THOMAS FINK Reviews
The Bigger World by Noelle Kocot
(Wave Books, Seattle, WA, 2011)
The Bigger World, Noelle Kocot’s fifth collection of poetry, is subtitled “Character Poems,” and indeed, the poems focus on the revelation of characters and the dynamics of their interactions. This was a much smaller factor in such previous books as Poems for the End of Time and Other Poems and Sunny Wednesday, partly because the range of “characters” seemed considerably smaller, and narrative was one of a number of strategies employed rather than the dominant one. In The Bigger World, the poems, all narrated in the past tense, lack stanza breaks, promoting narrative flow, and line-lengths are relatively consistent.
In a significant number of pieces, the narrative results in a character’s working out or through a psychological dilemma or at least reaching acceptable equilibrium. In the opening poem, “God Bless the Child,” Horatia at first was far from blessing kids (whether they had “their own” or not); even her eventual pregnancy did not change this, as she “gave birth to a full-/ grown man” (1). In old age, at an instant of crisis, she recognized the arbitrariness of the phobia when she encountered “a sea of children” who were surprisingly decent smelling and seemingly “happy,” and she also gained insight from her son: “’Mother, I do believe that you never/ Once allowed me to be a child,/ But I forgive you, seeing as how you/ Were never really a child yourself’” (2). How he knew this about a history that was inaccessible to him is not revealed, but one imagines that his intuition was correct. Despite reaching “peace,” Horatia has not removed herself from the danger of potent emotions, as Kocot’s tantalizingly askew closing sentence reveals: “She and her son walked/ Silently on, not out of the flames/ Or anything, but just walked on.” Could this character be in a Dantesque purgatory-on-earth, where she needs to roast more to be purified for a better life or afterlife?
The psychopathologies of these characters and the actions that stem from them exercise the imaginative faculties. In “The
IRS” Stanley “loved. . . actual wars/ where men, women and children/ Got blown to smithereens, and for five successful years, he “cheated on his. . ./ Tax return” in order to give the government more (not less) money to “start more wars” (54). Further, Stanley tried a bizarre imperialist, war-generating venture on “a distant shore” which failed because of the language barrier, but he rebounds by sublimating his lust for military destruction into a successful “dentistry practice on the island.” Hmm, aggression and denistry?! Yet Stanley pays for the consequences of his former hawkishness and his oddly altruistic cheating—first, when he is eaten by a tiger and second, in “Purgatory,” when he is forced to do penance by filling “out a million 1040 forms,/ Minus one rotation of a drill” (56). For some of Kocot’s characters, the world’s annoyances follow them into the afterlife.
Other poems are closer to direct expression of a discernible moral, like Aesop’s fables; for example, one can notice particular cognitions enabling characters to surmount existential angst. The moral may not be embraced by the author but only the character. The unnamed woman in “Fugue” finds comfort (“a flash of sudden joy/ From the solar plexus/ Where fear usually resides”) in the idea that “there is no other life/ apart from this one” (15), a point which contradicts the liberal use of the afterlife as a device in the book. For Bruno in “On Becoming a Person,” the epiphany “that he could live/ Without his self”—one that, at first, he found appealing, then irksome—produced a sense of “indescribable happiness” that launched him on a crusade “to save/ The World from its self.” Kocot, however, adds a twist, echoing Robert Frost’s most famous chestnut poem: Bruno was “sad for the miles he had/ To go before he slept and slept again” (29). This closure’s uneasy commingling of happiness and sadness raises the question of whether one “becomes a person” by relinquishing the ego, the stylized picture drawn for the world’s approval, and by focusing on contact with other persons and other authentic desires, or whether personhood involves a balance of ego and outer-directedness, as well as activity and rest.
Though most of The Bigger World cannot be described as particularly political, “Pandora” strikes a potent feminist note. Kocot describes the victimized “gift”-recipient’s “life” as seeming “a terrible/ Nightmare, from which/ She was only now waking/ Up” (18), and now she is becoming fearless. This sense of empowerment is derived from an ability to resist control “by anyone or anything,” and the poet twice calls her “dangerous,” which I take to refer to how her example underscores the vulnerability of patriarchal institutions to women’s exercise of freedom. Although, “when she looked in/ The mirror, her eyes sparked/ With I’ll kill you,” Kocot stresses her “soft heart” due to the fact that “people”—probably empathic women—“along the way loved/ her.” The aspect of the story that stresses Pandora’s isolation is transcended in the revision. The implication is that feminist solidarity enabled her to weather the “many years” of “ugly spirits” that flew out of the box “when she lifted the lid,” so that she could find “love at the bottom/ in the faces of her truest friends” and, after hesitation, join “her light with theirs” (19). If the original myth was supposed to entail a caution against “dangerous” curiosity, Kocot’s version indicates that the release of repressed energy is important because it permits the most salubrious, valuable elements to emerge after negativity has been unleashed and hence confronted. The pattern is not dissimilar to the Freudian theory of the unconscious, but its feminist dimension is most crucial.
While I have been emphasizing narrative and thematic components in Kocot’s book, the poems’ defamiliarizing vigor not only comes from odd situations and plot developments but also from striking surreal or otherwise disjunctive lines or sentences. In “The West Village,” for instance, a couple who have overcome various obstacles “lived together” in precarious balance, and the closing clause exemplifies the frailty of their current peace: “. . . while their building/ Flapped in the wind like a lung” (4). In “Nonetheless,” Seymour “met a naked/ Nun, and said, ‘Hey, what kind of/ Dominoes are you slicing?” (7). The colliding evocations of probability, nuns’ habits, and dominoes, and violent dislocation create outrageous overdetermination. In “Persepolis,” Janice’s attainment of self-communion is figured as spiritual contact with another: “Her soul-body slammed/ Another soul, as if to say,/ I am alive, I’ve missed myself sincerely” (22). Has spiritual action ever been depicted before in terms of a contact sport like hockey? And in “Kind Regards,” when psychopathic Rex “turned on the television,” he saw a weird onanistic gesture: “The mayor licked his balls like a dog” (71).
If “the big world” might make each of Kocot’s characters seem small, the comparative “bigger” in the book’s title may suggest that characters’ strivings, difficulties, and triumphs recorded therein enlarge individual possibilities and capacities in the world, or else their struggles are microcosmic events that point to and are included in macrocosmic ones. In “Life on the Mountain,” “Todd promised Francine,/ ‘I will make you very happy.’/ But Francine didn’t want happiness,/ She wanted truth, which was savage/ and dangerous” (5). Later on, we learn, “Now that she could see truth,/ Happiness also came her way” (5-6). Those characters in Kocot’s book who seek “the bigger world” of “truth” sometimes endanger their chances of what they might define as happiness and sometimes remove their own sufferings, whereas other characters seek a specific version of happiness by ignoring the quest for truth and either fail in their aims or reach a truth anyway and/or, at times, a different basis for happiness. In other words, the differing realizations or ultimate perplexities involving the interplay of truth/happiness in these narrative poems makes The Bigger World instructive as well as absorbing.
Thomas Fink has authored seven books of poetry, including Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk, 2011) and Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010), a collaboration with Maya Diablo Mason. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism. In 2007, he co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics.