Archive for May, 2011

Ruth Ellen Kocher — One Girl Babylon

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on May 18, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Imagine a life that is treated with restriction enzymes so that the fragments of that life are swirling around in a tiny amount of liquid at the bottom of an Eppendorf tube. As the fragments recombine, they come together to anneal at strange junctures. The trauma of violence and abuse anneal to the colors and inexplicable rhythms of nature. The DNA that results miraculously produces an animal that is both “cerebral” and “emotional” and can be loved and cared for by either camp. These are poems that beg to be domesticated in that they prepare the reader for the familiar wild, the back lot that has grown over with dark, prickly bushes which threaten to draw blood as one wanders through them.

Kocher is the singular Babylon, a collection of shed particles, the considered ruin. She thinks through image and sound (though not to the same extent as Clark Coolidge thinks through sound) in a language that is lush a term she uses to describe her own work in “Making the Reader Work”). Established meter gives way to a more syncopated feel, a jazz prosody, where the comma serves as breath for the soloist to pursue another direction with the phrasing. Each new direction entangles speaker and reader on a voyage through territory that is unclaimed by any nation. Yet the territory is familiar, populated by bone, blood, and gristle. Love lost and longing. In this manner, the old line drawn between “cerebral” and “emotional” is rent asunder . . . and not a moment too soon.


All night you feel
red horses galloping through your blood
hear a piercing siren, and are in love
with the inexplicable

—Arthur Sze

Through the ocean you weather, deep
waves uncurled into the pain of pink tissue
failing between your ribs, imagine the body
yields to a spell that goes like this:

A band plays a march somewhere.
The sun has found its winter arc.
The volcano looks like an eye from above.

in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:
the sharp shape of your lungs galloping.

And what of the past, heals:
watching the fish die, you realize
the dream of horses, the snake
veined like a cock. Now,
before the evening tells you
everything you’ll soon forget, say this:
The living are at my window,
calling me out. I am unconcerned
about what’s over the mountain.
The other side. Yes, the old woman
was beautiful in her death.

Could you have been forsaken
tonight? A painless sleep:
lungs became horses, charged,
stood high on back legs, facing,
their front hooves lightly flanking . . .

If you are lucky,
the temptation to escape takes you
whole at midnight and desire is overripe,
drips the red risk of pomegranate.
Even your footprints can’t find you.

You are lost. Love this.
You are lost and never found.
Here is the healing: the airplane
crosses through your morning
with the roar of last year, a season of icicles
plunged into your sternum, a one-night stand,
a lost fang begging his way into your home.

Forget him. Forget him.

The imperative at the end of this piece is a rhetorical construct that Kocher uses frequently. She weaves her magical web of life fragments and intoxicating sound, but she never abstains from giving direction to the reader. Or is the last line an appeal to hope, that there is a course of action that can be taken which leads one out of the dense emotional forest? the imperative peeking through reminds the reader that there is will in the speaker and not just another dreamy voice walking through the universe and fetishizing things and the life within those things.

Another aspect of this piece that is worth noting (even worth duplicating for those who are not sheepish about weathering the accusation of being “uneven”) is how the diseased condition (that of pleurisy) transforms itself into a “love sickness” and how “healing” is the action that binds these two disparate items together. The interlude with the procession of animals in stanza 4 reins in the Sze epigraph. While some who prefer “the fixed frame” in poetry might find this move unnecessarily digressive, I find this move to expand the scope of the poem into territory that connects with something unresolved in the poem. In doing this, it invites me as a reader for a closer look, a second look, even a third or fourth. I imagine that those who find the “puzzle” aspect of poetry distasteful would flinch at Kocher’s move, but I say we should raise our glass to the good ol’ days (before the easy FOX NEWSication of everything) when it was OK to think and consider a thing for longer than three minutes.

In stanza 5 the metaphor of the horses is returned to explicitly (with the italicized voice picking up the theme this time). In stanza 6 Kocher turns toward the theme of being consumed by passion which will drive the poem to its conclusion where the he is vaguely equated to a lost dog.

That’s a lot of work to move through the various scrims Kocher has placed before the reader, but the following is an even more ambitious piece which speaks to the title of the book.

To Speak is to Speak About the Fall

Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not so awful as that of the human mind in ruins—Scrope Davies


I see these things in my life:
a circle of boulders
perched on a hill, the side of a hill,
a bird flattened by boulders and placed into a fold of sod
buckled on the side of a hill—
a thrush flattened and placed into a can that’s been
cleaned and placed carefully into a fold of sod.

Almost everyone knows the noise
caused by any round
tin object . . . the lid of a canister,
when it slips from one’s grasp.

I am paralyzed to see people eating
alone in restaurants or singly
holed-up in theaters,
keeping the dark near them as siblings
sharing their bad dream
a bed away, or the very old, the old men in grocery stores
holding a can close. The words,
label, the eyes wandering.

Ordinary life shackles us. Swallows us
whole even within our dreaming.


I loved plums. I loved plums most the three summers
I could not eat them without raw hives
swelling my lips and tongue, my throat
thick, closed to breath, plum-purple
arrogant as blood drawn in a cold room by a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

there were bridges in my life for many years,
bridges in my life where the floes of ice
caught up and scraped the winter into ears of runners
crossing the bridge like thrushes who didn’t care about cold
except winter them from eating—
life, yet, beating in their ears.

Have you forgotten, I’ve touched your palms,
your fingertips . . . Let the gods speak softly of us.
Have you forgotten, if I could forgive, I would . . .


In my death, I would be sitting with Cochise still angry about his children
disappeared into the grass of a quiet field, angry about the indifference
of the wind,
and the deep witness, sky.

The enormous tragedy of your dream is the peasant’s bent shoulders.

If the life, dying, could find sleep,
I would be sitting with Catherine de’ Medici, eating
artichokes served with the brie of her servants’ kitchen.
Thin butter would run from her chin
like a child’s slobber, run from her chin onto my arm
so that now I hear her laughing. She laughs in her purple skirts,
her purple bodice and the posture
of her corset boned with a splay of whale ribbing.

Have you forgotten, she is the noise caused by any round
thin object, of any object falling when it slips from one’s grasp . . .
We have dreamed this all of our lives.

If she falls as I wake, although waking me, my body
will see these things—dumb with paradise,
caught in the open glare of artichokes, the green clutch,
purpled skirt—my life, a circle, perched and buckled.

Here Kocher is ultimately ruminative about her life. She seeks refuge in Cochise and Catherine de’ Medici as foils to her own life which serves as an example of a life fragmented by desire, a mind as ruin. The historic, the everyday, and the dream world converge to offer a tempting splay of possibilities for the life of the contemplative, condemned to being dispossessed of its faculties as it tracks down every imaginable loose end which desire compels it to explore.

But Kocher is not always providing “evasive” assemblage. At times the images align themselves into something more approachable, more willful. In “Vicinity,” suspicion by others fuels the identity statement.


for K.E.Q.

After church, the neighborhood returns to its failing.
The lights come on. Children retreat to their rooms.
In my driveway, ants continue to make good

of the cactus wren’s dead flight while deaf Jim waters
the arbor vitae. The old widow next door to him
checks her car again and looks at my house,
knowing blackness is up to no good,
in her trunk, maybe, or at her roses when
she’s sleeping. Wave hello and pass,

wave hello and pass her mint-green house,
ill-decision, another decade’s color scheme
gone wrong, even in the awnings striped white.
The girl who knew me a decade earlier was right.

I am more black when I’m barefoot.
I am more black when I walk down the street,
carrying my shoes like I just don’t care.

Kocher’s neighborhood is recalled rather matter-of-factly. A denizen of a more racialized past serves as the focal point for Kocher to regard her racial identity as irrelevant, a detail as insignificant as the activities of the ants and the cactus wren. Inclusion of these details of the minute fauna serves to level the concerns in the latter half of the poem with those kinds of minutiae.

Even the most casual reader will notice the syncopation in Kocher’s lines, the repetition and then the lurch forward like in below:

in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:

The effect is like that of Charlie Parker (if you make a mistake, make it again). Is the mistake here “another”? Or does the comma just replace the word “and”? It definitely “lurches” at the comma.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

In this passage the refrain of “let” placed right after the comma sets the reader to considering the speaker’s mind is lurching/darting in another direction and that the linchpin of the new diverted thought is the repeated word. Kocher’s rhythms don’t leap around like Joshua Redman playing “St. Thomas.” They certainly don’t approach Sonny Rollins’ noodling. However, they are central to the way she plies her craft. This is evidenced by this candid photo at a recent reading where she held the fingertips of her right hand above her larynx as she read (see photo below).

When I asked her about it, she said she holds her hand there to feel the resonance of her voice and to register, in a more physical way, the rhythms of her poem. Sound is definitely an important ingredient in her work, and it accentuates the image play and juxtapositions rather than adding noise to the assembled matter.

Finally, there is sassy Kocher, where the spirit that usually dwells in the realm of contemplated beauty is given permission to put a few things on her mind out in the open.

Ode To the Woman Who, On the Day I Earned a Doctorate, Mistook Me For a Shoe Clerk

I want to tell you I loved how your shoes
sparkled like the muted gold

flecked into an east coast diner’s creamy Formica
countertop. I want to tell you how I

imagined them on my wide feet (yellow and crusted
with the desert of five years, walks to the library,

to my truck, to the bar, to my classroom, to my office,
the copy machine, always down, and to the bar again)

and yes, I imagined the thin slips of leather
emerging from beneath the plum-colored robe that would

embarrass and thrill me as I walked the procession, gowned
over my red shoulders. I would sit, in just four hours,

through long speeches by deans I had never known,
but who were happy to tally another retention with a handshake.

I could have forgotten the head cap of my mortarboard,
too small to crown thick African twists damp with pomade

and beeswax. I could have forgotten your tap on my shoulder
at just the moment I was remembering mangoes hanging

heavy on a sparse tree near the top of Saba Island,
so close to the cliff the sea longed to swallow one whole;

but I didn’t. I did not tell you that you were mistaken,
or that my husband’s skin rose into goose flesh at my touch that morning,

even after ten years of waking to the same black mole on my shoulders—
I kept from you the moment, a month before, I had cradled

a student in my arms because the year had mugged her and left her bruised.
And so you couldn’t know that the smell of dust from rotting

volumes of Gertrude Stein replaced the stench of the toilets
my teenage hands scrubbed in other people’s homes

because government programs for us kids at risk, risked us.
I did not tell you because you were right in noticing

every brown face in that store name-tagged, your beautiful
feet pedicured into acceptance. I want to tell you, now,

never to read this poem aloud in your home as Esperanza,
your maid, listens at the sink. Never read it, because the words

will sift through your ears and fall into the forgotten spaces
between your ribs. They will rattle in your gut. They will circle

the chasms within your shins and fall to the hollow of each smooth
foot, just near the arch, lost to any hope of hearing. And Esperanza

does not need to hear them, not from your lips, because she
can still take her own name home at night, lotion her knees,

peel an orange into the distance measured between
the two doorways of her apartment, and love the sharp scent,

love how it becomes her life, like the words of this poem, and how,
for a few hours, the citrus oil hanging in the air washes you away.

Class and gender rear their head, but there is always an element of beauty in all of Kocher’s work. Even in anger above, the images never portray a world with much rot or waste or decay. The world that Kocher inhabits is the world where beauty affirms life. That instinct to swerve from squalor is admirable, and it has me asking myself what my obligation to portray beauty in the world is. The portrayal of beauty is an old trope, at least as old as the first prehistoric make-up kit, but it is redemptive. Beauty fixes our gaze and lets us wander barefoot without a care for who admonishes us. I felt this same kind of enjoyment in reading One Girl Babylon as I cared less and less about the kind of book I was reading (and the kind of book I should be reading). A fulfilling robust flavor cooks on every page, amid every “lurch” and through all the “lushness.”

She’s a star which we would all do well to follow.

Reviewed by Victor Schnickelfritz in 2006