Allen Alive
for Allen Cohen (1940-2004)

by Gerald Nicosia

Visiting the about-to-die
Is supposed to be strange or sad
But visiting Allen Cohen two months
Before he took leave
Of the planet
Was one of the greatest life experiences
Anyone could possibly have.
His back to me when I enter
He's hunched over
The tiny wooden dining table
In his wheelchair
Musing over the lovely breakfast
Of whole wheat poppyseed French toast
And poached eggs
Thoughtfully cut
Into small bites
For him
But never eaten
The whole two hours I'm there.

'He turns ever so slowly
In his chair
To greet me
With a wan smile
And tired slitted eyes
In a face thinner than I have ever seen it
In 24 years.
But settled across from each other
A few feet apart
The old juices start to flow again
Though his voice is softer and slower
Than before
As if he's carefully husbanding
Both the time and strength
Left inside.

Here is the once-strong man I knew
So strong he scared me
When I first saw him
But that was only because the crazy Beat poet
Montgomery had told me
That “Al Cohen is a tough guy
You have to watch out for”----
Having mixed up the founder
Of the Haight-Ashbury Oracle
With some musician in New York.
I'd see him coming into the Raintree Restaurant
On 9th Avenue in the Sunset
In the late mornings
Almost every day----
I recognized him from North Beach
Though he didn't know me----
And I looked at those broad shoulders
Wide, low-slung hips
In baggy blue jeans
Stern, chiseled Semitic face
And fierce black pony tail
And thought to myself,
That's one guy you don't want to cross!
Hardly an appropriate
To the greatest apostle
Of love
San Francisco has had
Since the saint that founded it
And the saint he named it after
Francis of Assisi
Whom Allen a little
Actually resembled.

And here was the saint's last hideout
In a neighborhood
So pretty with trees and flowers
My city-wary little son says,
"I like this better than San Francisco"
And the steeply slanted street
With broken, bumpy sidewalk
Reminds me of the cobbled hill
Of Cwmduncon Street where
Dylan Thomas grew up,
The same Dylan Thomas who appeared
To Allen as a young man
In a vision
And told him to write poetry
Unlike his father, Mr. Cohen,
Who told his son,
"Whatever you do in life, Allen,
Go to the top"----
An admonition that haunted
Allen Cohen
All his life.

He looks so frail now
In his hand-woven Native American shirt
Of subdued earth-tones
Purples, blues and browns
But still every inch
Allen Cohen
As I've always known him
The graying ponytail still thick
And thrust defiant
From his balding head
And a tie-dyed T-shirt
Peeking from underneath
The medicine-man shirt----
But the eyes start to scare me
The irises keep floating up
Under the upper lids
In the way they used to call
Back in the Sixties
And that's clearly where his being
Keeps floating
As he eyes the first edition
Of Brautigan's Springhill Mine Disaster
I've brought him
Thinking the poems would make him smile
But it's the cover photo of
Young Richard
Tall, mustachioed, Victorian-dressed
Hippie loser genius
On the cover
That's caught his eye----
The friend of his youth----
And is exerting a pull on him
Like the planet Jupiter
A pull I never expected
But then I'd never been this close
To Planet Death.

"It's the worlds in between
that are giving me problems,"
I hear him say on one of
The endless phone calls that
Keep trying to bring him back
And tie him down
To planet Earth, as
I've been doing with this visit
Of myself and my two children----
It's no easy job since
We fight against
The three trays of pills
That nurse his transplanted liver
And the methadone and morphine syrups
Barely nudging the pain of a cancerous baseball
That pushes through his hip bone
Like a devouring dragon.

But then he turns to me
Those warm, brown, intelligent, concerned
Eyes I remember
Of a serious businessman
And says,
"The time has come to think about
The placement of my archive----
So many boxes
Of books and tapes
The problem is
So many unfinished projects"

And then he floats away
Again, almost up
To the ceiling
This time
The irises have almost vanished
Just two tiny brown
Crescent moons still
Showing in
The sea of white
Moist emptiness
He's still as his own
Waiting grave----
I fear I've lost him----
And then suddenly his hand
Trembles toward
His coffee cup,
It jumps away----
And he looks straight at me
Almost astonished
But curious too
Like a scientist on the cusp
Of a major discovery.

"The three worlds are all present
at once," he says,
"past, present
and future----
The past is engulfing
Me, but
The future is also
Enveloping, dragging me
And they're all
Coming together
In the present----
I keep trying
To sort them
But I
Can't …
That's the problem
That's riddling me,"
He says, sounding
Far more distressed
About it
Than the cancer or
The life of
Friends, family
And career
He's being summarily
Evicted from.'

'And then we get back
To the archives----
I suggest librarians----
But in the next room
And yet another world
My two little children
And Allen's caregiver Nicole
Are playing goofy games
And laughing
Distracting him
Other people come and go too
Even a grey-and-white cat
New worlds won't
Let Allen alone
And suddenly he's
Really enjoying
My talky daughter giving
Nicole's friend Ray
A "really hard time"
With a hundred questions
And I figure it's
Time to get her
Out of there
"You must be tired," I say,
but he says, "No,"
and to prove it gets out of his
wheelchair and goes for
his crutches
and topples
backwards on to the couch
where my daughter comes
to sit beside him
and tells him
"I was born to give
men a hard time"
and Allen cracks
the biggest smile
anyone has seen on him
in two months.

He's taking care
Of all the unfinished projects
He's taking care
Of all of us too
He's still there in the vanguard
Of the Aquarian charge
Into the unknown universe
Of peace and harmony----
His father would have been proud.

©Gerald Nicosia 2/28/04
and 5/12/04

Allen Cohen Tributes and Memories