Thursday, April 28, 2011

IRA COHEN: THE COSMIC TRAVELER



Ira Cohen
(February 3, 1935-April 25, 2011)

   On Monday, April 25th, I received a call from Sky, an old friend who I have known for many years, letting me know that Ira Cohen had passed away moments before in St. Luke’s Hospital. She told me that I was someone Ira cared about, which is why she was calling, and I felt immediately very sad at hearing the news, and for having not seen more of him in recent years.

   Next to Charles Henri Ford, Ira Cohen was one of the people I knew the longest in my life, even though I sometimes felt that in spite of how long I knew him, I didn’t know him deeply. Then again, Ira was Ira. There was a kind of mystery about Ira, but he was also very matter of fact, and knowing him was knowing him. And I can’t imagine my life without having had Ira in it.

   I first met Sky in Crete in the 1970s, where she lived then. She was raising Ira’s son Raphael, who at that time was just a little boy riding around on a small bicycle. Like everyone I met in those years, I was introduced to Sky by Charles, and of course, Charles and Ira were good friends from before Charles ever went to Nepal.

   When I started working for Charles in Kathmandu in the 1970s, all kinds of doors I could not have imagined were opened to me, very often by Ira Cohen. And I remember him coming often with Angus MacLise to the tea salons that Charles would have in the house. Ira was always hosting “Happenings” around the city, and Charles would take me whenever he went to one of them. They were full of hippies and jetsetters from Europe and the United States, and there would be always local musicians playing traditional music with tablas and a sitar. The musicians would come and play for tips that would be collected in a hat. The music itself didn’t excite me much since I’d been hearing it all my life, but the Happenings were always interesting spectacles, with all kinds of people smoking whatever they were smoking, and listening to the music very happily. Sometimes I had the feeling that between the smoking and the music, some of those people seemed to think they had gone to paradise, right in the middle of Kathmandu. And Ira was at the center of that paradise in his flowing robes with his girlfriend Petra Vogt, also in flowing robes. Petra was a German actress with the Living Theater, and she and Ira stood out from the other Westerners I was getting used to seeing, even from the hippies. With Ira’s long black beard and his robes like a sadhu, Petra--with her long dark hair and robes like a nun--was his perfect feminine match.

   I remember trekking once, with Ira, Valery Oisteanu and a few others in the mountains of Crete. As we went through little villages, dogs would come tearing after Ira, dressed in his floppy, hanging things, and I’d think, “Why him and not me?” There was just something about Ira that made the dogs want to chase him, and the Greek villagers would stand and watch Ira pass by astonished. I think they had probably just never seen anything quite like Ira before.

   A couple of months after I started working for him, Charles told me that he was going to be away for an entire month and that Ira and Petra were going to stay in the house while he was gone. They loved to throw wild parties that lasted all night with poetry and Nepalese music and all kinds of smoking and drinking and all their friends sitting around listening.  I don’t know why Charles let them have his house because they had a house of their own, but they might have wanted to use it because it was bigger, in order to have bigger Happenings. Charles gave me the option to stay in the house with Ira and Petra or not to. Like Charles, I was not a smoker or drinker, and I thought I might not be comfortable living in the house without him being there.

   So after thinking it over, I decided to go spend the month in my own village rather than stay in the house with Ira. When Charles came back from his trip, he found the place a lot messier than when he left it. Ira and Petra were not the neatest people and Charles chided them for it, but he didn’t hold it against them. He liked Ira very much, and Ira is—was—someone I have always liked very much too.

   Ira traveled all over the world, to Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Afghanistan, Ethiopia—everywhere, but he loved Kathmandu especially. He stayed for a long time, and at some point he wrote about how he had fallen under the spell of the place; “Where it was not difficult to believe that, as long as we remained, we would stay young forever writing poems…” Ira made a real home in Kathmandu as if he was planning to stay forever. But eventually, he did finally leave, and after he did I don’t think he ever went back.

   He might not have stayed young forever, but the poems kept coming for decades after he left Kathmandu for the last time. One of the things that I always admired about Ira, something I’ve never seen anyone else do, I don’t think, was his way of being able to carry on a conversation with a number of people while writing poems at the same time, with his notebook in his lap. Poems just flowed out of him, a constant flow of poems like a river. He once wrote a poem and dedicated it to Charles and me, and I know it’s somewhere—it’s just a matter of finding it in all the piles of papers and books, and I know Ira would forgive me for that, because nobody had piles of papers and books like Ira did. He wrote the poem to us in Chania, Crete during one of the visits we shared there. We saw Ira in lots of places; in Kathmandu, in Crete, in Paris, and here in New York. He used to come up to the Dakota and visit us, always with his camera around his neck and his unmistakable caftan. Pen, notebook and camera—those were always his tools of the trade.

   I was always glad to see Ira, and he was always very friendly towards me. It’s hard to believe that his voice will not be heard anymore, that I won’t go to an art opening and see him holding forth, surrounded by interesting people from every corner of the world. 

   Last night I thought of a man who Ira knew in Kathmandu that I’d often see him with. I’d go to the post office or the market, and there would be Ira with this man, an older man who looked like a monk and always carried an umbrella. I never spoke to that man, but much later I heard that he was supposedly a member of the Royal Family of Nepal. How many times did I see him with Ira, the world class charmer? I can’t count. And last night, while I was sleeping, I wondered who I could ask about that monk-like, walking man with the umbrella, who would surely be dead by now, and I realized that the only person would have the answer would be Ira, and that there must be countless other questions about all kinds of things that only he would be able to answer. With him gone, a giant pair of shoes will remain unfilled forever.

In memory of Ira Cohen,
February 3, 1935- April 25, 2011

7 comments:

  1. Indra, so good to see your website, and so sorry to hear about Ira's passing. During the 20 years I lived in your and Charles' house in Kathmandu, I also lived with a couple of Ira's artworks from the 70 which Charles left in the house. They were quite striking, and although i enjoyed them, my housekeeper Devi couldn't look at them, and so i eventually stacked them in the corner of the kitchen, where you will find them when you finally return to Kathmandu.

    Cheers,
    Dennis Ramsey

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  2. Indra,
    Thanks for for delightful memories of Ira Cohen. I met Ira & Charles in Kathmandu in the 1970s—what wonderful magical times!
    But our friendship really blossomed in NY after we had both returned from our various Eastern adventures.
    We will all sorely miss him! Om Shanti, Ira Landgarten

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  3. I met Ira in the spring of 1981, in San Francisco, when he had just returned from Kathmandu, and we became friends for life from that point on. He wore long robes and glitter on his face, and at that point I was a little jaded from all the phony gurus we'd had to endure from the Sixties on up; and my first impression of him was not very good. I thought, he's been gone so long he doesn't get that the Sixties guru shot is over. Usually he had a large retinue with him, which included Roberta Valenza and wife, or soon-to-be wife, Caroline. But one day in the Cafe Puccini we sat one-on-one, and I confronted him about this guru thing. "So exactly what sort of mastery have you attained?" I asked him. His answer: "I fought Donald Duck for two rounds and survived, and I think I may be able to last for at least a third." From that point on, he was okay in my book. He later took a great photo of me with poet Bob Kaufman, which I'll forever treasure. Pax vobiscum, Ira.

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  4. Excuse the typo in the comment above. It was Roberto Valenza (not Roberta), a terrific poet, who died about a year or two ago. He and Ira are doubtless singing, reading poems, and making music with Angus MacLise up in heaven right now.--Gerry Nicosia

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  5. "Sometimes I had the feeling that between the smoking and the music, some of those people seemed to think they had gone to paradise, right in the middle of Kathmandu."

    "As we went through little villages, dogs would come tearing after Ira, dressed in his floppy, hanging things, and I’d think, “Why him and not me?”"

    LOL

    "Ira traveled all over the world, to Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Afghanistan, Ethiopia—everywhere, but he loved Kathmandu especially."

    Nepal has been the favorite destination for Peace Corps volunteers over the decades. I am not traveled enough globally to appreciate why.

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