As Richard Cohen flips through the book of poems he recently published, which contains his poems and those of his deceased older brother, images flash through his mind – from their early childhood, from the war years when they were both in the service, to their subsequent careers, historic events they lived through, and loved ones.

“Poetry,” said Richard, a Cape Elizabeth resident, author and poet, “is another form of music. … The different images you create don’t have to fit any form. They only have to fit your mind and hopefully someone else’s.”

The book, “Only God Can Make a Tree,” is the result of a plan formed by the two brothers several years before Alfred’s death. When Richard was in his early 60s and Alfred was in his 70s they began to discuss compiling their poetry together in one book.

Richard and Alfred were from a family of physicians and were both expected to go through medical school. However, both broke from the family norm and pursued more artistic lifestyles.

“He and I seemed to have much more of an interest in the same things,” said Richard. “The family finally realized we had chosen the right careers for ourselves.”

The two had been sending poems back and forth, critiquing each other’s work for years. Richard lived in Maine and Alfred lived in Amarillo, Texas, but the book never came together before Alfred’s death in 2001.

Now 77, Richard has collected all the poems of his brother and finally published the book they had planned on. Their poems are interspersed among each other and Richard said he hoped they paralleled each other in some way.

Both brothers used their lives as the inspiration for their poems.

“When I go through his poetry I think of his life,” Richard said. “I think I was a very fortunate person to have had a brother like this.”

Alfred wrote a poem titled “Jazz Victrola’d remembered from 1930” that Richard said brings back memories from his childhood. Even though he would have been only two years old Richard can read Alfred’s words, “walking the summer-tar’d-street of noon/Jazz victrola’d-from a-screened-in porch,” and picture his family walking along the street toward the beach to the sound of jazz music.

“We used to go away every summer,” Richard said. “Every time I read this poem I get a picture of the street, of the family … how nice it was being together during the summer.”

Both brothers served during World War II, Alfred in the Army Air Corps and Richard in the Medical Corps.

Richard was the youngest of his brothers and the only one not sent overseas. He begged his officers and wrote letters, but they never listened. During his service he was stationed at Fort Devens in Virginia, and he spent some time working at a German POW camp in the area.

“I hated these people, I never trusted them and I didn’t want to be around them,” he said thinking back to that time. His experiences as a Jew at that camp surrounded by German POWs was the impetus for a poem he began to write at the time, but didn’t finish for another 50 years.

The poem, “Prisoner,” is included in the new book, and reads in part: “What would destroy their emotions regarding/This single Jew/Who with fearful hatred pointed them/Not to gas or medical experiments/But to cots of comfort after caloried food?”

After the war Richard had the opportunity to conduct isotope research at Lawrence Livermore Labs, which was at that time in charge of Los Alamos. But, he decided he wanted to pursue literature instead.

Richard went on to teach literature at Husson College in Bangor and at the University of Presque Isle, as well as being vice president of academic affairs there.

Alfred was a visual artist who became a big-time advertising man in New York City and was well known in Hollywood for his advertising designs. Richard said Alfred began to write poetry after the war.

Though Richard and Alfred did not pursue careers in medicine, both retained a real interest in science, which is apparent in their poetry.

“This gas and dust cloud wanderer,” wrote Alfred in his poem “Traveler,” “Collecting debris of lost gone stars/and scattered planets found.” These words are echoed pages later by Richard’s poem “Rapture.” including the line “The Unseen, soundless waves/correlative to/the blackness of the universe.”

They wrote about life and their loved ones. “My father left us without a last word/Without his favorite fishing hat,” wrote Alfred in his poem “The Hat,” which is followed a few pages later by Richard’s poem “Divorce,” which begins “I am glad/My father whispered to me that day/of the Night he Died,/When the spirit led him away.”

Alfred never published any of his poems before he died, but when he retired he read one of his poems to his colleagues, a poem that ended with these words: “To write./Perchance to write/as a poet/touching the stars.”

This is the first book of poetry Richard has published, though he did win an award from a Boston newspaper when he was 14 for a poem he wrote.

After a long career as a literature professor Richard retired from the University of Presque Isle in 1990 to pursue writing. His first novel, “Monday: End of the Week” was published in 2000.

“I had written before that, but it was a horror,” he said. His second novel “Be Still, My Soul” was published in 2004. His third novel is now being edited and he has started work on his fourth.

When asked if he has plans to publish more books of his poetry, Richard answered, “I don’t expect this will be the last.”

“Only God Can Make a Tree” is available at Nonesuch Books in South Portland and Longfellow Books at Monument Square in Portland.

Cape Elizabeth poet Richard Cohen looks through a recently published book of poems written by him and by his brother.


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