NEA Literature Fellowships

Nan Cohen

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(2003 - Poetry)

Rope Bridge

(first appeared in Poetry International)

It twists and bucks in the wind, or under the weight
of a white man, twenty, a college student, who moves
from rung to rung, knees bent and locked, hands tight
on the swaying rails. It's not really dangerous,
the sides are webbed, if he slips he won't go through -
not all the way. But he can't keep his trunk
centered over his feet, can't catch rhythm
of the tilting slats they ride, and he wills each one to lift
and lurch him forward, whereupon the bridge
pitches as if to mock his clumsy steps.

At last he struggles forward to his goal,
the end where the ropes rise steeply to meet
a plate of anchored metal. And coming to meet him
a woman folds her clipboard to her chest,
her hair ruffles in the wind - he wasn't imagining things,
it's a windy day, the bridge still sways and rocks.
His legs are a little weak. She smiles at him,
tucks her hair behind an ear, says "Just a few questions."

I don't know what she asks him, only that later,
when his pulse has slowed, someone else gives
him a test: The assistant you met at the bridge -
did you find her attractive? How attractive?
__Very __Somewhat __Not at all.

What does she think of him, does she prefer him
to the control group, the men who visit her
one by one in her office, her clipboard flat on the desk?
Does she feel tender toward him as he comes to her,
staggering like a drunk, groping half-blind,
walking his hands along the graceful ropes?

For he is the one most likely to answer Very,
since he is now part of a classic experiment
on the attribution of a heightened state
(his quickened pulse, the trembling in his knees).

And one by one, the men who crossed the bridge,
who did not fall, chose love for their reward,
saw it coming to meet them, smiling in welcome.
Who would say: It is fear that takes my breath,
that wets my palms, that spins my heart in my chest -

the fear that sleeps in me, easily roused
from its light sleep, with wind, with ropes, with words?

Nan Cohen's poems have appeared in Tikkun, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, The Prentice-Hall Anthology of Women's Literature, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University. Originally from Maryland, she attended Yale University and UCLA and now lives with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles. She is Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference.

Author's Statement

When I learned that I was to receive an NEA grant, I gushed, "This has come at just the right time!" to a friend who accurately replied, "Any time someone gives you money is the right time!" And yet I still feel particularly grateful to have received a grant when I did, shortly after leaving the place I'd lived for seven years (and a job and a community of writers from which I'd drawn sustenance) in order to move to a new city. Disoriented and anonymous in my new surroundings, I was tremendously heartened by the thought that a panel of distinguished writers found my work worthy of such encouragement and practical support. I continue to try to make it so.

The poem "Rope Bridge" is the title poem of my first manuscript (I'm working on the second now). Its starting point is a psychology experiment which, as the poem describes, showed that a group of men whose feelings were heightened by the experience of crossing the rope bridge were more likely than a control group to report feelings of attraction to a woman they met immediately afterward. When I first read about this experiment, I thought it resonated with me because I was in college, a tremendously heightened environment, and felt I was falling in love all over the place--with poems, with ideas, with politics, and, naturally, with people. But when I returned to the idea years later, it still seemed to describe something about the shifting and tempestuous nature of human feelings, and it was something I wanted to explore--so, this poem.