Friday, July 29, 2005

Noelle Kocot: The Raving Fortune

I first read Noelle Kocot in the first issue of Lungfull I ever picked up. My immediate sense was that her poem ("Palm Sunday, 1998") didn't belong there. I mean, I could see certain surface resemblances between it and the other poetry in the journal, but the differences were striking: it had an explicitly religious theme; it was formalist (a loose terza rima); and most importantly, it had a baroque diction, a way of nesting metaphor within metaphor--yet deployed casually and extravagantly, as if someone had crossed Kenneth Koch with Hart Crane:
A thought interrupts. A draggy river
Runs under a cloud of power.
There will be signs, all right. The Giver

Of time and anecdote splits the hour
Into years that hone
Their edges on the edges of a rumor.
You can see what I mean about Crane: that final sentence is held together by what Crane would call the logic of metaphor, as one abstraction ("the hour") is literally split into a series of further abstractions, which paradoxically become so palpable they develop "edges" of their own. There's something bravura about this rhetoric, which is always running along the edge of bombast or ridiculousness, always threatening to fall apart under its own weight, just as it threatens to do in Crane; and like Crane there's a certain melodrama correlated with that rhetorical excess, one that takes itself so seriously you can't believe it could be serious.

This difficulty of placement seems to be the story of Kocot's career thus far. What attention she's received seems to have been from the avant-end of things, but the reviews are a bit mixed; it's not at all clear she fits in with that body of work, or that she even wants to. David Hess's review of Kocot's first book, 4, has some caustic words for the mode of production ("No judge should be allowed to put his name on the cover of a book") but allows that there's much in the book that is "amazing" and "astonishing." Still, he's still not quite sure what to make of the whole thing:
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.
What's interesting, though, is that David concludes that Kocot is primarily a comic writer, at her best in her late-New York School/McSweeney's-style sestinas and the like; Cal Bedient's brief notice of the book in Boston Review proceeds from much the same assumption, although Bedient decides that Kocot is a bad comic writer, an "over the top" example of the "late adolescent zest" that's plaguing our avant-garde.

The notices of Kocot's most recent book, The Raving Fortune, seem to follow much the same pattern, emphasizing those elements of Kocot's work that are most consonant with the zaniness of current post-New York School practice. Joy Katz's slope review describes a book I can barely recognize as Kocot's: it's "exuberant" and "funny," full of "canvas sneakers" and "UFO pictures" and as "crazily intense as a porno-movie orgasm." Jordan's review in the Village Voice is far more sensitive to the book's polarities, but still finds Kocot's primary sensibility in her humor:
Her contemporaneity is more deliciously off when she uses Snuffelufagus as the end word in a sestina, announces that "Long Black Veil" was her shower song, or writes an ode to the person who, during a subway bomb threat, pickpocketed her Tao Teh Ching.
I don't mean to say that Kocot isn't funny, or that she doesn't display the kind of self-consciousness that's come to define experimental practice. But the irony of this reception, I think, is that it's precisely these traits that Kocot's trying to slough off in pursuit of what she sees as deeper goals. The goofy, good-natured surface is, in this case, just that--a surface--one that's perhaps inevitable for a poet of Kocot's time and place (and that marks her for experimental writers as one of their own) but that she's not entirely comfortable with.

Take, for example, "Beginner's Mind and Purple Plants," a poem from The Raving Fortune that's "Dedicated to the artists of my generation":
We eat ice cream at the cerulean zoo,
While saltimbanques siphon the wheat of the whale.
Live wire/wild card, I hold you up, libational,
The dangling factor in a cheap velour equation.
A parade of shiny numeric gestures
Where we become breathless and call it busy.
As in much of Kocot's work, there's an instability of tone here that makes it hard to know how to read this: are Kocot and her ice-cream-eating peers delightful flaneurs or laughable decadents? I'm guessing the latter, because the pure pleasure of the opening line quickly gives way to what sounds like guilty moralizing. There's a grab bag of effects here, some of which I might call post-avant (the embrace of mass culture [ice cream, zoo, cheap velour], the show-offy vocabulary), some not (the leaning on an adjective ["I hold you up, libational"], the aphoristic tie-up); but there's also a clear trajectory from the silly to the serious.

It's the final lines of the poem that are the most characteristically contemporary:
The waffle building--it looks so small tonight.

The planet Dagobah shimmers in the sky.

O where are Chrissy and Weezie and Tootie and Gabe?
This is the porno-movie book Joy Katz read; it's the section Matthew Rohrer jumps on for his blurb ("[Kocot] finds poetry in everything. Even in The Jeffersons' Weezie"). But what is Kocot really doing with these pop-culture references? The attitude doesn't seem to be one of playful nostalgia, or of exploring the possibilities of commodified language; instead it's the pathos of a dead end, puncuated by Kocot's mock-serious footnotes ("The planet Dagobah is the swampy green planet in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight"), which deflate any idea that these references reflect some kind of common experience. For Kocot that last line is an index of impoverished expression, a question that is some kind of degraded Ubi sunt--something we don't have the language to ask anymore. Kocot lives in our language but hates being there, suspicious of its pleasures:
And I do not want the mineral water.
I do not want the green green lime.
Kocot's pyrotechnics are, even for her, a distraction from what she really seems to be trying to get to:
In all of this, I'm trying to think of what you love,
And how to give it freely, without pause,
How to get inside the tinctured moments splattering
The ghost ship's sails of when we're old.
If I'm reading David's review right, this would be an example in Kocot of just plain bad writing, where the language turns sentimental and cliched--away from the razor's edge of experiment. But what if we took these moments in her poetry as seriously as she seems to? What if we take seriously the religious (indeed, specifically Catholic) imagery and yearning in her poems, her desire to reanimate seemingly worn-out abstractions? What if the verbal gymnastics are a kind of throat-clearing, exhausting language and getting it out of the way so we can talk about love and God again? That, I think, would give us a very different kind of poet, one whose relationship to the avant-gardism of her generation would be more critical than complementary.


Nick said...

excellent reading of Noelle, Tim!

Jordan said...

I'd guess her recent work (as in New American Writing) supports your reading, Tim. I would have called it a musical quality (oh snap! I did call it a musical quality) but religious or quasi-religious hits it. Anyway, when she's on, she's far and away one of the spooky-best.

David said...

Hi Tim,

I think my suspicion or ambivalence stands on the same ground as your thinking here: just what is going on with this collision between mass cultural forms, references, and the undeniably religious impulses in Noelle's poems? Can't say much more than I did in the review since I haven't read the new work. But to clarify, the "plain bad writing" comment was regarding one line and not a general quality of the poetry. Given that I wrote the review not too long after 9/11 and right after digesting heaps of another post-NY/post-langpo writer, I was not enthusiastically open to the possibilities inherent in the supposedly universal language and belief invested in contempo-pop memories, however retrofitted for poetic artifice. All said, thanks for the update and pointing us to the critical moments in those poems.

Tim said...

David: Of course I didn't mean to suggest that you thought Kocot's poetry was characterized throughout by bad writing. I did think, though, that the moment you pointed to--one which might be read as a veering into sentiment or cliche--does happen with some frequency in Kocot's work, frequently enough that I want to account for it in some other way than a failure of craft. Mostly because I like her work enough to want to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Your post-9/11 impatience might well be spot on, too. Part of my point was that Kocot herself seems to be losing patience with contempo-pop comforts, even as she can't help indulging in them.

But I'm still a little leery about where she seems to be going as she moves away from such gestures. Jordan, I think you're right about her newest work--that it does move more toward a musical or religious quality--but I also think it's weaker. I wonder if what's key in her work isn't the tension between irony and sincerity; drop the irony and I don't know what you have.

joanna said...

This is a really thoughtful post... I think you are right on about Noelle's relationship to current experimental writing— . But anyway don’t write off her newest work yet. Her fourth book, Home of the Cubit Idea (slated to come out in 2008 on Wave) might be her best yet.

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