There are moments of crisis in the life of a culture when passive, limpid sanity and the sober tones of reason and objectivity are felt to be pathetically inadequate. At such times, a craving seems to emerge for figures who are impolite, or repetitive, or obsessive, who use rhetorical force without apology and address profound yearnings with a knowledge that appears to have mystical foundations. In the past, many writers have assumed the mantle of the visionary tradition in order to meet this unspoken need. Yet few contemporary poets risk this assumption of prophetic authority. This past year, though, Noelle Kocot published a long apocalyptic poem called “Poem for the End of Time” that uses this tradition to entirely new purposes.
The title “Poem for the End of Time” probably refers to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” an eight-part composition based on the book of Revelation. Messiaen’s quartet was written and first performed when the French composer was at a German prison camp in 1940 and 1941. Kocot, a practicing Catholic like Messiaen, also took Revelation, as well as Lamentations and Isaiah, as her starting point. Apocalypse is everywhere you look in current American culture, from the Left Behind novels all the way to Cormac McCarthy. But Kocot uses the conventions of the form in a unique and experimental way. Lines leap out of order. There are “yards of ears and skeletons in bathrooms.” The speaker seems guilt-ridden and terrified rather than puffed up and self-righteous. Kocot herself has mixed feelings about the poem; she describes the experience of writing it as frightening and out of her control.
The short poems that open Kocot’s new collection, Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems (Wave Books, 2006), are utterly different from the book’s wild and gorgeous finale. The first poem, “Song,” was written on September 11, 2001, and the opening lines express the sense of consolation that everyone seemed to seek that day:
An orange radio is all I need
To keep me in green seas
The quadruple assonance of the long e sounds recalls Mother Goose and Edward Lear, along with innocent, old-timey love songs of the “moon in june” variety. This is the Noelle Kocot we already know from her earlier books, 4 and The Raving Fortune: childlike, playful, visual, goofy. There’s a double dose of comfort in these lines, a return to childhood and to an idealized past. The surface play of colors and objects, radios and oceans, puts the reader into a kind of painting, like a Matisse in which the interior and exterior scenes are made fluid.
But there’s also something troubling in this writing, like a buried or scrambled evocation of the 23rd Psalm (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”), or like the convoluted version of Falstaff’s deathbed prayer that Mistress Quickly gives in Henry V (“. . . and a table of green fields”). There is no calming parental figure, only a radio. This escape into fantasy is imperfect, and afterward comes a grim awakening to loss:
I slip between the corners of the wind
And drink to remember you.
Be the skin on my lap
As I kneel once again upon your absence.
This is performative, like a bit of liturgy. The movement from the sensual reverie of “green seas” to the human physicality of “skin” and “lap” to the eerie abstractness of “absence” brings the poem back to the colorful, childlike world of the opening lines. The language returns, but with a new ambiguity as to the meaning or relation of the images:
An orange radio, green seas . . .
And the chiastic end of the poem could repeat indefinitely:
I lay down my head
To the very end of silence.
To the very end of my silence
I lay down my head.
In a quintessentially religious mode, the speaker lays down her head—heavy, thudding, detached—in surrender to what she cannot articulate or understand.
If Kocot’s book opens with a poem of escape and acceptance, it closes with a work of agony and terror. According to Kocot, “Poem for the End of Time” was written in January 2000 during a nearly compulsive bout of writing that kept her from going to her Midtown day job in finance. Instead, she wrote for ten or eleven hours in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I just was on my way to work and had some lines in my head and I just couldn’t stop writing,” she says. “I didn’t even call in [to work]. I just kept writing and writing. I worked on 49th Street, so I was right by St Patrick’s Cathedral. I wrote there and I couldn’t stop moving the pen until 3:30 in the afternoon. And then I finished it the next day.” A few lines in the poem refer specifically to this act of writing:
I am speaking this poem as I’m writing it my neighborhood
People are walking by wondering what I’m doing my neighborhood
When they ask I ask them to bless me my neighborhood
The last man said he would bless everyone my neighborhood
This was Kocot’s first experience of this kind of semi-automatic writing, and it has not recurred since then. “Let me just say as a disclaimer that I’d always been sane, pretty sane,” she says. But shortly after writing the poem, she had a full-blown manic-depressive attack. After her recovery, she reread the poem and thought it was terrible. “I thought it was bad, so I put it away,” she says. “I just thought it was this horrible, stupid ranting and raving. Really just terrible.” She shelved it for a time and only submitted it to a journal after a few years had passed. The Iowa Review published the poem in the fall of 2003 and the following year Kocot chose to include it in her current collection. She has never experienced that kind of writing again. “Not that same feeling,” she says. “It was really, really intense.”
Kocot loves Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (“I really identify with those guys—really, really identify with them,” she says), and most reviewers have compared “Poem for the End of Time” to Ginsberg poems such as “Howl” and “America.” Like “Howl,” Kocot’s poem runs long, 33 pages in the current volume. Like Ginsberg, Blake, and Whitman, Kocot uses the machinery of the visionary tradition, particularly anaphora, parallelism, refrain, Biblical cadence, and a modern prophetic style of visionary declamation. Like them, she develops a personal mythology in the poem.
But the differences are significant. Other poets take a certain posture from the prophetic tradition—heroic, accusatory, foreboding—while the speaker of Kocot’s poem is far more vulnerable. Kocot has thought and felt through the language, rhythms and images of the visionary tradition as a way to explore the breakability that connects her fragmenting inner world to a collapsing external order. The speaker is defined by her sense of crisis and by an unbearable emotional pressure. She seems to be under the constant threat of possession, struggling for control against invading forces, and trying to write her way out of it.
A work such as “Howl” is fundamentally a social poem. Ginsberg was like a P.T. Barnum, convening and conducting an orchestra of countercultural bruisers and eccentrics. Kocot’s poem, despite its allusions to Starbucks, Emerging Markets, and Matthew Shepard, is a work of interiority:
Alone alone with my visions of skull-shattered martyrs
Alone in black smoke rising from jars
. . .
O why did I ruin myself Brother of Francis
Why did I ruin myself I’ve seen too much
A bell tolled in my neighborhood
Books rose from the flames in my neighborhood
A candle fucked someone in my neighborhood
God please rebuild my Church my neighborhood
As you can see I am falling into ruins my neighborhood
I sing shrilly of dark salvation
I sing shrilly of essences
Ginsberg locates the source of horror in other men’s gods. “Moloch!” he famously cries, accusing America of metaphorically sacrificing its children, as if to the ancient fire god. More like T.S. Eliot, Kocot explores the unsettling qualities of her own religious experience. If she sees God at work in every object around her, this is not exactly a good thing. The name of the borough of Brooklyn unleashes a symbolic chain of letters like the gutted innards of language itself, spilled open by some strange inhuman force:
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
God is here God is here God is here
Singing may all my enemies go to hell
Noel Noel Noel Noel
The presence of God becomes frightening and hostile:
My 17th birthday, first year in Edison, N.J., I received the following message about the end of the world:
5. The beasts shall fall though the chinks in the earth
4. Buildings will crumble
3. Possessions will begin to disappear
2. Crowds will become thinner
1. There will be a blinding light streaming through everything everything everything
Throughout the poem, as in this passage, some lines are long and operatic, while others are rapid and short. One passage is gentle and tender, the next is surreal and scary. Sometimes Kocot builds momentum slowly over lengthy sections, building the reader’s anticipation. The overall effect is of being trapped in a kind of a possessed elevator that makes long trips, then short ones, but doesn’t respond to the requests of its passengers. Along this journey, the poem enters several distinct landscapes. The speaker at first seems to seek the familiar (“My neighborhood my neighborhood my neighborhood,” the poem opens), yet is unable to find anything but a landscape of strangeness, violence and horror, with the neighborhood she seeks destroyed or dying (“Up in flames my neighborhood”). The phrase “my neighborhood” then enters the poem in an incessant repetition that serves as an epistrophe whose constant linguistic and grammatical instability underscores a much deeper sense of displacement. The effect is of the speaker obsessively invoking a cultural, social, and psychic space that can no longer be located.
To know another person is to know only the most painful aspects of how they feel about you:
Gaze as reverently into another’s eyes as if you were
Looking at the gates of hell Franz K says
As if standing before the gates of hell Kafka says
In my neighborhood I knocked at the gate
In my neighborhood the answer was yes
In my neighborhood I entered no longer an Innocent
In my neighborhood I became one of them one of them
No longer rinsed in the blue space of flames
I became one of them my neighborhood my neighborhood
The world Kocot evokes is one where humility will come to us, whether by external force or by inner choice. Will we be debased like the too proud Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who lost his mind, crawling through fields and eating grass like an animal for seven years? Or perhaps we will become virtuous like “the Grazers,” an early Christian sect who ate grass to demonstrate their humility?
The scalene waves riding over the cemeteries
And we will have to get down on all 4s
And we will have to get down on all 4s
And we will have to get down on all 4s and eat those grasses
For ever and ever
. . .
Which blades to lick
In other passages, the speaker’s obsessions are saturated with guilt and panic:
My life is an evil river in my neighborhood
My life is a penitential rite in my neighborhood
My life is the Holy Spirit in my neighborhood
My life is the Word bisected into time
My life is the Word bisected into flesh
Fruit of the vine and work of human hands
Unseen nightlong real
The landscape of religious horror is a place Kocot knows from the Bible, especially from Lamentations and Revelation. “I read [Revelation] a lot right before I wrote ‘Poem for the End of Time.’ It is basically the backbone of the poem,” she says. “I haven’t been able to read it since then. It’s just so scary to me.”
In both these books, horror and devastation are unleashed in multiple landscapes, both literal and figurative, sometimes simultaneously: the bottom of the ocean; an otherworldly court of God; or a familiar place turned foul and corrupt. In Lamentations, Jerusalem is described as a land where the familial and the domestic are turned into their opposites, a whore whose menstrual “filthiness is in her skirts,” a mother who has turned cannibal:
The hands of compassionate women
Have boiled their own children;
They became their food
In the destruction of the daughter of my people
In the book of Job, we are taken to “the deep,” where the Leviathan works his destructive power:
He makes the deep boil like a pot: he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
It leaves a shining wake after it; one would think the deep to be white-haired.
On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear.
It surveys everything that is lofty: it is a king over all that are proud.
Though far less common in the Christian scriptures, the horrors of apocalypse reach their Biblical climax in the Revelation to John:
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”
So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped its image.
The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.
The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.
And I heard the angel of the waters say, “You are just, O Holy One, who are and were . . . because they shed the blood of the prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”
And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
The fourth angel poured his bowl over the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire . . .
The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony . . .
For all of its mythic grandeur and intensity, the apocalypse is a somewhat standardized literary form. In the Jewish tradition, in which apocalypses were often written with a pen name such as Adam, Abraham, or Enoch, there are a variety of formal conventions and expectations, including the conflict between a righteous minority and a wicked majority and the stock figure of “the interpreting angel,” who explains the meaning of visionary images to the seer. (In Kocot, the interpreting angel seems to be Michel Foucault.) In early Christian communities, the genre became something of a dog and pony show. Recent scholars argue that John of Patmos created his terrifying vision of metaphysical destruction in order to scare wavering Christians into renewed commitment, or in order to lure followers from a rival prophet, a woman he calls “Jezebel.”
The book of Revelation ends with the decisive victory of God after the epic clash between God and Satan. Following this structure, Kocot’s poem ends by “climb[ing] past Kafka” and “climb[ing] past literary theory,” beyond the innumerable contingencies of life and thought, to arrive at the triumph of God:
The Word will cross the forest like a gazelle
And bisect itself into time once again
This victory is brief yet powerful. The gentleness of Kocot’s last section recalls the serenity of Messiaen’s “louanges,” his blissful evocation of a longed-for end to time. For Kocot, the triumph comes in tender passages of regret, remembrance, and reverence. She even has a moment of forgiveness towards the human inability to transcend sin.
Remember in Hatred, Injury, Doubt, Despair, Darkness, Sadness and their dear sister Irony
Who is the most wounded bird of all
Who weeps in secret in her raggedy shawl
Remember your birds grazing each other’s hair
Irony clearly troubles Kocot, yet it permeates her poetry, even cropping up in “Poem for the End of Time.” “Irony is a way people hide their own woundedness,” she says. “We’re all wounded. A lot of the time . . . I think irony is really the culprit. Not that I don’t use it.” She has made an enormous effort to transcend a coy and cutesy style, yet perhaps it is impossible for any writer to fully escape her moment. “I think in poetry, like in any art, in any time period there are only a limited number of statements that can be actually said, you know?” says Kocot. “And maybe in poetry people reach to say something new. But we’re all part of the same discursive formation.”
As much as an apocalyptic text in the ancient world was meant to herald the end of time itself—a note in Messiaen’s score apparently said, “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer’ ”—it was also intended to provoke or inspire the end of the corrupt era in which it was written. Kocot sees something similar in her own poem. In part, she says, it’s about the death of New York as an art capital. “Thirty years ago, for artists in New York, it was so much easier to live,” she says. “Now it’s just really difficult to exist here financially. I was thirty when I wrote that and I saw people my age burning themselves out at these crazy jobs.”
The poem is also a mourning song for the end of a certain mentality. “You know, like Foucault would say that we’re at the end of an episteme, that’s what I feel, we’re at the end of one and going to start some new one soon.” She says that the poem expresses “a generalized sorrow that I felt for the world, living in a dying world,” and calls it “a battle cry,” seeming a little aghast and amused that she wrote such a thing at all. “André Malraux said that the 21st century will be a religious century or it will not be at all.”
A culture going through its death throes often invokes the illustrious dead. There are stories of battles between Native Americans and settlers in which the natives, nearly decimated and totally surrounded, threw down their weapons and began a ghost dance to summon the spirits of their ancestors. Something of that feeling comes across in “Poem for the End of Time.” Kocot invokes a long list of poets, philosophers, artists, and religious figures: T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Henry David Thoreau, W.B. Yeats, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Michel Foucault, Jackson Pollock, Francis of Assisi, Lazarus, Rachel, Lot’s wife, the Good Samaritan. Midway through the poem, she mentions a few living poets, including her friends Matthew Rohrer, Joanna Fuhrman, and Chris Stroffolino, as well as the New York literary journals LUNGFULL!, Fence and LIT.
When asked if she experiences God’s presence as harrowing, Kocot hesitates. “It’s hard to say. It was just where I was at when I wrote it. I don’t think that way anymore.” She thinks about the question a little longer. “What would Foucault say about this? He’d say we’re in an era when madness never talks to reason. I’m outside of myself, saying [the poem is] invalid because the person’s crazy and thinking like that. It’s just a way to distance myself from the experience. It was so bizarre and frightening. I also feel so ashamed of it too.” In statements like these, it is clear how much Kocot wishes to challenge herself to greater and greater levels of honesty.
Kocot’s poetry was already notable for its emotional frankness. She wrote moving poems to her dead father and a lovely sestina in the voice of a woman in a straight marriage speaking to an ex-girlfriend. Some reviewers have called Kocot “sentimental,” and one complained that her poems move the reader “away from the edge” where poetry is supposed to be. One can only presume that “the edge” indicates some kind of skeptical postmodernity. Kocot herself seems a little embarrassed by the rawness of “Poem for the End of Time,” finding it, she says, “silly.” Yet she’s self-conscious and reticent about asserting this opinion too strongly, since it strikes her as presumptuous—“rude” and “arrogant”—to those readers who like the poem.
Wave Books will publish Kocot’s next poetry collection, Home of the Cubit Idea, in 2008. If its title poem is any guide, the fizz of her earlier poetry returns, along with the wall of cuteness:
“Your dizzy is my dizzy,” she said,
And, “I'll give you a swift kick in your apocrypha.”
Then there was the smudge of elements
On an empty Sunday, a long bird flying overhead.
Freedom came gusting in, the yonder of his reflections.
“I convenant you, my paramour, my satellite.
You are all potential, the coin before it's been called,
The future without a gloaming.
You eat in my house and in a full saloon-
Girl suit, you salute me. Giddyup!”
They lived in an arena of tangents,
Yet the tangential was as close to them as a stigmatic sun
Walking on bloodied snowcaps.
Let's just say they had syntax on their hands,
And torched their burnished grammar to the hilt.
Kocot’s more recent work will explore yet another painful experience. In 2004, when she and her husband Damon Tomblin had been married for 10 years, he died suddenly from a heroin overdose. Kocot was in North Carolina at the time. “He wasn’t using hardly at all,” she says. “Then he used one night, and just died.” Kocot had met Tomblin when they were both students at Oberlin, and they started dating when she was 20. “We were very, very, very, very close,” she says. Many of the poems in all three of her published collections are marriage poems. In the new volume, the sonnet “Oasis” is particularly honest emotionally.
A few months after Tomblin’s death, Kocot went to her local Catholic church, where she took lay vows of chastity. She had a very difficult mourning period, during which she felt certain that there must be some kind of afterlife. “A lot of things helped me, and I needed a lot of help,” she says. Email became a surprising savior. “What helped me the most is I can express myself so much more accurately in writing than I can in talking. I can be very precise when I write. I wrote [a friend] every night, the whole history of my relationship with Damon. Email really saved me.” She says that she has become more religious, “but in a very ordinary way. I’m a lot less arrogant. A lot less arrogant. I just had the shit kicked of me.”
Since Tomblin’s death, Kocot has written four books. “I have so much time now, I’ve been really productive,” she says. “Empty time to do things.” There is a book of translations of the nineteenth-century French poet Tristan Corbière. There are two manuscripts of poetry, one called “Sunny Wednesday,” about Tomblin’s death. And there is a 100-page nonfiction book called “An Archaeology of Grief: Breaking the Habit of Certainty.” She wrote it in a month in the spring of 2006. “I wrote for 30 days because that’s supposedly how long it takes to break a habit,” she says. The habit that needed to be broken seems to be a belief in an afterlife. “The first thing I wrote was ‘ontological certainty is a killer of the mind and spirit.’ ”
Paul Celan writes, “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through.”
Kocot seems comfortable with her own lack of answers. She says that she tries to understand this process, of how language goes through. “I do think that,” she says, “But I can’t figure out how.”