Cohen's death.
The Sanskrit word «akash» is a key term for understanding Ira Cohen's work: Originally it means «heaven, ether, the all-pervading substance», but in Cohen's reading it also means «lightward, towards revelation, the cloud doctrine, the unwritten history of mankind, God's memorabilia, the universal radio, the sublime cassette, the hidden meaning of the hidden meaning ». Against this complex background, Ira Cohen saw himself as an "agent of the Akashic Records".
His poem quoted at the beginning Memory closes with the note in brackets “I am nothing but a shadow / which plays in the grass”, and also in I am not a beat we encounter a self-characterization that focuses more on power, energy, transformation and the moment than on form, work, the definitive and the duration.
Cohen leaves behind a widely dispersed work. He worked as a fluid, energizer and catalyst - especially in his Mylar studio in Manhattan and at the rice paper hand press in Kathmandu. And as a poet he was unsurpassable in combining the high with the low, the surreal with the banal, the aesthetic with the political, history with the present.
He just built everything into his poetry - even a parking ticket, like the poem Hip Hip Harass shows, which alludes to an issue of the Thurgau literary magazine “Harass” and gives a glimpse of a day in the life of Ira Cohen (by the way, Ira liked the title of the Thurgau magazine that when pronounced in English it sounds like “her ass”!) :
HIP HIP HARASS
Tuesday Feb. 27, 2001, NYC
What a day! I woke up stinking drunk
with upturned stomach, numb
Feet, swollen legs, a pain
in the arm - some fruitless
Telephone calls, an argument about
nothing at all with a good friend
& then comes a police car
approached on an empty street (16th Street & 10th Ave.)
where I'm peeing under physical pressure
I was lucky that I didn't have three
The policewoman says
I guess I could have the pink smudge framed
which she gave me to urinate in public
Diogenes occurs to me in his time for it
was famous, but today it is, even more
than then, a philosophical one
Bush Two says he wants to move forward
but it feels like backwards to me
Isn't it rich? hit the headlines
a good song for one who is poor
but what should i think about at 66
complain? I'm sitting in the Tagine on 40th Street
eat a delicious Moroccan meal
& listen to a jazz trio go through this
the night swings
A postcard I wrote to Lakshmi
has just been published in Switzerland
from the Thurgau Group, Lake Constance
Thank you Florian, thank you Hamid
I remember the fish
I think it was called whitefish
and only occurs in Lake Constance,
the Romans already had it
in another millennium on the tongue
I cover the waterfront is the title
of the piece & thanks to Adolphe Sax
the beat continues under these colored glass
I call it an exquisite brain ride
O Lord, your lamp is my bonnet!
In fact, Cohen visited St.Gallen twice. In 2005 he read at the opening of the Syrano Bar in Linsebühl (see Saiten, February issue 2008) - unforgettable for everyone who was there! And about the 2000 reading tour, I got in A night in Zurich (Gonzo, Mainz 2018) recorded the following episode about Cohen and the bratwurst city:
After the reading in the Kunsthalle, I picked Ira Cohen on September 18, 2000 before noon in the Hotel Dom. A taxi should take us to the train station. But Ira really wanted to rummage in Louis Ribaux's second hand bookshop right next to the hotel. So the taxi waited until the “multimedia shaman” came back with two or three treasures, including Count Franz Poccis Viola tricolor (Insel Bücherei No. 988), which he showed me extensively. In his mail art, Cohen sometimes used Count Pocci's idea of pasting faces with wild pansies, for example when manipulating postcards or photocopies. The taxi took us to the train station, where we just had time to get hold of a bratwurst to strengthen ourselves, which we ate with relish on the train to Zurich.
People from the Xenix cinema stood ready at the train station and took us to the cinema, then to the Hotel Franziskaner. We moved into the room and rested a little. Ira ordered a pastis at the bar around 6:00 p.m. I thought it was a good idea and did the same. In the meantime, the German cut-up author Jürgen Ploog had also arrived at the Franziskaner. I don't remember exactly, but I guess that Cohen and I subsequently drank at least three, if not four pastis at the hotel bar (the floor shook under me anyway) and that we, although the reading in the Xenix was at 7:30 p.m. O'clock was announced and we would have had enough time, about 20 minutes late. But around eight, Ira and I sat in front of the microphones. There were about 200 people there.
The hall was full of pumps. And Ira kicked off the most insane reading I've ever had. It lasted about two hours, so it was a definite blow against the rule of the literary world that a reading should not last longer than 40 minutes! "I'm a maximalist" is how Ira popularized himself to describe himself. He started with a dissolute greeting, introduced him and me as Laurel & Hardy, read between freely interspersed passages, his «killer poems» From the Moroccan Journal, Benares poem, A visit from Leonardo, Imagine Jean Cocteau etc., charmed the audience.
Sitting next to him, I felt the immense vibes that went off like electric shocks. He wasn't even afraid to interrupt a poem (sic!) In the middle of the lecture, to weave in a «rap», as he called it, that is to say something spontaneously about a word or a verse, and then to simply continue with the poem presentation, as if nothing happened. Cohen used such a confident way of dealing with supposedly fixed sizes. As I said, the people were ecstatic and the bard received a long, long applause. Then the films were shown, as in St.Gallen, and Cohen signed books, extensively, as he loved it, even outside in the lime night. Satisfied, we finally withdrew, ate somewhere, ate well.
And came back to the Franciscan well after midnight, fed up with the rich evening.
The next morning, Ira and I stopped by the Xenix again. A young worker was happy to accompany us to the train station. On the way we passed a wall with graffiti celebrating Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Woodstock and Donald Duck, and Ira immediately took the opportunity to photograph me in front of it with the Xenix employee.
After lunch we drove back to St.Gallen. The fiendish thing was that at Zurich main station we got the idea to eat a bratwurst again. Because Ira didn't get that at all. On the way I explained to him that St.Gallen is a stronghold for the production of high-quality sausages and that it is widely praised for the fact that there is no city in Europe that is more jealous of its sausage recipes than you and that it shares with you when it comes to sausages St.Gallen could only even remotely take in. With what was going on in his stomach - I felt pretty grumpy too - Ira believed me immediately.
When he arrived at the St.Gallen train station, he nervously asked: "Where’s the bathroom?" Ira urgently needed to go to the bathroom. We ran along the tracks with all the luggage, people turned to the bearded giant who was screaming: "Where's the bathroom?" I'm exploding! I could shit the walls all over! " - and who managed to get to the toilet at the end of the station just in time.
So much for this episode. - The honoree, who sometimes drew with “your favorite funambulist” and had an incredible sense of humor, would not have been right if I had closed this handful of memories of him without a wink.
Proof of text
Ira Cohen: Memory / poems; Tokyo Bird House; Hip Hip Harass. From Ira Cohen: Where the heart rests (from the American by Florian Vetsch). Stadtlichter Presse, Wenzendorf 2010
Ira Cohen: I. Am Not A Beat / I'm not a beat. From Ira Cohen: Alcazar (from the American by Axel Monte and Florian Vetsch). Moloko Print, Pretzien 2021
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