Noelle Kocot’s 70-page collection of poems, 4, won Four Way Books’ 1999 Levis Poetry Prize. Coincidence? Not likely. Published in May of 2001, Kocot’s first book is said to display a ‘relentless semantic invention, syntactical bravura, and occasional laugh-out-loud humor’ along with an ‘emotional urgency that informs genuine rigor,’ according to ‘Michael Ryan, judge’ on the back cover — yet another reason not to send your manuscript into a contest! It is a widely observed rule that people should not judge a book by its cover, but there should be a corollary: No judge should be allowed to put his name on the cover of a book. Not only did ‘Michael Ryan, judge’ slap his name on the back cover, he put it on the front cover, too, and in big capital letters. Objection, your honor, may I approach the text?
I do not quote Ryan’s words to discount them. After reading 4 a couple times, I think it’s pretty amazing, especially for a first book. I’m not sure what to make of the numerical symbolism. At least half of the poems in the book are written in four-line stanzas. There’s the cross formed of Ryan’s name, Kocot’s name, ‘Four Way Books’ and ‘Levis Poetry Prize’ on the front cover. And then there are the poems ‘The Number 4 Comforts a Sad Child’ and ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait,’ both of which mention the number four. The latter — leading off with a line from Elizabeth Bishop (‘Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too?’) — begins with these four quatrains:
A paper hat transmutes so easily into a paper boat,
But this doesn’t mean that the boat is somehow inferior.
I saw a child once.
I saw into the deep, blue interior
Of the number four, which is the Holy Spirit who makes
All things possible and all things matter.
All things I thought of then,
Even the letter
Q without the U behind it. And things just settled.
There was no need to hope
For any more, except maybe a cigarette, and the thing about cigarettes
Is that one after another, they’re the same. Meanwhile, soap
Dissolves much more quickly than it did in 1970,
The year that embarrasses me most with its promise of tall,
Musky, balding Gordons and Dons, with orange, palm-tree expressions,
And women in short, pregnant dress and ash-black falls. (5)
These passages are not the best ones in 4. Actually, I think they are some of the worst, though the transition from religious sentiments (the Holy Spirit) to more accessible, humorous ones (balding Gordons and Dons) is what makes this book interesting. 4 is full of words like ‘all’ and ‘everything’ and the weak points are marked by broad gestures such as ‘the Holy Spirit who makes / All things possible and all things matter,’ and the vagueness of lines like ‘And things just settled,’ which is just plain bad writing in either poetry or prose, leaving us to guess exactly what in the world the poet must have in mind, or what a ‘Q without the U behind it’ could possibly represent or mean. There is also the transition word ‘meanwhile,’ which, along with ‘so’ and ‘as if,’ shows up in places where Kocot reaches an edge or limit in the poem. Too often I feel as though she’s leading us away from the edge (where the poetry usually is) to a comfort zone where meanings, differences and conflicts get tied up and resolved in imaginary moments that I want to believe in but can’t, which is strange since I share many of the transcendence-desiring tendencies in her poetry.
Two epigraphs open 4 — one taken from Ecclesiastes 5:7 (‘Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.’) and the other from Ikkyu (‘You me when I think really think about it are the same’). If you have a problem with the ideas expressed by these two quotations, you’re probably not going to like the book much. There’s an insistent, starry-eyed spirituality that runs through the poems, sometimes overshadowing the more comedic episodes and diffusing the more serious ones.
‘Dasein’ (which begins with a quote, appropriately enough, from Heidegger: ‘The Dreadful has already happened’ — referring to what he said one day as he stepped out of the shower and looked into a mirror) comes close to merging a comic sense with an awareness of pain, injustice and underlying spiritual realities by using the image of utensils getting caught in a garbage disposal as a metaphor for the experience of a human being born into ‘a world that let you be fucked so far / In your two-year-old ass with a metal crucifix / That you dispersed into the pieces / You finally want back after so many years / Of not having the faintest idea / About what it is to want’(32). Why Kocot had to add the extra emphasis of ‘so far,’ I will never understand. By making the act into something approaching hilarity or banality, the metaphor almost prevents us from taking it seriously.
As if that weren’t enough, we are told in the second line that, ‘Being reveals itself in cheap silverware’.... ‘And we hate to hear them, / Love to hear them, clinking away, / Clanking uproariously, bending and twisting / So that we can almost hear the rippling screams / Of the mad hoards drowning out the ghosts / Of lepers at the St. Lazare.’ This is a powerful, hallucinatory and humorous image but almost done to the point of self-parody (another warning to young poets — beware of additives, i.e. adjectives and adverbs). We are presented with the analogy between the utensils in the garbage disposal and the crucifix in the kid’s butt, followed by a homily of healing: ‘And as with anyone else, you are / All the more real in pieces, / Each grasping, as well as illuminated by, / Some such transgression’.... ‘Often I remind you that I too walked / In the land of dreams and have become real. / With this I say that reality is signified / Only by how far your soul is allowed / To fly into space. / Listen to what it brings back, / To what it is trying to tell you’(32–33).
This ending just seems false to me, despite or because of the reliance on words like ‘real’ and ‘reality,’ which is all the more unsatisfying because the poem attempts to speak the truth about a specific violence. There is also the question of who the ‘you’ is — a question I found myself asking a lot. At times, it seems like the poet is speaking to a lover, to herself, to another person or to some spiritual deity, or to all at once.
In ‘Abortion Elegy’ it is apparent that the ‘you’ is the aborted child, but the specificity of that ‘you’ seems bulldozed over in Kocot’s self-negating attempt to acknowledge violence and death and then immediately find some spiritual all-rightness in it and in ‘everything’:
And there you were, emerging alone into the light,
A sort of halo, scattering despite
My fierce and silent request, too late
To defer to my bird’s-eye hindsight
Sinking to eye-level now before the portrait
Of you I’ll never see, ever. Yet you are concrete
Somehow; I know, I’ve heard your bee-like buzzing
In all the tiny leaves bursting from their sacs to greet
A magical universe, where everything grows, and sings
In harmony for we know not what. Everything
Grows, even you, my little one, and your sanctity
Is that of a dim and stormy summer evening
With its regard for all things temporary.
So go now, dear, and go with dignity
Into the stark, mid-winter air, which is your birthright.
May your sleep keep you as warm as a September tree. (43)
This could be a sweet poem if it didn’t insist on the presentness of the already dead fetus, described as ‘emerging alone into the light,’ its ‘sanctity’ a ‘dim and stormy summer evening.’ One wants to make sense of what seems to be a senseless event and Kocot nearly does, rightly acknowledging ‘the portrait / Of you I’ll never see, ever.’ But the overall effect of the poem is one of denial, fabricated intimacy and an insulting treatment of a situation that in our culture has already been spiritualized and depersonalized to death.
The other poems that attempt to deal with death, ‘Reconciliation (for my father, 1943-1986), ‘For My Father the Poet,’ and ‘Aunt Lee Dying, Surrounded by Family,’ I like more, if only in parts. In the second poem Kocot writes, ‘I want to say, I have fed the young, changed the seasons, / Banged into the silken necks of giraffes’(45) — a nice series of images — but then she falls back on conventional images (‘the deep night of the truly dead’) and the more Platonic, spiritworld platitudes (‘So that you in your error and I in mine / May someday be able to join each other / Far from the call of illusion and metal / And the light feet of my dreams can sprout wings / And fly off to greet you on the axis of the one true language’) — all of which may be true, who knows, but it doesn’t make for a very powerful poem.
Often the vision just seems too labored to move us. From ‘Aunt Lee Dying’:
In other words, my hands are grafted to lamentation
And two occult, adamantine wings gleam behind me
Hooked onto the lineaments of pride scowling across the lilting scene.
In fact, the whole place is gravid with language
Dressed in a paper gown
In which you are patted on the back from all directions.
Now the nightfall is an innuendo risen from the dark roots of afternoon,
And your eyeball vaults across my childhood caked with cake
Spilling a trickle of voices that ultimately bow,
This being the bad taste with which we apprenticed ourselves to your ways. (46)
In other words? In fact? Nonetheless, there is a reflexive awareness on her part that the poem and its memory are ‘gravid with language,’ just as in ‘Last Words’ she can write, ‘We ate metaphorical / Tranquilizers by the dozen, / By the gazillion, in that time / When you and I wrestled across / The page of a younger poem, / Our restlessness blossoming / Like yellow sponge from underneath / Certain upholstery’(11). (Again, is the ‘you’ a friend, lover, relative, spiritual figure, reader or the poet? It seems to matter which exactly, but we don’t find out).
A poem like ‘What I Mean When I Say I’m a Poet’ maintains that energy and twisting language that is Kocot’s style and streamlines it:
I found my life lying in the ruins
Of a pop-out book of some city.
I rummaged through the garbage pails
For fallen stars while streetlamps
Seared my breath, chewed gray paint
Curling from walls until forgetfulness rustled
Like the blank applause of summer leaves,
And I fell asleep in a library of lead.
Outside you shivered on a bench,
Until a bullet from the moon
Splintered it into pieces and you were
The alphabet personified,
Words echoing alchemical sands
Shifting beneath the Sphinx,
A discovery of iridescence in the images
Of ancient books while the motors
Of terrestrial habits revved past
Your parabolic exile with their golden
Batteries of sunlight. (66-67)....
This poem, only quoted here in part, is astonishing and I think it’s the best one in the book. There are other ones like it, but none seem as convincing from start to finish. Poems like ‘An Ordinary Evening’ (‘There I go again shoving my wheelbarrow / Of pain across the filthy streets / Of the dimly-lit city’(9)) and ‘Bad Aliens’ (‘They’re really here, spreading their ideas / Like vulture droppings’(13)) begin with funny propositions, but seem to get sidetracked in trying to describe the indescribable: ‘And while the others have already fled, / You and I remain caught / In this conflagration, yet I can say nothing / And only observe the melting scene // Flashing across your beatific eyes’(10) and ‘The aliens are here, // Permanently confirmed to walk among us / And because they’re here already. / There will be no possession, no redeemer / Yet to come. Instead a triangle in the sky // Reflects the sober landscape, a reminder / That angles are the highest fate of form / Like the beaten metal of shell-cases stabbing / The corners of the pulpy world’(14)).
‘The Traffic Cop’ piles simile upon simile to portray the confusion of growing older and being bored with the process:
The more I think out loud or try to break
With the striations of the night
That go by like a fluid through a monumental crate,
The more I sense the waffling
Of a dismal perfection parceling itself out
Like a morning that peels itself in strips
From eyes like the hazy skin of grapes.
The truth is, there are no rules here,
No signs buried in the anaphoric sunrises
Pouring down as slow as the colloidal
Substance of your lives,
No direction to the rains swaying in the summer wind
Like abandoned clotheslines of another time. (16–17)....
The more exhilarating parts in 4 occur when Kocot, as in the above passage, switches from dense, Roussellian depictions of the ineffable so-and-so (‘the glittering starlight’ she defends in ‘Why I Wish I Had Never Taken a Poetry Workshop’) to the comic directness of lines like those in the final two stanzas (‘Your brand of peace disgusts me, do you hear? / I am the fugitive who drives a stampede / Of aardvarks across your lawns. / I have come to tip your cows. // I have eaten all your trees / And still you do not know.’)
A lighter sense of humor is exhibited in the four sestinas ‘Brooklyn Sestina: June, 1975,’ ‘Sestina for Lizzette,’ ‘Repeat After Me’ and ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ and in poems like ‘Tribute’ and ‘Hindsight is Always Best.’
Even with its uneven moments, 4 is a skilfully written book that never stops inventing. In its pages, we can see evidence of what poetry rarely gives voice to nowadays — a visionary (or is it mystical?) place where ‘those lost herds of phantoms are coming home to roost’(‘Signs of Life,’ 29).