Noelle Kocot’s third book of poems reveals a poet who wishes to speak of big themes in a heady, yet easy intermingling of beat or post-punk aesthetic and religious sentiment. She does this with a strong sense of place and place within place, especially her home as such, Brooklyn, its place within New York City (though interestingly it is not referred to by that name, as it is a ‘borough’ poem in a way), and within America as a whole, which is frequently referred to in direct address.
The verse is free, at times the lines almost paratactic. These poems speak of a time that is out of time and a home unhomely, within a nation crazily governed by the mysterious: ‘rituals and spells’, ‘gag laws and baptisms’ (32-3). The big poem of the collection implies a debt to the Eliot of ‘The Wasteland’ and the Ginsberg of ‘America’. It is a kind of aftermath poem, both personal and historical, that is dealing with intimate loss and wide irreversible social and material change.
In his review of her first book, 4 (Four Way Books, 2001), David Hess wrote, ‘There’s an insistent, starry-eyed spirituality that runs through the poems, sometimes overshadowing the more comedic episodes and diffusing the more serious ones’ (Jacket 18). Unfortunately, this observation extends unchanged to the present collection.
The sentiment of religiosity or, in Hess’ words, ‘starry-eyed spirituality’ is of first order cliché. It is not the Ginsberg of the echoing incantation, ‘holy, holy, holy, holy...’, which has an insouciant knack for getting into heads and staying there. It is rather a constant fabric of slogans that includes the ‘Holy Spirit’, ‘God’, ‘The Creator’, ‘His presence’, ‘For ever and ever / Amen’.
These recur alongside occasional bouts of blood, virgins, and weeping (the book’s epigraph is from John 11:35, ‘He wept’). I have to agree that this imagery does eat away at the racier (better) episodes forcing the poem into moments of severe, not aesthetically productive, one-dimensionality.
This said, lots of other stuff is happening. The book has 26 poems in total each of which is one or two pages long, excluding the lengthier title poem. The short poems treat a range of subjects at different registers, but ultimately they are a lead up to the epic of the book’s title. These have to do with the elegiac and the retrospective. There is ‘Our Days Are Numbered’ and ‘Your Death’ that show the poet dealing with big issues in controlled, clipped free verse. However, the collection is not without the cheerier efforts devoted to her cat Euclid (‘Mackerel sky above my dinner bell, / A chicken flies across the sun’ (18)) and the homage to the Chinese poet Tu Fu, which contains these brilliant two lines:
I am too scheduled to include myself
Joe I am orangutan of this life (14)
There are also moments, which need not be so rare, bringing the American language poetries to mind, but without their extremity: ‘Index of panic. / My signature in a bucket’ (‘Postlude’, 8), and:
Words wait to be filled, as if they could
Digest their meanings’ absences
Without the call of being loved or understood (‘Palm Sunday’, 19)
There is a sense that this is writing in the conscious wake of the ‘language’ moment said by Silliman, Perloff and others to have characterised a certain strain in the late twentieth century of avant-garde writing. It arrives in fragments but never overwhelms the whole; none of these become ‘language’ poems.
Kocot is a poet caught at a new moment of converging poetics, some of which are in aftermath, including the language poetries as much as the significantly earlier beats. I do not entirely accept the charge but the book has been publicised as a ‘New York epic in the Beat tradition’.
The collection’s last and longest poem, at 33 pages, ‘Poem for the End of Time’, is dedicated to the poet’s departed husband and composer Damon Tomblin. In most circumstances where the author’s name appears (such as the back cover of the book) she is identified as his widow. In true epic tradition, this longer poem takes as its subject something that is great and unavoidably serious. It begins by suggesting a big canvas and broad brushstrokes and a large intoxicated surrealistic vision. Our guide, now entering the precise imagery of the work, for the duration of the poem is located riding, anachronistically (as in a dream), a chariot:
My neighbourhood my neighbourhood my neighbourhood
Up in flames my neighbourhood
On apocalypse waves of scalene dreams
I rode past in chariots across the valleys
Tore a hole in my destiny
It was weird and cold and dark there (26)
The chariot is a profoundly historical image, which in this context appears like a prop out of Ben Hur, to be returned to the museum of popular culture after the poem is done (I can only wonder how many horses). It is the Homeric gesture with a cinematic quality and the beginning of a long journey whose mania we can expect to intensify.
She addresses Brooklyn, where she was born and raised (‘My neighbourhood my neighbourhood my neighbourhood’ (26)), taking the word apart on the page and letter by letter rethinking its construction and linking it up arbitrarily to her own associations:
The B on fire the R on fire the double O on fire like breasts
Pulled apart by burning clamps
K the K of The Trial and what have I done
The L the old empty El not carting back my grandfather
To his wife of a WWII grenade and shards of violins
The Y o YYY did I look into those gypsy eyes
It was weird and cold and dark there
The N the N of my name singing (26-7)
Again, this material emphasis on the construction of the word (world) recalls the language poetries but we must note that this is not a sustained mode throughout the book. It remains hinted at. It is hard to know whether it is emergent or residual.
Throughout Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems (2006) Kocot writes in the economical, non-rhyming short verse format above that adheres, with little exception, to a rigid left-margin and free right-margin structure. Her stanzas in ‘End of Time’ are based upon the rhythm of her voice (as opposed to a borrowed vessel of versification). The shorter poems in the collection have a controlled, formal exactness, and though there is one ode here, Kocot is known to use sestinas and other complex verse forms not of her own invention, that is to try on different styles in the New York School fashion of O’Hara or Berrigan. This said she does not arrive at the great everyday, spontaneous speechiness of these poets.
Throughout she is a poet conscious of the age of theory, casually borrowing from Foucault (‘Over a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea / Alone with my visions of skull-shattered martyrs’ (49)), and referring to Kant and Baudrillard. She creates a territory of reference for herself through literary and popular culture and her own obsessions (her obsession with the number 4 returns here), arriving at different registers for each of them. For instance she refers or gestures to Kafka (‘K the K of The Trial and what have I done’ (26)), David Lynch (‘Past the raped bodies of homecoming queens she’s dead / wrapped in plastic’ (49)), a Jedi Knight from Star Wars and the Keanu Reeves character, Neo, from The Matrix.
Each of these contributes to a richly textured symbolic, at once pop and, as noted above, pseudo-religious universe that sometimes wants to be political:
We climb past midnight my neighbourhood
We climb past Kafka my neighbourhood
We climb past literary theory my neighbourhood
Where Baudrillard proves the Gulf War never happened my
Where the starving bodies of Iraqi children disappear without a
trace my neighbourhood
Into signifiers dancing like bloody hooks my neighbourhood (54)
In this poem, Kocot has arrived at a complicated imagining of the relationship between the unfinished objects of neighbourhood and America. It arrives in fragments through her uneven, but always driven, controlled idiosyncratic style as a place that she will not tacitly accept as it stands, that wants to face up to itself.
A central image, which undergoes a copy and paste repetition, includes the both apocalyptic and Hollywood image of the neighbourhood ‘up in flames’ (26). She asks, ‘What is this river of stars that runs through us all?’ (40).
America your saints are scarecrows
America your manifest destiny is Starbucks
America your frontiers are weeping Emerging Markets
America I make money from this (44)
At times, an ambiguity emerges between the husband of the poem’s dedication and the nation itself. Kocot writes, addressing the nation in the first person (or is it the husband), with an apparently untroubled phenomenology of individual consciousness: ‘I tore a hole in my destiny trying to understand you’ (48).
In a changing landscape, forces of corporate compromise emerge and Kocot brings the poet in as a figure into the contents of the poetry. For example:
America your poets are flocking to my neighbourhood
They are sick of your insane demands my neighbourhood
They take jobs at dry cleaners
They take jobs at Starbucks
They take jobs in editorial offices getting their asses pinched by
They take jobs cleaning the apartments of drug-dealers
They take jobs with cellular phones (38)
‘End of Time’ has been compared to Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ but rather has more to do with his ‘America’ of the same year (1956), in particular because of the way she chooses to address the nation as a subject, as did Ginsberg: ‘America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing’. Kocot:
America your skull-shattered martyrs
Are fucked into the God-symbols of music
Are fucked into Emerging Markets
Are fucked into your frontiers slouching toward the rough beast
Are fucked into irony
Are fucked into your genetically-altered apple pie (48)
Like Ginsberg, Kocot takes America and its traditional imagery (apple pie and so on) in order to refashion its contents and to make it begin to signify differently, to resignify. There is a sense of the social and geo-political disturbances of the age unleashed in the opening up of new markets (‘Rising form corporate blood’, and reference to Indonesia, Brazil, Africa, Kosovo (33)) that lead to poetic alterations in the collective identity of the nation and the neighbourhood, the mood and mix of where the poet is. Indeed of the globe itself:
The South Pole has moved 15 feet in the last year my neighbourhood
The ice is melting, the penguins are weeping
God why do you abandon us here, here like this? (33)
The direct address to God recurs at the poems least strong points. It is revealing of the poet’s personal affectations but leaves her somewhat vulnerable and open to attack. It is bold, but for this reader, shuts down the path to potentially more consequential spaces.
At the level of the line Kocot comes quite close to Ginsberg at times, who had a much crazier spirituality and preferred to read Marx than say the Lord’s Prayer (if you know the poem). Kocot sidles up against him, for instance, in her violent lashes against the material values of the present American middle class. ‘Go fuck yourself with 30 pieces of silver my neighbourhood’ (50) resembles his own great lines: ‘America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb’ (from ‘America’).