MARCH 3, 2014
ENOUGH SAID may be a good movie, but it doesn’t portray its poet character, played by Catherine Keener, very fairly — she’s a “kook” who lives in a completely different era. (Then again, few movies do justice to poets or poetry; American movies, anyway — Il Postino may come the closest by creating an inspired character in Pablo Neruda.) Enough Said’s falsest moment shows the poet giving her friend (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in a wonderful performance) a copy of one of her books, which looks to be around 200 pages. Any poet knows this is too long for a book of poetry, unless it’s at the culmination of a career.
When it comes to poetry, and poetry books, less is usually more. Of course, there are books that come and make you forget about brevity, because the voice is so strange and yet familiar. This happened to me while reading Noelle Kocot’s wondrous new book, Soul in Space — it is long, but that is one of its great pleasures.
Reading Kocot, one can never be quite sure when she is going to change directions — a quality that, happily, pervades her work. Listen to “The Blue,” which begins, in a way, out of the blue:
How often we say things we don’t mean
Fully, with our full selves. But this is
All right, since we cannot make sense of
The growing weeds, the things that go
Where only blue travels. A hymn rings
Out. The wavery wind blows. I don’t
Want to sound coy or even ridiculous,
But after all, the azure of a face drawn
In sand at the edge of a sea is my own
Two deaths. The first one happened 7
Year ago. I’ve grown all new cells since
Then. The next will happen at some point,
But I’m not worried, not hardly. Is this a
Message? A message to whom? Is it
To you, who polishes me like a pearl?
Humanity is more than that, I think, and
Now the light has spoken. It’s time
To carry the weight of the day, and wait
For sleep to come again, as it does,
Flat and ridiculous over the whole blue land.
The poem begins plainly, with a plain fact, but there’s no real logic to what follows. Kocot expounds instead of confronting: the poem acts as a kind of strategy, rather than, say, a transmission of revelation. It’s as if she’s saying, as long as there’s poetry/strategy, a stream of thinking and seeing can bring the world and its questions into view in no particular order.
But poetry that means anything beyond its own making reflects the complexity of living and the hunger for beauty. For that reason, I’m drawn most to the dialectic poem, and only really have patience for the contemporary narrative if it’s chaotic, kaleidoscopic, or subversive. I like my poems difficult, in other words — which doesn’t mean obscure, necessarily, but hard-won. This is what Carl Phillips means when he writes, in a recent short essay in the Kenyon Review: “As with personality, poetry requires some unpredictability in order to be interesting — it needs something to be wrong with it.”
In this context, there’s a great deal wrong with Kocot’s poetry. For one thing, she doesn’t revise her poems, and it shows. But wait, don’t judge: that’s actually what’s so interesting about her work. Because she doesn’t go back inside the poem or re-vision it, start again, or turn it upside down, there’s an innate stubbornness to everything she writes. I’m only going to say this once, she might be telling us. Literally. Listen up. It might also be useful to think of the poems as improvisations, written down as they occurred.
Of course, if Kocot were less talented with language, one would have to fault her for her lack of revision. But, she seems to live in language — its pleasure and its confounding nature (finding words to say what?) — more than she lives in the making of an image or a metaphor.
Because there is something goodly wrong in the poems, one can sense that Kocot has known difficulty in such a way that even in their fragmentary nature, the poems still feel like life rafts or, in some cases, the wreckage of them. She knows that difficulty isn’t something to resist but to meet, to confront, and to transform, with any luck, into something as sublime as first thought. And so, the lines feel like they were written in a dream: a dream she woke up from and then fell back into, to get more of its meaning. She is always interrupting the inquiring nature of the lines with the less easy narrative of her purpose. Because she doesn’t revise, you see the poem and what went into making it.
“The Blue” starts with a declaration it then confirms in nature (the wind, the sea). Then, something mysterious happens: the “blue travels.” The blue is a thing and an idea for the thing. (See William Gass’s On Being Blue or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for what the color is actually doing here on earth.) Kocot is trying to explain living by taking that mystery — blue or black or otherwise — and making it human-sized; starting in the somewhat transfixed realm of the personal (“How often we say things we don’t mean”) and concluding with another, less obvious mystery: the mundane (“For sleep to come again, as it does”).
Kocot’s poems are never easy to figure out on the first reading because they resist an easy way out of the subconscious from which they came. They’re underground, never wholly resolved — more or less, found. I had to read many of the poems more than once because of the controlled loopiness found there: fragmentary, quietly desperate, sad, hesitant with joy, and purposefully ambiguous. What makes them real poems, for me, is how the subject and the proximity to that subject dictate the quality of her voice. Furthermore, Kocot isn’t afraid to not know something — a tender quality I find to be rare in contemporary poetry.
Soul in Space is divided into four sections, and those sections are actually quite different from each other. Section two, for instance, has pages with no titles on them, and the third section is comprised entirely of sonnets. (At least they’re trying to be sonnets — 14 lines are there in each example, but there’s none of the sonnet’s rhyme scheme.) While there are traces and heavier marks of autobiography, of place (particularly New Jersey, where she lives), and of the natural world in a dizzying spell of change, these are poems that address a spiritual angst that the writing attempts to resolve by contrasting the everyday with the miraculous.
There are many prayers here: attempts to contextualize life to make it bearable. “The Poem” speaks to that concern and also identifies her plight as a seer, that is, writer:
And so we see it, here, now,
In the unassuming day, straggling
Along in the shade. To say,
I have watched the sun set,
Is to say, my conscience is a chain
To which I have the key.
The colonies of weeds dappling
The million bright leaves
Leaves me puzzled, long-drawn,
With enough earth in my hands
To scatter across the sky.
The stars laze about in the gravelly
Heavens. Its blackness is alive.
Soon we watch the sun rise again,
But until then, we lie in an overturned
Boat, the ark of modernity, the poem.
I’m most concerned here with the last stanza, where, again, the world of sunlight and stars explains something about being human that isn’t gleaned only by experience, but also by the body’s capacity to transcend. This is a leitmotif running under every poem in the book: the earth isn’t world, but dirt.
Another poem, “Poet for My Stepfather,” is located inside a kind of malaise around the habitual, where feeling is blocked by its opposite mundane sense of reality:
I want to be alive and I prefer it that you
Were alive, too. How can we drape this
Existence over New York City, only to find
That we are vulgar in the moonlight? I know.
But see, this is where it goes wrong. The
Hal Lindsey Report blares from the television,
And we watch together. That is what we
Have chosen. Like the straight path of swans,
Paradoxically, we are becoming wisdom. Perhaps
It was meant to be. Perhaps it was planned to be,
Like a newborn, like personhood. Tricked into
Buying a kitten rolling around behind glass,
We take the long way home on these roads,
Where the light shows so well, a rhombus
Of sun, and we end up at the Wawa, where we
Struggle over who is going to pay for the gas.
“Paradoxically, we are becoming wisdom” is the surprise. Many of the surprises in Soul in Space come out of thinking about how to make life count: the idea that everything that happens to a person or two people means something else in another, bigger context.
“Talk,” the first poem in the collection, is well positioned — like most first poems — because it heralds the concerns that are to inform the poems that come after it. There is such freedom here and receptivity, that overwhelming sense that anything and everything is available to the poet. Annie Dillard is a writer I feel the same way about. (Though, sometimes her ambition takes her to subject matter that doesn’t suit her great style.) With Kocot, that availability isn’t merely about the mind — what she brings down from her head into language — but about something physically close, in the next room. This is “Talk”:
My body is
Then go to
Sleep in the
And then the
O little sea,
O my body,
Sit here with me
While I just talk.
Just talking, of course, is poetry. And the journey her own body makes in the poem, and the wonderful and strange sense of the association that leads her to meaning (the revelation of that body, no less), is beautifully rendered. One can see W. C. Williams here, and Robert Creeley in the shadows of the lines, but there’s a much more restless quality behind these declarations, as well as a goofy joy.
There’s also a sense of the marvelous here, a sense that having a life of the imagination is a full life, not merely the desire for one. (This same quality can be found in a very different poem: Elizbeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”)
“Wake Up” comes to us in independent clauses that explain how the poet lived, crosscutting to dead (as in, once alive) flowers, which she has found because her imagination put living and dying together:
Tumbling at the edge
This is how I lived.
Oh see how the chrysanthemums
Are dry now,
Yet still beautiful.
All of the poems have the first word in each line capitalized; Kocot leans toward units like the couplet and quatrain more than, say, the tercet. Albert Rios says about capitalization: “In my own writing, I do capitalize the first word in lines of poems. This is my own decision about my own work, and not anything more. Fashionable or not, I myself have found meaning in doing so, and meaning is something to value wherever we find it.” He also says that he does it to remind himself that he’s writing a poem, and to “underscore to myself the integrity of the line, which is after all what distinguishes poetry from all other literary genres.” And maybe, most interestingly: “to recognize this use of the shift key as a self-conscious act, which raises the stakes for everyone and everything — the poem, the poet, and the reader.”
Why Kocot chooses to write this way is a mystery. Perhaps unfairly, I usually think that taking this approach in the 21st century means that the poet is too lazy to turn off the function on the computer that automatically capitalizes the first word after a line break. (And having just written that sentence I have to wonder if I mean it?) Still, in Kocot’s case, I think the capitalization is a smart choice because it gives the sense that the poems — in their ranginess — are breaking something. Again, strategy is all. She is also fond of placing a comma at the end of her lines, even though they’re followed by a line break. And there are many occasions where you’ll have a comma, a line break, and that habitual capital letter to begin the new line. It makes the poems read as though they were being interrupted or, maybe, reconsidered during their composition. (Her idea of revision?) At the beginning of “Poem For New Jersey” that attention to such small details almost makes the poem look wrong on the page: “These mellow streets, this corn, / This golden rain, / Even the stray dogs have their say. / Thursday is a leaf / Falling out of the mouth.” How strange to break up the list, there at the beginning, so that “This golden rain” becomes a sideward glance, as well as part of the original intention.
While small and particular, the poems’ appearance on the page makes the experiment that much more intriguing. Changing something as formal as capitalization and punctuation puts the poems in a context that not only changes their intent, but also makes the voice declarative when one would expect it to be — because of its volatile subject matter — chaotic or ambiguous.
So many poems in this book feel like they’re about surrendering — not giving up, but cleaning a slate as big as the sky. In some ways, and because of its length, Soul in Space feels like the culmination of exercises Kocot performed on an almost daily basis. Write about the heavens, the sea, chrysanthemums, the earth, New Jersey: “With me for a lifetime now. / New Jersey, you have blown into / My room so imperceptibly, / And there is no lack of tenderness.” Tenderness: the one word I would use to describe Soul in Space and how Noelle Kocot is able to see and wrap her mind around what’s there because of it.