I Was Not Born by Julia Cohen

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Divided into six sections, I Was Not Born is a meditation on a subjectivized world whose missing center is what Regina Spector calls “I’m awake to feel the ache”: the ache of wondering, the ache of unrequited love, the ache of the body, as it trains itself, Orpheus-like, not to look back, not to remember, or, rather, to remember to forget, particular the event horizon of life, as Wallace Stevens says, being (or not being) born.

“I’m laughing at blood. How can we judge the treatment of a corpse? How can we judge what has no antecedent?”

The book begins with the narration of a suicide attempt, by N.: the rest of the book is a study in the intwining between the play of language and the play of relationship, from chaos to order and back again, in search, not of one’s Platonic double, but proof of one’s cogito, through knowledge of feeling.

This certainty (as alluded in the epigraph by Bernadette Mayer, “I know I want to awaken feeling”), can only take place in language, however, through contrast, allusion, simile, metaphor:

“I cannot get warm. I cannot clip the syrup from the homespun tree. Cannot scrape the banquette into the baby swing. Blue leaves at last. I feel like I can feel.

Garden of babies? I planted the sun under the tongue of returns. A whimper winds the sound gears grind over. Foraged syntax. Who romps the ruins? To locate a glance in the forest, stride through wild chives, the beehive swinging like a lantern. Honey & hiccups.”

Annihilation implies preexistence. To not have been born, however, implies a linguistic or metaphysical turn, in league with Kristeva or Blanchot. In this book, the very skillfullness of the language play creates so dense—and pleasurable—a semotic tangle, that the reader can forget the book also elicits, and solicits, themes. Lyric verse, prose poems, narrative, excerpts from psychoanalysis, beckon in contemporary idioms at times more familiar than our own fragmented insides, seeking a stable mirror, and, when bereft of same, creating worlds, out of words.

“The marvelous independence of
The human gaze.
The moment pursuing,
Like a beginning swimmer.
Intelligence objects randomly hurling.
Immediately I loved.
Heavy & vulgarized.”

This section is that most definitely marked as “dialogue” between to subjects, rather than an internal monologue or remembered dialogue, is an extended passage entitled “Therapy Session #7,” interpersed by “Meaning: One Act Play,” between “J” and “Dr.”—most of it consisting of relayed dialogue, and counsel. From “Dr.”:

“Is it possible that your relationship isn’t exactly like the former dynamic because it’s not so much that you think N is experiencing you negatively, but is related, perhaps to one of the byproducts of obsessing about how the other person experiences you?”

Experiences you—or adores, worships, absorbs, and threatens to consume you.

And, from “J,” to “N”:

“Your texts I can’t yet delete from my phone: ‘I love you & your face.’ ‘I miss you. You’re the violin of my string quartet.’ ‘If you were a flower I’d bang a flower.’ ‘Everything is for you. Forever.’“

Suicide-desire is the rejection of desire for the Other’s little o’s. So, o? So little. Suicide-desire is the rejection of the worth in your little o’s. Rejects the accumulation of worth. Accepts all little o’s as demarcations of failure.

I recognized your face, but you wouldn’t let me read it. Or, it could not be read.”

Who is authenticating whom, here, and in what state, or fissure, of memory?

After N. is hospitalized, the collection takes, in parts, the form of a litany, to preserve sanity.

Like the vigil of care-taking, exhausting one’s reserves in trying to save someone, or preserve a relationship, is a study in anxiety as well as resignation.

“ . . . I have buried objects
In a yard I do not want found. I’m trying
To react to myself. Above ground. To find
Faith in language’s failures. What is okay to cultivate?
Is art the only tangible object?
Weather does not hold feelings of its own.”

Affect and performance theory can’t approximate the moments in this text when the oft-referenced dance between word and world allow the word to transcend its referent, and sing.

This is madness, in theories of lyric possession, but also the surfeit of sense, equalling pleasure.

“I don’t think you can get anywhere without feelings.”

And perhaps, too, however melancholic, jouissance?

Julia CohenThe psychopathology of postmodern life, with its widgets, gadgets, dissociative disorders, and global health epidemics, presents similar symptoms that of modern or premodern life, if more dissociative and compulsive, and yet the cure remains the same: secure attachment to others capable of reciprocating, and the creation and, if necessary, reconstitution of self, through relationship, and language, despite the risks, and the chaos and grief loving someone self- or other-destructive can bring. After all, unlike desiring, willing subjects, erring subjects, and “bad objects,” “A Book Cannot Abandon,” the speaker reminds us, providing projective fixity, and comfort, at least until the end of the mirror stage.

Plath’s baby in the barn: Raymond Carver’s small, good thing?

Hence, the speaker’s recantation of her self’s own un-erasable thing-hood, a taxonomy of difference: “My password: monstercake. My safe word: starfish. My favorite word: spoon.”

If language is the last miasma, try as we may to preserve it, like a fly in amber, or fossil, the search for permanence, of love and existence, inheres not just memories of feelings, but precious objects, whether as symbols, momento mori, or “shining-forths” of the real.

“Soap-nest bubbles up. List of hair, distance, children linking arms, tall weeds we hide in. For the gravel in the yard, dissolve your teeth like corn. “Share text.” The kitchen above ours seeps into the metal sink. Slackened sililance stirring the petulant, measurable accident. A despair I don’t want to open like illiterate lilies. For example, long distance is language. Mercy, diamond, mercy.”


Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →