Helen Degen Cohen









Glass Beaded Rings

When my mother told me we were leaving the Ghetto–
shrunken to one tenth since the last Selection–
that we might be safer in a hidden room
in the town prison where my father worked,
I again tried to imagine the place.
Like the Red House
I had hoped I was born in.
I imagined a room with a table and chair, a window with clouds.
I imagined a mother and father, their child in a crib,
the three of us, watching the sunlight come in.

I imagined living without Mrs. Katz
who believed the others were taken to work.
I was weaving glass seed rings with their daughter,
stringing and restringing my glass-beaded rings.
Scribbling in the sand, I
assigned myself a number, I don’t know why. Number 3,
the fat right side of a woman, a snowman,
a no man. . . then I added his hat, and his broom.
Around him people with closed eyes
moved over an abyss. But we–
were coming out of the forest,
going to the Red House, I was riding on my father’s back,
reaching for the brightest leaves when
suddenly a clearing lit up ahead. In the center
was the prison. I had with me my glass-beaded rings
and I took one from my pocket high into the sun

letting each grain of glass fill up with light.
And when Mama told me we would have to steal

through the town as gentiles, it meant nothing much: I
was a very special number 3, it meant something
must happen only to me. Only to us.
This isn’t to say
that I wasn’t afraid, only that I had something
to do. When we came to the edge, come
said my mother. And she tore the yellow off our sleeves.






Habry, peaceful Polish flowers,
Mine, yet I never belonged to that country.
Fraying, breezing in the quietest quiet,
Blue, all along the edge of the wheatfield,
Silken blue, among orange poppies,
And the sun is silent, silent as the night.

How can so much sunlight sink so quietly?
How can it be that no one is here?
I, after all, have never left that countryside
And not even the Poles are visible, and where
Are the girls who forever wove garlands
And ran through flowers as if they were air?

I return to habry as if by candlelight,
Warmed, though I know they are nowhere near,
There is nothing like them in poor Illinois,
No Jews-and-gentiles, nothing to separate
Petal from petal – only hushed blue
Habry, hovering, in the air.





And the Snow Kept Falling

for my sister, who died at the age of two


Deep, deep in
the glass toy
there lies a river
warmer than diamonds
and we sit beside it
girls and boys
we sit in the snowy glass toy –

You lay down in the snow
leaving a human print when you rose,
and the snow kept falling
on the children, on their houses –
on Aunt Vera, who laughed like a movie star
coming in with her Warsaw shoes and chocolates,
on grandmother in her cooking house
folding her twenty children to sleep,
on uncle feeling the oven-tile wall,
letting the warmth reach into his heart,
on Anna the nursemaid, who walked me to the park,
her legs like a goat’s, it was summer, yet snow
fell on her freckles, on our braided hair,
on Nathaniel, soon to be sent to Siberia.
The streets were powdered white,
I was sucking an icicle
and the baker came out laughing
his arms high receiving the snow
as if it had just been made by God,
and it fell on the guts in the butcher shop,
on the tunnels where everyone ran to hide
when the planes came humming —
on the Thursday markets in the open square,
and the women who sat on the ground hawking
chickens and cheeses, on me
and my mother holding onto my hand,
and snow fell on the thunder and the flowers under it –
onto the schnapps in my father’s hand,
and the card players humming
La Dona e Mobile, and on David and Rachel,
who were dancing the tango
in the middle of the living room,
Rachel, so modern no snow could reach her,
David, so smooth, that there was no snow –
The streets were already white,
whiter than the page I write on,
and it fell on grandfather rocking in prayer,
and the other, the atheist, in need of work,
as he stood at his window in Warsaw, where it fell
and would keep on falling,
on his youngest, who died in the famine,
on the figures below in their black coats,
on his wife’s commodious breasts and hair
every year thinner and longer by an inch –
snow so radiant, it must be the snow
that fell on the shtetl,
and over the farms,
and the fiddlers, and the normal death of infants –

and this is when you came about, Mirenka,
when you suddenly appeared, behind the typewriter,
white as a bride
weightless and smiling
a woman, yet young as the day you died,
first and only sister.

Goat Sister, Chagall bride,
though we may be living in a different painting
sit beside me, tell me what to know,
let us shake up, then enter, your bubble of snow –
as if we have never been lost in history.

Deep, deeper than the
mothers of snow
there lies a river
warmer than diamonds
and we sit outside it,
everyone I know –

we are sitting and staring into the snow.


from HABRY






… for my mother at Hart, Schaffner, & Marx
I almost forgot, reading Piece Work, a first book by a child of industry. I too am the daughter of a factory worker. Things can be straightforward that way. But it didn’t seem so, then, with my delicate high school disposition. All I remember, all I remember, all I remember—is, when she came home she was sick. In their bedroom down the long skinny hallway. Just tired. And,“sick.” And shoulder pads. For years, it was shoulder pads she worked on, and how do I even know. She didn’t exist. I was all silken arms & the odor of things. Boys, with their peculiar wafts, & girls loud with carrying books & little & big breasts. Very big. These things, a neighborhood drugstore & butcher shop all roller-skated round, by others. Not I, I would be slim and never fall down, my skin all perfume & almost sin. She was not a useful mother at all. Who else needed shoulder pads? Joan Crawford and who? I put the carrots & parsnips in and skimmed the boring chicken soup just as she got home. And one year she started having high blood pressure. I remember that because it’s just the way it happened with me. It just came, one year, like a thread of my mother’s sewn into me, never before visible and all tied up with blood. I went away to camp for two weeks, praying for three.
Only once, for my third American Halloween she brought home a kimono and a fan, and we piled up my hair and put knitting needles into it, & a real obi around my waist, & all because the shoulder-pad woman beside her, for days, & months & years, happened to be Japanese.


NOTE: “Of the old apartment on Division Street” after “hallway”. Though it’s tighter without it.

FYI: Hart, Schaffner & Marx (a piece of Chicago history)
In 1872, Harry and Max Hart, German immigrants who arrived in Chicago as boys 14 years earlier, founded Harry Hart & Bro., a small men’s clothing store on State Street. In 1879, along with brothers-in-law Levi Abt and Marcus Marx, the Harts formed Hart, Abt & Marx. By this time, the company not only sold clothing but also employed dozens of women around the city to manufacture close to $1 million worth of garments a year. In 1887, when Joseph Schaffner joined the firm, its name was changed to Hart, Schaffner & Marx. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it owned dozens of small garment factories—identified by many observers as “sweatshops”—around the city; about two-thirds of its several thousand employees were foreign-born men and women. In 1910, when its annual sales were roughly $15 million, the company became a target of one of the biggest strikes in Chicago. Hannah Shapiro, an 18-year-old Russian-born woman working at one of the Hart Schaffner shops, led a walkout in response to a wage cut. Within three weeks, about 40,000 Chicago garment workers went on strike. In 1911, Hart, Schaffner & Marx became one of the first companies to settle with the workers when it signed a collective bargaining agreement that was one of the most comprehensive ever to occur in the clothing industry; by 1915, the majority of the company’s employees were members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a new union that was an outgrowth of the Chicago strikes. During the years that followed, Hart, Schaffner & Marx continued to be a leading employer in the Chicago area, and it became the largest of all U.S. men’s clothing companies. By the beginning of the 1970s, it had 38 factories and 250 retail stores around the country and over 5,000 workers in the Chicago area.

Bluma Degen worked in the Hart, Schaffner & Marx factory for 20 years, sewing on shoulder pads.





Jewess to East Indian Music

She can almost hear
brass bells rainbells cowbells
drops of moisture as bells
across the desert
No Judith, no Deborah, no Justine,

dancing to her newest cassette
as if on a sandy sea
wider than the land of Abraham and Isaac

taking her clothes off in far out circles
echo of gongs
fragrant glow of candles
Elana Lana. . .
steps into nakedness
arms extending beyond

her little Jewish life,
blue nightgown, cousins, weddings,
snake-dancing through the walls
of a green suburb, forgive me Mama and Papa–
a Jewish girl a bellydancer?
a Jewish girl a Masseuse?

It’s her.
Julie from next door. Or Judy,
come out of her short-shorts
onto the famished sand. . .
A gong clears the desert
of tinware, voices, city walk-ups,
a windy gong levels centuries to sand,
wherein this Krishna music, oh
let us clear the desert even of
camels and elephants
let us walk on silent sand
eyeless, slowly, she dances. . .

to music that prays like her dead zeyde
a dahvenning music from the bent grandfather
his eyes raised to a question,
a meaning, oy god, to all this

Oh grandfather of all our memories,
playing with your talles, fading
in a corner, with your eyes so
uplifted, to what, when all around you
from sunrise to sunset
slowly, in her own living room
she dances, Lana, Judy,

her hips tracing the inner walls
of circles, her glance pointing to
a thousand glittering points,
her arms falling around her, rising into
the desert sky, in all her veils, o dance
my child, o dance while you can, my child, he
ought to have said.




I thought love was a house.
I saw the house on fire,

people jumped from the house
and a deluge came to rescue them,

torrents wetter than hell
until we sailed into oblivion

the we I thought was a house
in a late spring shower

the children had run out into,
squealing. There were suddenly

these days that carried us,
days when we never thought at all,

though this can’t be true either,
there was more than oil in the salad,

more than sweat on the beach
and you inside your summer shirt

and me (so sweet to the future),
we must have thought we didn’t exist

at all, we must have thought ––
something. And the children too

must have thought something
in the drop by drop hours

(the lilacs still blooming) that would
one day of necessity become a flood

to rescue creatures in love
and carry them out of sight.



Dancing Among the Forget-Me-Nots

None of what I tell you is true.
Not even my mother.
Although what I tell you
may be close enough.
My mother was no dancer,
God only knows.
Poor mothers of dancers.
When I dance, my mother always dies,
is laid out on her bed
pure as the beginning of time.
I killed her with my dancing
flew into fire and ice
while she lay there in the land of
forget-me-nots, past bleeding.
I love you, dead mother.
I stopped dancing
I gained your weight.
I remember flying through a roomful
of music coming to a cool boil,
all my limbs in love––
there’s no way to show you
how I danced except by dancing––
memory is a cup of iced tea
in a desert. All this
is a pack of lies.




My mother was a starfish.
I found her on the beach,
in the shade, doing nothing.

She was cool white,
no, warm white, in half shade.
There was no reason for her.

Washed up, she was simple
and lovely. I gave her
little thought, put her in my pocket

along with the sand
that clung to her, and the faint
smell of the sea.





Seventeen times I circled

the world and did not find
my mother. Then Rilke was there
in a hat and shirt of pale amber
speaking into my ear.
Bah! said my mother in
the language of the dead.
Hush, said Rilke, spinning
arms of gold around her.
Since, of course he knew her,
and knew my father
and Aunt Dina
and the twins, dead at thirteen and fourteen.

How could I not have known
that he’d come closer to her
than a husband to his wife
and sit on a faint stool
beside her
and turn the living into mere

for as soon as I saw them together
beside the river of blue flowers
or sitting around that peculiar hearth of theirs
he giving of himself like
an endless bowl
and so easily taking her into himself –
I understood how only the dead
and a few poets
understand both the living and the dead –
the dead who never come through walls
for there are no walls, but only through
shades of amber
a color warm enough to be human
and still separate, earthen, out of reach

and I practiced no longer envying my mother
who had never in life
known Rilke.



I dream of giving

I tied a knot in my mother’s hair.
She was not there.
Her eyes loose in airless air.
I made her small, tied a ribbon in her
child’s hair.
She smiled. And still was
not there

but in Rilke’s castle, combing her hair;
like a mirror
he turned and turned toward her.
I told her
I’m here — my echo struck amber,
up, up a wide stair
and both turned – O this earthen light bared
eyes, their eternal stare
paling where
it was struck blind, and my mother’s hair
flew into a sticky black rage, no, despair.

Hush, I re-tied the braid and the bows, there
now, hear
me, Mama, I’ll leave you in tenderer
hands, and softly turning away, they disappeared

hand in hand, up there



First Leaf
(Or, Glazing)

(while walking home)


First leaf
yellow-veined throughout the red
which is life, when I first
picked you up I was thinking of
nothing; rather, Nobody,
the half-Indian
in Dead Man with Johnny
Depp, that black-and-white flick
by Jarmusch in which
death is much foretold
among trees so photographic
they almost make you bleed.

But this is all a lie.
What I really was thinking of
was a child no longer a child
(first my oldest, then my youngest
then the one in the middle)
and worrying about each by
turns, just as all you leaves
were turning

everywhere, under my feet–
except in Dead Man, seen
for the first time (and you are my first
leaf of the season) last night,
like an apparition.

My children (William
Blake, an accountant trapped
in the Wild West, dreams
of color in a world made black
and white), and now you,
half-burning with color
in my hand.

And to tell you the truth,
I don’t know what to
make of it. The term was
glazing, in the old

painting days, it meant
one fine, almost spiritual, layer
superimposed on another,
on a child’s eyes, for instance,
bleeding through the
surface of a town, a town
soaked in the afterlight
of a storm – last night

on the screen, barely covering
an ancient hell-hole in the West
minus the purple-mountained

On this side of the river,
says Nobody,
you’ll have to speak through your gun,
William Blake,
and long and long and long
is death
taking up the entire movie.
here you are, three maple wings
flushing at the thought,
your red and green denying everything,
as would my three winged
growing and molting their own
daily, not a thought to
any of this.

This slow thinking that oozes
color by the minute.

So I put you on the desk,
across a lined notepad, making
a new picture,
growing a sudden hunger in my eyes
for paint.
(At the end, a radiant, blueless
cloud takes forever to fade
in William’s eyes.)
I will make you bleed eternally.



The Odor of Memory
(a poem in 4 sections)


A boy, recalling:

We got there in a
state of awe
It was like having traveled
all those years
without knowing it
to arrive in this shaky wagon
full of straw—
the world smelled powerfully
good and there were girls
of every kind but all
the same, with skin.
And breath
they breathed like a disease
almost, some sort of
heavenly, holy disease. We grew red.
That rickety wagon.
How could you learn anything?
Yet everyone thought
we could learn.
The trees
dropped their faces over us. They were
Wheels, machinery, rolled over us,
motorcycles, airplanes—wheels
we had to control, get on top of—ride.


A girl, recalling:

We got there in a state
of awe
without knowing it, without
having traveled. We were
trees that had never budded before,
our leaves greening, shedding, falling
like paper
you could draw on, like cloth
you could sew into anything,
we were
so pure were we, in and out of the
hopscotch squares
our hair a river of silver fish.
We floated
without moving, we arrived
in the rickety wagon and the world
smelled masculine—
we were tickled even by the word,
we were moist, we were
open words, we were m’s the s’s could
crawl into, we ached,
we were trees finally budding.


A boy, recalling:

They stood opposite
in the roomful of straw,
open like open flowers,
iris, camellias, wavering,
we thought they were only girls, across
the wagonload of straw, they sat
always opposite, across, as if
already filled up with country liquor, we
didn’t know it was sugar-water.
Still, we moved, we were used to
moving, never knowing
limbs, groins, what to do—in olden days
boys wrote poetry
something in us really wanted to write poetry
something we didn’t know
so we moved,
we coiled like rattlers in the straw
and they stood opposite, like calves, then cows.
They were the world. No longer trees.


A girl, recalling:

We came second. So it seemed. Their
moving, their motion, coming first,
because we stood so still, because
we sat still as the close-up
odor of grass,
of straw you could die in, widening
in slow motion, in iris and camellia
ways (so bad) because
we could barely hold our breath
for the budding, while they
across the roomful of straw
moved, snaked, and we, waiting,
like flesh-eating plants,
opened, no, like open water
in our silver cups, opened and closed and.
A stable thing is afraid of motion.
We were trunks moving, whirling, turning from
paper to leaves, to grass, to too many things solid
as silver cows until
we were no longer trees.


from Neruda Nights (Finishing Line Press – forthcoming)



Ode to Raspberries

O apples
plum pregnant with fall
O maize all souls turned yellow & gold
apples squashes carrots & gourds
coming up & up & falling from the sky
O icicles hours days rooms
& everything stored in jars
& cellars fermenting
dried & brandied O deep potatoes
breathing O musk of close bodies
O first beads of green O beads
of green blood opening
lettuce peas green onion chard subterranean
spring having come up through the ice
by the river through baby muck & mold
sweeter than peonies O cascading trees & then
O raspberries


(published only on line, in a beautiful illustrated « dessert » journal, but the site is defunct — it is also here, which I myself must have put up.)



Midnight In Paris

When you’re dying to escape, sweet-eyes,
add some warm yellow and red,
fuzzy brown it,
and place it in the past.

If you’re just another Woody,
begin with music, it’s okay,
a hesitant boy
wishing, it’s all right,
and couple of girls, both pretty.
And somewhere let there be dancing.
Don’t go shy now, pumpkin.

A man dreaming of the lovely. Imagine.
(Let a young man speak for his middle age coming. Let him
stammer and stare, to prove his innocence.)
Add Paris.

Or else begin with Paris, color of deep honey––
how many dreamers did it take
to color Paris? Who cares, someone or other
colored up Paris, and all we had to do was
go and visit, pull it on like
these blue jeans and messable haircut, put a French
accent on jazz.

The past has warmed things up for you––
streetlights blur things for poets
who resist the future and feel
rubble in their shoes;
blue is for loss, they tell you, and lose it.
Shoot them.
Womby brick-red- and bourbon-hued
corners –– smile, overdo it,
put your love there. You were dying. Now
call for a car of candied gold, let
its doors open and don’t
ask where it’s going.

Kiss me.













Helen Degen Cohen’s (aka Halina Degenfisz’s) awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s International fiction competition, three Illinois Arts Council awards, an IAC Fellowship, an Indiana Writers Conference Award, and fellowships to the major art colonies. She co-founded and co-edits RHINO and coordinates its adjunct, The Poetry Forum. She has taught as an IAC Artist-In-Education through the Illinois Arts Council and as an instructor for Roosevelt University. Twice featured in The Spoon River Poetry Review, and in online zines such as TheScreamOnline.com., her work is the subject of articles such as “Rootlessness and Alienation in the Poetry of Helen Degen Cohen,” in Shofar (U. of Nebraska Press) and « This Dark Poland–Ethnicity in the work of Helen Degen Cohen » in Something of My Very Own to Say: American Women Writers of Polish Descen (Columbia University Press). She published two collections in 2009: HABRY,and ON A GOOD DAY ONE DISCOVERS ANOTHER POET. Helen served on the editorial board of the new anthology from SUNY, WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES, which includes “Mirka & I”, another excerpt from her autobiographical novel THE EDGE OF THE FIELD. NERUDA NIGHTS, a new chapbook, will be in print by early November and available for purchase beginning July 31st.

Publications and Prizes

HABRY (Puddin’head Press, 2009)

On a Good Day One Discovers Another Poet (Finishing Line Press, 2009)

Brute Neighbors (DePaul University Press, 2011), A Writer’s Congress (DePaul University Press, 2009), Where We Find Ourselves (State University of New York, 2009), Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust (2nd edition) (Time Being Books, 2007), In Praise of Pedagogy (Calendar Island Publishing, 2000), The House on Via Gombito (New Rivers Press, 2000), Something of my Very Own to Say (Columbia University Press, 1998), Sarajevo Anthology (Texas Tech University Press, 1993), Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust (1st edition) (Texas Tech University Press, 1991)

Another Chicago Magazine, Antigonish Review, Cream City Review, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, Outerbridge, Partisan Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Rhino Magazine, Shofar, Spoon River Poetry Review, Stand Magazine, Versal 2

-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. -First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s International fiction competition -Three Illinois Arts Council Literary awards-Poetry and Fiction -Indiana University Writer’s Conference Award -Fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation.

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