Bad Anatomy by Hannah Cohen
Review by Siân Killingsworth
In Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018), over the course of twenty poems, Hannah Cohen opens a window for readers into a world of isolation, regret, and danger at the edge of the speaker’s self-destructive tendencies. Using a broad variety of poetic arrangements ranging from ragged free verse to restrained couplets to ghazal, Cohen allows herself to run wild with form. Wildness seems to be an underlying drive of this book, as poem after poem incorporate
s images of monsters, monstrosities, defiant wrongness, and a celebration of imperfection.
Cohen’s poems pull the reader into an already-running engine, a monologue in media res. Readers witness and listen to a speaker who reveals her deepest feelings and worst fears about herself as she recognizes their movements. This speaker is an unreliable narrator who confesses to drinking, making questionable and self-destructive decisions, and laments her own body’s betrayal.
The title poem, “Bad Anatomy,” appears early on and encapsulates the problems the speaker is grappling with. She feels not herself in her body, instead she feels that the “universe keeps me / betting against my conception,” and further admits she’s “unable / to divine the good.” As the poem ends, she claims defiantly that she doesn’t “need help / to empty my chest of its hope.”
The desolation and despair the speaker feels is the water this book is moored in, and the sense of bodily wrong pervades. In one of my favorite poems, the speaker morphs into a monster in “Self-Portrait as Grendel,” revealing,
I myself am half-hell
and half morning
/ / /
A new head, a different name,
but still my skin.
Cohen uses her speaker’s confessions to provide a context for a larger malaise. The book itself becomes a lament on the instability and inconstancy of a life, the missed opportunities due to the speaker’s struggles with pain, isolation, and depression. This speaker is willing to bare it all: to pull back the veil to show the feeling of being on the brink of something even more serious.
But before readers dive too deeply into the pit of despair with Cohen, she pulls us back with humor. A delicate stream of sarcasm or sometimes false bravado sparkles through the book, reinforcing the authenticity of this speaker; it is as if she were in your living room or at the other end of a phone. Witness this skillful play in her poem “Like Someone Driving Away from her Problems,”
even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs can’t save her
The poem “Superficial” is where we really dig into the idea of bad anatomy. Here, the body has gone wrong and seems to be a stand-in for the speaker’s battered and distorted psyche. Opening with the horrified discovery of a specific type of birth defect, the speaker compares herself to babies “born with their intestines / outside their little baby bellies.” This gruesome image of bodies turned inside out serves up a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of self. Her own discomfort with her gut instincts and feelings are out for display, in contrast to the physical way surgery would be used to correct a birth defect. The intent of the poet seems to be to reveal the guts and gore and make us sit with the discomfort of existence.
In a gesture appropriate for this book, the final poem “Body as an Alberto Giacometti Sculpture,” refers to the stretched-out, abstracted human figures created by the sculptor (1901-1966), which are widely recognized as representing alienation, loneliness, and existential dread. This slim poem trails down one page and trickles onto the next with a blunt directive to the reader to see this alienation, the pose held by the speaker so that we may bear witness to it, this “beautiful arrangement / of flesh that isn’t love.”
I thought it would be clarifying to include an interview with the poet herself. Cohen was gracious enough to answer my questions, in this email exchange:
Siân Killingsworth: When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Hanna Cohen: Like most writers, I started writing at a young age. I loved writing and illustrating my own stories and sharing my “books” with family members. As I got older, my writing interests shifted from writing stories to poems. I read Poe and Keats and Yeats. I wrote tons of garbage angsty poems as a teen. I still write garbage angsty poems—they’re just (hopefully) better written. I’ve written nonfiction (and am attempting to write fiction) but I primarily think of myself as a poet first.
SK: Where do your poems most often come from— do you use prompts? Do you overhear conversations and springboard off those? An image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
HC: It’s a mishmash of all the above! Sometimes I’ll hear a weird sentence out in public and write it down, so I don’t forget it. I mostly write based on how I’m feeling. There are certain themes I keep coming back to (identity, family, Judaism, depression, etc.) but I also like to write nonsense for the sake of generating lines of material. I don’t use prompts a whole lot since I don’t like forcing myself to write.
SK: Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
HC: It’s hard to say who exactly influenced me, but the most obvious answers would be Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Lowell. Nowadays, I find myself reading Jewish poets such as Rosebud Ben-Oni, Rachel Mennies, and Erika Meitner. Though his writing style isn’t exactly seen in my work, William Butler Yeats continues to be a poet I return to.
SK: What are you reading now?
HC: I just finished The Book of Joan by Lydia Yuknavitch a few weeks ago, which was all parts amazing, slightly off-setting, and powerful. I had purchased the novel a year ago, so I’m happy I finally read it. The most recent poetry collection I read was Lauren Milici’s Final Girl and Emily O’Neill’s You Can’t Pick Your Own Genre double feature collection.
SK: Tell us a little bit about your collection: What’s the significance of the title? Are there overarching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was is a project book?
HC: Bad Anatomy takes its title from a poem within the chapbook. I wish I could say I had a thorough process but really, I chose the title because it sounded cool. The book doesn’t have a true narrative but rather an emotional landscape of depression, isolation, lots of self-deprecating humor and even flashes of hope. There are other subjects present (drinking, body images, etc.) but those are the more immediate themes.
When it came to arranging these poems, it was important to have words and feelings “echo” each other. What’s on the surface of the poem versus the interior, and so on. I’m forever thankful to the poets who offered insights and edits into the order of the poems—crafting a collection really isn’t a solitary job.
Most of the poems in this chapbook were written during my time in graduate school. However, those poems didn’t make the cut into my thesis due to the different subject matter. When I learned that Glass Poetry Press was having an open reading period for chapbooks, I basically took those twenty-odd poems and compiled them into a chapbook. The rest is history.
SK: Tell us briefly how your poetry has changed since you began writing.
HC: I think I’ve become more particular about the weight of words, and where to place them within a poem. I’m also challenging myself to write poems about subjects that I hadn’t considered, trying on new forms, and allowing myself space to NOT write. Since I work a day job, writing time is far more precious than when I was in school.
SK: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
HC: If you can’t think of a title for your poem, just start the title as “Poem After/About/On [Insert Subject Here]”. It’s simple and direct. My newest poem, “Poem After Reading the Chapter in Stephen King’s It Where the Word “Kike” Appears Six Times” (forthcoming in Cherry Tree), is an example of this.
SK: What a great suggestion! I’ll try this in some of my newer poems. Sometimes I struggle with titles because I don’t want to be too obscure. This will do the trick, I think.
Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. She is the author of Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a former contributing editor for Platypus Press and currently co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Cherry Tree, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Entropy, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for Best of the Net 2018 and has received Pushcart Prize nominations.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).