Noelle Kocot’s poems are like sunlight coming through a window. Indeed, one of Kocot’s primary concerns throughout God’s Green Earth, the New York poet’s eighth full-length collection, is light, and the stillness of living required to observe it. We are summoned to ‘look at this kitchen / In its bright survival’ (‘Kitchen’). The light of morning is anthropomorphised as ‘indifferent’, while the entire month of October is ‘pearl-bright’ (‘Poem for —’). A recurring trope throughout the collection is empty domestic space, and light’s inflection on it. The image feels apt at a time when we are stuck in our homes, bereft of the habitual punctuation of our days. ‘Don’t know how to get back to the other age fluttering / Behind us’, Kocot writes in ‘Transitions’, seeming to speak directly to the not-so distant past. ‘Trying to understand, trying to relate, / I fail miserably in the dissembling moment’: I feel the resonance of that ‘dissembling moment’ now, as the day ‘taunts me / With its promise’ (‘Retreat’) at its beginning, and unspools by mid-afternoon.
Despite the focus on interior domestic space, these aren’t stagnant or static poems. ‘To hobble out of a singular verb, that is called life!’ Kocot tells us in ‘Narcissism’, the spondees leaping along with an oddly apposite glee, creating a feeling of bruised hope. This is a typical example of Kocot’s neat and spare poetic line. I’m reminded of Baldwin’s adage about wanting to write ‘sentences as clean as bone’, but rather than being picked clean, Kocot’s lines feel sun-bleached from being left out in the open. At times they come out as purple as the twilight they describe:
If I could taste the insistences
Of dusk, I would rise from the shocked
Grass and imagine a shelter of miniature
Throughout the collection, Kocot writes with a soft-spoken clarity, creating a feeling of calmness and reassurance. Tonally, it recalls the work of Wendell Berry. Compare, for instance, Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
simplicity as purpose
with Kocot’s ‘Pemberton’:
That was the promise, a triumph
Of the soul. I still believe that. The
Waters are delinquent, the rivers
Unfold and unfold. A heron’s unreadable
Ink, the coast of whatever rearrangement
Happened to us in our bright petal
Coats hung around the half-light of the
Stars. A hand so deliberate, an energy,
A drum. Is this is the end of your empire,
Or is it just the world, coming as it is?
What I want from this town is for you
To have joy, the evergreens of your little
Floral shop. The sky unrolls onto a vast
Expanse of spring dirt, and you go on sparkling.
The music here is similar; both are written with pad-footed pacing; the lines are light and unbounded by plosives. The mood, too, yields parallels: they are both devotional poets. Berry’s ethos of quiet awe at the natural world resonates with Kocot’s call, in ‘The Joy of Living’, for us to ‘sit at the foot of / Things’ – both Berry and Kocot see that the animus of poetry is manifest in all things, and implore us to stop and notice it. But where Berry tends to invite encounters with the natural world, Kocot turns to a very literal interior. Kate Kellaway, reviewing a reissue of The Peace of Wild Things in the Guardian, wrote of Berry that she was ‘on the verge of saying he should be a household name, but households have never been his thing’. Berry’s contemplation is of the material in the present (‘what we need is here’, as one of his most famous admonitions goes); his love is for all things bright and beautiful in the great outdoors, which ties in to his vision of committed locality and stewardship of the natural world. Kocot is more inward-looking, and occasionally slides into solipsism.
God’s Green Earth has a wonderful ability to soothe and slow its readers, offering a silent plenitude of spirit and luxuriating in depictions of solitude. The reader is not so much lifted out of the quotidian by Kocot’s poems as stopped in their tracks and compelled to look around with fresh eyes. But there is also an absence of politics in the poems. In ‘There is a Darkness Over the Land’, Kocot compels us to consider ‘The soggy mountains, the ecstasy – / Brutal renderings while I get even / with the lettuce crisping in the bin’. We see the soggy mountains, their glaciers melting, but only from a great distance: in the foreground, we have discarded lettuce. This jump-cut feels like a poetic shrugging-of-the-shoulders, rather than a fruitful parallel between individual consumerism and the Anthropocene. Rather than successfully linking the two images – by observing, perhaps, the lettuce as product of industrial farming, overconsumption, freight, and thus inseparable from the climate change which is causing the melting of the glaciers – Kocot’s poetic-camerawork, panning between the two images, feels cursory. The domestic interior feels walled-off; Kocot’s turning inward is a turning away from us, her addressees. Take ‘Breakfast in Bed’, for instance:
Know how the universe will end. There will be
Some blinding lights shooting through the Tree
Of life, and I will have breakfast in bed.
If this is an expression of remorse at the sheer force of will required to look the enormity of everything in the eye, it doesn’t quite land. The stanza break into ‘Of life, and I will have breakfast in bed’ makes for a dissonant pluckiness which becomes, the more one looks at it, unappealingly arch. It is not the only time that the poems stumble into let-them-eat-Eggs-Benedict lassitude. In ‘Shia LaBoeuf’, a poem about the comedian Margaret Cho, whose stand-up touches on race and sexuality, we are told that Cho
Can be funny,
Though not always.
It’s funny how God arranges
And we take them all so
When really, so much
About life is just amusing.
I think God is amused
With us a lot of the time,
As we are with our pets.
Love and forgiveness
Is one thing,
But to laugh is also divine.
I agree about laughter being divine, but confess I had a sense of humour failure about the rest. But then, being a person of faith does not fall within my situational specifics. I think that to see the world as amusing, as some kind of joke perpetually at our own expense, one must believe the world to be a thing within a frame, with something greater on its outside. As of yet I do not have this perception; I may never. The earth is green to me, but it is not God’s. The earth is green and I want to see it stay that way, and to regain some of the greenery it has lost. I do not think that there is a greener place we are going to, and so the sense in Kocot’s poems that she, or her speaker, is absolved from not participating in the here and now, beyond the home, because there is another place to go to, doesn’t appeal to me. I reserve the right to take things seriously.
At other points in the collection, however, Kocot’s piety is much more interesting. In ‘Letter to the Reverend Jane Brady’, the tight in-line rhyme of ‘rosary said, cats fed’, deftly places both activities on par with one another, suggestive of the joys to be found in a daily practice of reflection, whatever its parameters:
Salvation, revolution––it all gets
To me so personally, like poetry, like energy,
Like news that never was, and like truth stripped
Of all its accoutrements, and vague thoughts of home.
Kocot’s poems are, in effect, guidelines for the practice of everyday life. As Terry Eagleton says, this concept is essentially a Christian invention: and it is both magnificent and not that important.
The walled-off, inward-looking stance of many of the poems in God’s Green Earth contrasts with its long and extraordinary poem ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, which draws out the myth’s main theme of grief for a lost friend. Notably, this poem comes towards the collection’s close. ‘We left our tracks in the forest’, goes the lament, ‘You were the ceremonial coat that warmed me. / It was enough’. Not only is this a powerfully moving evocation of friendship’s profundity, acting as ballast against the earlier poems, but it marks a movement outwards, which carries on all the way into the closing lines of the collection’s final and titular poem: ‘See that blade of grass sprouting up / From a verb, the only one we have / Ever needed, and it is rightly called to love’ (‘God’s Green Earth’).
‘Give me a radiance that broods beyond this temple’, Kocot’s Gilgamesh concludes,
Where the hidden mysteries of life and death rejoice
Wildly together, where man, like a dying animal, does not grieve
After the storms have wrecked his simple
The simple house, the temple, has been relinquished in favour of the company of friends. Here, Kocot’s speaker has walked out into the open air, and we leave them looking at the grass. It is a pleasing arc – inside and alone at the book’s beginning, to outside and in the company of others at its end – which succeeds, albeit tentatively, in redeeming the solipsistic mode of the rest of the collection. In their turn outward to the external, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ and ‘God’s Green Earth’, are magnificent poems. The impression we are left with is of a fragile solution: these final poems do not balance the collection, but they make a valiant effort. Kocot’s turn away from the interior life of the home is a timid one. Perhaps, ultimately, this is the point. Her commitment to loving the blades of grass in the present moment is just beginning. This should be lauded and applauded, no matter how late it comes.