‘Soul in Space’ by Noelle Kocot
“because // In the end, in the very end, it’s / Just you. You and you. And you.”
Out of the cloud of angular lyrics, out of “simple delight… like a runny nostril,” out of what is “not Macy’s, not necromancy,” out of a “head full of staples and straw,” the second section of Noelle Kocot’s new book bursts all of a sudden into an uncommon silence. Kocot’s poems are energetic I-centered lyrics, often obtuse, packed tight with the overflow of the unconscious mind. But in the book’s second part, much of the noise peels away, and for nine pages Kocot meditates on an unexplained entity, an It without a clearly discernible antecedent:
There it stood, naked and ashamed.
It looked into a surreal forest.
It realizes everything too soon.
It doesn’t wear dresses anymore.
It wears silver wrappings like a robot.
The world is its convent.
Its brother and sisters are the trees.
Even as Kocot characterizes this figure, the It eludes category. At times the figure is more human, “looking at pictures of cats / On the computer,” while at others it evades clear formation: “It is a real lament in the daytime.” Kocot also relates the figure to the speaker directly, but no less problematically:
Whether it says, you’re sick, go to the doctor,
Or whether it says, you’re not sick, don’t go to the doctor,
I will be mad.
I will be mad because it is my mother.
It screamed me into this world,
And I wish I had a sample of its handwriting
So that I would be less lonely.
Kocot’s deliberation shows a real urgency, an earnest need to state just how necessary and integral this figure is, even if we can do no more than point to it. “Yet it lives and moves and has its being,” she closes the section, underscoring the fact: throughout the aptly named Soul in Space, this familiar is a necessary companion.
Soul in Space is composed mostly of individual lyrics, and the poems do not hover around a single subject. Still, these It-poems guide the entirety of the book. Kocot’s work grapples with the place of the interior self in a world of exteriorities, of stimulus, distractions, sharp turns. “O my body, / Sit here with me / While I just talk” she writes in the book’s first poem; but in spite of her methodology of undercutting or ironizing her own language (“Yeah yeah yeah, but I’m serious”), this is more than “just talk.”
In a 2011 interview with BOMB, Kocot commented on the sometimes-problematic relationship between the self and the soul. “I think the self gets in the way of a whole lot of worthwhile things in life,” she said. “I am interested in the subjectivity-self-soul question, but I just have no idea how to go about beginning to put my answer into words.” In Soul in Space, Kocot tackles the question and provides, if not an answer, at least a vigorous wrestling. The lyric poem is by its nature formulated around the speaking I, a vibrant self that summons language to validate its own existence. But what happens when that self “gets in the way” of the soul? Can the soul even be given a voice to speak, or must it come through in the cracks and collisions with the I?
Much of the context for these questions comes from Randall Jarrell’s “Seele im Raum,” a poetic interlocutor for Kocot’s book. (“Seele im Raum” is German for “soul in space.”) In Jarrell’s dramatic monologue, a woman describes the figure of her own soul, her unhappiness and sense of absence, through the figure of a peculiar objective correlative: the eland, a breed of African antelope. Still, to know the soul remains a singularly impossible task, as Jarrell’s troubled language shows: “It was as if I could not know I saw it / Because I had never once in all my life / Not seen it.” Kocot focuses on the same painful indeterminacy that Jarrell finds in trying to pin down the soul, but unlike her forebear, she provides no consistent objective correlative. As a result, the questing, the frustration, and the dislocation of the lyric I remain at the center of the Soul in Space.
Throughout the book, Kocot’s methodology is one of lyric burst: the unconscious wells up and pushes through into language for the short audience of a poem. The lyrics mix together standard romantic tropes (of birds, grass, etc.) with the pseudo-logic of mental wandering to create a feeling of rich interiority; but it is also a mind to which we can’t get full access. Kocot’s feverish energy is also based on immediacy, and this book (like her previous volumes) was architected by her editor, Joshua Beckman, from a large number of drafts she handed over to him. The book’s structure feels more superimposed than inherent, but Beckman does help Kocot’s lasting obsessions to shine through. There are moments of excellent compositional tightness, though, particularly in haiku-like images that link death to death-in-life. “Mortotropism,” in full:
Rising shoots of tombstones:
Chiseled buds reaching
Toward a flesh-toned moon.
Themes of mortality and of a stark existence pervade the poems, especially in the latter half of the book: “A horrifying survival / Follows me everywhere, like a shade, real.” And questions of realness are always present. The poems question the veracity of experience, weighing it against the more-real sense of a soul just beyond cognition: “oh music without // Rain, behind all this, some great / happiness is hiding.” In the end, Kocot’s poems come to terms – part resignation, part affection – with the actualities we must live in, sparked occasionally by the presence of the spirit she addresses. “I will put my head / Down now, and make minute observations. // You will come occasionally, huddling over the hills.”