POEM FOR THE END OF TIME AND OTHER POEMS by NOELLE KOCOTNICHOLAS MANNING Reviews
Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems by Noelle Kocot
(Wave Books, 2006)
This has been a difficult review to write, as I have been a fan for some time of Noelle Kocot: her poetry was, is, different. Strange and fiercely imaginative, it marries diverse and unusual influences, from the cadences of scripture to French Surrealism, from South-American Magic Realism to riffs on New York School cool. And for a good half of Poem For the End of Time and Other Poems, Kocot delivers handsomely. But then, at least to this reviewer, things go somewhat off the rails.
Firstly, it was obvious to me that the first sequence of ungrouped poems in this collection--precisely the Other Poems of its title--are by far the finest and most mature work that Kocot has produced. These poems, which make up the first 25 pages of the book, simply bridle with poetic energy and invention, and one can almost pick passages at random to show why:
Your loops swallow themselves
Until they are younger loops
While your dark night bridges you fluently.
The analogic movement here is both compact and complex. We may first read “bridges” as a noun, then, realizing it is in fact a verb, discover the coherence of this imagery: the loops and bridges doubling, repeating themselves, thus becoming “younger”. Now, Kocot has always been a little over-the-top, at once boisterous and expressive, but always in a Frank O’Hara way, so intense as to be funny, so aware of her excess as to relish it:
The bright waterlights blinking
And grieving over a mash of ice.
Like them, I wanted only to die, moon-dark, blessed,
Poised beneath the driest arrows of my suffering,
Far from the flocks of burning, singing gulls,
Face to face with the God of my childhood
There is, in such writing, an extravagance and profligacy balancing itself delicately on a tightrope between Rimbaldian prophetic ecstasy and amusing surrealist kitsch.
Another striking effect is the way in which Kocot’s out-there, disjointed spiritual fervor garners its effects from simple comparison with the quotidian:
Penumbra of ancestries properly wired,
While someone sings on a lawn chair
We detect everywhere too the lovely tension between an unashamed lyricism and the simultaneous parody, or rather “playing-up”, of this lyricism as effect and affect:
You wanted to concoct a monody
On a dead-end highway
In an impossible springtime.
A dead-end highway in spring is, to say the least, a bit too much: but how evocatively it functions! Like the flock of burning, singing gulls, this is an image which many lesser poets may have been too afraid to use, recognizing that it must be carefully framed in order not to be considered simply “bad”. For in fact, Kocot does indeed play with our expectations of what exactly “bad” poetry may be, showing us the true width of this delicately fine line. Much of this verse echoes, for example, the late great Ern Malley: “A fuschia archaeopteryx would eat my bones” in The Nowhere Parade being but one vivid instance.
These first poems in the volume are thus plain old effective: assured, inventive, unsettling in their imagery, and always preferring the road less traveled.
And your thirsty mirrors
Lynched the shadow of a bridesmaid.
I’ve told this to no one else,
How the traces of your blond
Preside over a thimble full of light,
How a crack in the fetid sky veers
Into the molting radiance of a gun
This is Lautréament, or maybe Georg Trakl, somehow weirdly ciphered through Confessionalism or Elizabeth Bishop. And yet, at the same time, such very capable passages as these are uniquely and undeniably Noelle Kocot. This is Kocot at her best: traveling at breakneck speed, led by her own inventiveness, while maintaining an often extraordinary degree of metaphorical control:
We have reached a place where everything
Can be signed away while the hours
Sprint by on the glinting legs of cranes.
Of course, this sometimes gives the impression that when Kocot finally slows down from this rapid-fire shutter-speed, she’s no longer quite sure where to point her lens; but these moments are rare.
As for the slight superiority of these pieces over those of Kocot’s earlier collections, it seems to me that she is now ever more capable of anchoring her wildly generative imagery to a grounding preoccupation, a central nexus, a dropped stone around which her ideas may spread in concentric ripples. The return of “beauty” as a primary node in Oasis, for example, provides the inventiveness of the piece with a tangible limit; it concentrates it within an enclosed space :
When a beautiful woman cuts herself
In a movie, tinsel falls from the universe.
And when you ask someone if I am beautiful,
You don’t ask to affirm me, but to affirm
Your own conjecture that I might be
As beautiful as you once thought.
The imagistic intensity of the first couplet is not allowed to waver or dissipate in related reflections or half-baked surrealism. Beauty is an affirmation for its subject, but not for its object: Kocot picks up on this interesting idea, and unpacks its initial image. Not “cutting”, not “tinsel” then, but what these devices allow us to see.
Well . . . So much for the triumphantly successful first part of the collection. Now we must come to consider it’s center-piece, the rambling, elegiacal tirade of personal pain and political gall which is the Poem For the End of Time. It must be said simply: for this reviewer at least, there is not much forgivable in the poem. After the twentieth page or so, I was praying, albeit in an incantatory voice, for its end. From page one:
My neighborhood my neighborhood my neighborhood
Up in flames my neighborhood
There were jars turning black in my neighborhood
I saw smoke rising from them in my neighborhood
Now let’s skip ahead to page twenty-one to see what’s changed:
In my neighborhood I knocked at the gate
In my neighborhood the answer was yes
In my neighborhood I am no longer an Innocent
In my neighborhood I became one of them one of them
You leave me no choice my neighborhood
You leave me no choice my neighborhood
And so it goes on . . . For thirty-four pages . . . Ever more tedious, ever less variable. The striving for Ginsbergian effect is evident, but as reader we have no choice but to buckle under this discursive torrent. It is not only the repetition– see Celan do it right –but the choice of repeated phrases, many of them inexcusable clichés: “skull-shattered martyrs”, “dark salvation”, “I am no longer an Innocent”. Is this Kocot, as she does so effectively elsewhere, playing with cliché, truism, affectation? . . . Perhaps. But there is no trace of self-reflection here, no higher irony: the tone is overtly earnest, dogmatic and declarative rather than indefinite or reflective. And, importantly, these clichés do not appear once, but perhaps thirty times . . .
Then we have the reappearance, entirely absent from the other successful poems in this volume, of several of Kocot’s more formative ticks, which we might have thought discarded: her mystic number symbolism, for example, which, equally arbitrary in Yeats– why are there 59 wild swans? –does not instantly a great poet make:
But not the Holy Spirit Number 4
Not the Word made flesh Number 4
4 4 4 4 You are so good to me number 4
You are beautiful and radiant with great splendor number 4
We have understood by now, after her first volume (entitled 4), that the number 4 is very important to Kocot, and this is no doubt due to a specific lay or ecclesiastical tradition. But does it make for good poems?
To answer this question, we must first recognize that Kocot aims everywhere in Poem for The End of Time, and to a much greater degree than ever before, for the spiritual incantatory effect of a poet like Paul Claudel. But Claudel knew the value of variation, and dressed his biblical cadences– which in Kocot, moreover, seem often to surge less from Scripture than from the pulpit –in the balanced perfection of his lines. In comparison to this Claudelian tradition, Kocot’s incantation is largely uncontrolled, and, perhaps its greatest fault of all (for Frank O’Hara fans), is continually uninteresting. The textual surface is monotone, and the surprises usually so frequent in Kocot’s lively imaginative arsenal are absent.
For, though Kocot’s anger develops from a personal to a political one in the course of the poem, until these two finally merge or at least overlap, it often seems that she has simply put the Dissent-Machine on autopilot, stripping her verse of its usual associative brilliance. “America your manifest destiny is Starbucks” is a line severely lacking in imagination, missing moreover any true sense of injustice; or worse: “They take jobs cleaning the apartments of drug dealers / They take jobs that come with cellular phones.”
In fact, this reviewer cannot but conclude that in Poem For the End of Time, Kocot loses her way. Now, what does this mean? We might propose the old-fashioned idea that this sometimes painful self-indulgence is only to be excused– whether it finally is or not is conjecturable –by this elegy’s very specific context. For, The Poem For the End of Time is for Kocot an extremely personal piece: rooted in biography, it is an extended elegy for the death of her husband, the composer Damon Tomblin. This fact is nowhere hidden: the poem is dedicated to Tomblin, and he appears everywhere in it (“Damon Daemon Damiano / O God rebuild my Church”). Tomblin is the poem’s context.
But biography, it is hardly necessary to say, is itself a construct: it does not justify a poem, but it does help us to understand its condition. Of course, the ensuing discussion is similar to that surrounding moments of “excusably” excessive pathos in Hughes’ Birthday Letters: for Poem For the End of Time may indeed be deeply touching– it sometimes, though rarely, is –if it did not encounter some serious aesthetic hurdles. For this reason, the elegy should perhaps be considered less a “usual” work of poetry than a loud, heartfelt cry, which, charged as it is with explicit personal resonance, does not always lend itself to an achieved aesthetic effect.
This is not entirely, of course, an excuse: it is simply a context. However, I imagine that, if Noelle Kocot herself reads this review, she may care little for the critical opinion brought to bear upon her poem, and she would be, I think, to a very large extent justified. For perhaps this goal– namely, to be an “achieved” work of art –is not this particular elegy’s final justification. In the end, though we may think it not her best work, if this poem has specific and very personal meaning for Kocot, we may not at all mind, being the fine poet that she is, that she has published it, less still that she took the time to write it. We may just not want, necessarily, to re-read it.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA in twentieth-century poetics from the Sorbonne (Paris IV), and from 2003-2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d'Ulm. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in Verse, The Argotist, Fascicle, Free Verse, Cross Connect, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Fiera Lingue, Cordite, Dusie, Eratio, Otoliths, Aught, Shampoo, among others. In 2006 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his first chapbook of poems– Novaless I-XXVI –is out in August from Achiote Press. He is the editor of The Continental Review, and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.