So, the basics about Bruce Cohen’s chapbook Swerve: it’s a collection of thirty-five poems, about eighty pages long, and published by Black Lawrence Press. It’s also subtly dark and with a bewitching edge of horror.
The poems themselves are concerned largely with the mundane. A quick look at the contents page provides a flavour of what is to follow. Titles include, “Cleaning the Basement Early Autumn”, “A Really Good Hot Dog”, and “Neighborhood Watch”.
As conceptually unexciting as it might seem, on examination Cohen’s work is far from quotidian. Beneath the mundanity there is a darkness, a creeping sense of terrible menace. This suburban horror is exemplified by the opening poem, which begins with the narrator steaming off the “hideous wallpaper” of his home. As it proceeds we see him collecting insects with his child for a school project, and searching for his car keys only to discover them in the icebox. Not all is domestic bliss however, and the poem takes a turn towards the sinsister in the closing stanzas, ending with the memorable lines:
Or sorry, I had no idea what time it was. . .
The seller purposely left his bathrobe so he could
Come back one last time after The Closing for one
Last look. A hard lesson: this is not my life anymore.
Further gems include “Please Go Back to Dead Please” in which the narrator discovers that the father he thought long-dead has in fact been “slumming / In a blues dive in New Orleans, married to some / Barfly not as pretty or smart as my mother”. Or “Transportation”, in which the delicacies of parrallel parking, self-marriage, and the return of bedbugs are woven together into a poem both coherent and chilling.
Cohen’s language is that of the everyday, startlingly ordinary and all the more unsettling for it. As stated in the book’s blurb, Cohen is writing for himself, his family, and his friends rather than an “audience of poetry readers”. In the same way that the mundanity of the poems exacerbates their underlying darkness, the simple, vernacular language brings to the fore the essential horror that lies within.
Swerve, in the end, is a bravely focussed collection. The effect that Cohen creates could easily have fallen flat, and it is a credit to his skill with ordinary language and his astute powers of observation that the collection is executed as well as it is.