Review of “Unlocking the Exits” by Jim Cohn


Reading Eliot Katz, I was moved by an elegiac feeling of his sweet well-lit poems & their deeply paradoxical summations. To begin, “These Hands—A Present” chilled me in a deaf way with the lines: “I held out these hands / that have worked and loved / and offered them to Despair. / No chance, Despair calmly replied, / if I know you, / in another minute / you’ll find hope.” How I felt so seen in the eyes of heaven with last line in “From the Depth of the Depth of the Abyss” when he penned “without startling new ideas, I’m afraid those hands will no longer be enough.”

I saw what I took to be the illumination of “a billion different poetic directions like a heat-seeking daisy” under the form-wheels of his great difficult theme. Hope was the thing most throughout Unlocking the Exits — a Torah Dharma sense in “What No God Knows” that “No god knows why it’s up to us!” I don’t think I believed it was possible to combine the elements of American pop-trademark Ginsbergian iconic imperialism apocalypse with a solid history of the way of recovery & survival. Having heard it from pulpits & lived with the problems of the Uniqueness of Suffering that impales itself upon the face of the identity of the living, this book succeeds with an unassuming thievery that stethoscopes the tumblers of the locked Holocaust exits of post-modern Jewish mind.

Homelessness has never woven itself so clearly into the texture of socially determined genocide. Grounded in years of New Brunswick housing advocate for destitute families, Katz’s personae strikes the heart with an authentic virtual ordinary schizo complex of “surreal threats” & info age public dislocation. Huge mythic autocthonic rhythms seem everywhere in the shadows, as though Gregory Corso’d become some enormous Los emanation concentration camp coyote. Creating not only his own, difficult enough, but a generational mythopoesis bolted to the NJ Department of Human Services — Katz took his mother’s homelessness final solution nightmare directly to the American heart of “human services” sham. This U.S. pseudo safety net is a contextual shorthand leading up to the startling “Liberation Recalled”—its formal eloquence a sheer manly shapeliness recalling some reincarnated Dalai Ann Frank Lama attack of the form underlying the masculine death syntax machine.

Honestly, Katz was under very difficult conditions beneath my eyes. To start, only a gifted heart could endeavor such a difficult unlocking, but I thank God for his mother, her story, his telling it without pretense & without keeping it singular. I would have wished hers its power & purity, but I understand how relentless Life is, it passes so quickly, and there is something more cruel about remaining a victim of the past that is like being buried alive in this flesh skin meat memory & the world, as he juxtaposed again & again, miming the inner journey of surrender & perseverance that is the fundamental Individual Unspeakable Vision of the Soul.

The form of “Liberation Recalled,” was largely inspired by WCW’s “Spring & All,” with its many sections alternating between prose and verse, and Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” where she uses a multi-sectioned modernist form to deal with an explicit historical situation (Union Carbide forcing workers to drill through silica tunnels without proper masks) and where she includes verbatim Congressional testimony of the workers’ spouses. Elsewhere, Katz writes that he’d been reading a lot of long modernist works like Pound’s Cantos, HD’s “The Walls Do Not Fall,” Langston Hughes’ “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and Reznikoff’s “Holocaust.” He writes of “Liberation Recalled”— I divided my mother’s testimony into 10-syllable enjambment-laced lines, which in my own mind alluded to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as a way to poeticize the story, to add a sense of trans-historicity to it — and then took modernist liberties to juxtapose my own verses in different forms throughout, while also including self-conscious questions about modernist & postmodernist poetry.

Where there’s dilution & weakening one finds new strength & distillation which is like his shining grandfather who was left to live because of his beautiful singing voice with “the dead people around him.” Unlocking the Exits is not only a personal visionary Jewish American book of poetry, but one that resists all forms of imposed symbolism, & offers, instead, the reality of a formalized mainlined compassion to what it is to be human.

Originally published in Heaven Bone 2001