Julia Cohen, I Was Not Born, Noemi Press, 2014

Reviewed by Thomas Mira y Lopez

[Review Guidelines]

I'll send an email when I'm tired & feel like I got my thoughts wrong, & then if the person I sent it to doesn't get back to me right away, I'll obsessively think about how he or she could have misinterpreted it wrong & I was accidently offensive. Then three days later they do respond & are like 'you sounded tired in your email…'

Julia Cohen's I Was Not Born begins with a familiar worry, a simple, nagging question: How do we ever set our thoughts down just right? How do we articulate what we really mean?

Rather than resolving these concerns, I Was Not Born details the obsessions behind them. In a weave of essay, verse, documentation, and prose poem, Cohen thinks and speaks her way through the depression and near suicide of her lover, N., and the breakdown of their relationship. I Was Not Born compresses elegy and yearning into the most pressurized of lyrical pockets. Cohen uses language to flay her own thoughts. She peels back the ways we attempt to communicate and maps the distance between thought and expression. But the closer we move towards inhabiting another's frame of mind, she argues, the more we insert our own selves into their thinking.


Cohen makes her intentions clear from the outset: she is not here simply to narrate N.'s attempted suicide. Of the three epitaphs that begin the book, the third, from Helene Cixous, reads: "I don't want to tell a story in memory of someone." Cohen instead pursues something closer to Bernadette Mayer's declaration, the book's second epitaph: "I want to awaken feeling." She eschews single narrative through-lines in order to search for the formal environment—poem, essay, lyric cluster, text message, excerpts from therapy sessions—that rouses an emotional response from the reader. Though this strategy runs the risk of rendering the text disjointed, it provides Cohen multiple facets through which to interrogate an unresolved ache.


On the day N. walks to the top of a sixteen-story parking garage, planning to throw himself off, he listens to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Later, in a document he leaves on her desktop, J. discovers a note: "I decided I was going to kill myself. One thing I wanted to do before I died was listen to A Love Supreme as many times as I could…In short, I think it is the greatest piece of music of the 20th century."

But N.'s gesture is a misstep. "I begin to hate Coltrane's A Love Supreme," Cohen writes, "I was the 'other people.' I was in the bath with you listening to this album. No day without fiction."  The attempt at shared intimacy—"It is the greatest piece of music"—drains the relationship of the actual connection made, of the fellowship two bodies share in water.

I Was Not Born traffics in subtext. It's about what's sometimes overlooked in grand gestures such as N.'s. As in the title of one essay, "The Book is Not an Ark," Cohen punctures a hole in the notion of a single, large, lumbering structure as vehicle for salvation. Instead, "a book is a sluicing condition." It might manage a torrent, but does not float above it: "Today my heart's a spigot. We can't/ turn off anything really."


Cohen has written a wandering, wondering book. It is small and shapely, a meditation on how we use language to deploy our selves. If there's at least a sense of sad, yearning stability at the end, it's achieved not through the events of a narrative, but the acknowledgment of what a story doesn't achieve. I Was Not Born embraces the trickiness of wading through any attempt at relating oneself to another.