Poem of the Week | October 07, 2019

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Group Photograph” by Nan Cohen!

Nan Cohen is the author of two poetry collections, Rope Bridge and Unfinished City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poet Lore, Poetry International, The New Republic, Slate, SWWIM Every Day, The Arkansas International, and Poetry Ireland Review, among other magazines and anthologies. The recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and a Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is also the longtime poetry program director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches at Viewpoint School and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.


Group Photograph


It wasn’t possible to carry much,
only what could stay close to the body,

but I had a thin notebook, about twenty pages,
and between the last leaf and back cover

I carried a picture, a record of a moment
made for the Editor’s camera.

Us standing in two rows before the fire.
On our faces, eleven versions of the same expression:

an official optimism,
slicked with awareness of occasion.

Like any formal grouping, this one destroyed
the natural geometry of our bodies

in one another’s company, this one turned
at an angle to that one, on a line with a third,

aware of a fourth moving slowly behind it.
This is the record of how we drew ourselves

firmly together, hoping to represent
for some future moment how we wanted to be known.


Author’s Note

As part of a collection of poems about an experiment in time travel, “Group Photograph” is a lyric poem, but it also has a narrative task, functioning as part of a story arc (an exciting challenge for me as a writer). When this poem was selected for the Poem of the Week, I tried to imagine how it would read to someone with no other knowledge of this story, and what I noticed was the more than passing similarity of a group photograph to a poem: a purposeful arrangement interleaved with randomness, with both intended and inadvertent meanings. A link between a past moment and a future one.