“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
— Emily Webb
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town
I started writing this in a Best Western alongside the highway in San Diego. There were a couple of drunk guys sitting in the hot tub located in the parking lot and I could hear the rumble of the speed metal band playing in the hotel bar. It was eleven at night and I’d been working all day. It was all a little desperate. So I stopped writing about why I chose Noelle Kocot’s remarkable book, The Bigger World as this month’s Book Club selection and just got into bed and read it again. And as her work has done so many times before, it saved me. This new world she’s created for us to move around in is so different from her other books and yet, like all visionaries (which I unabashedly say she is), this book is the logical and luminous next step a career that has already produced some of the most challenging, daring and compassionate poems I’ve read. I’m thankful for it.
The Bigger World comes after Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems and Sunny Wednesday. It comes after the loss of Kocot’s husband and during a war and after the loss of any sort of financial security any of us thought we had. It comes after Spoon River Anthology and Our Town, which is important to remember, I think, as we move through this month. This is a book of ghosts and a book about the refutation of ghosts. Just like Emily Webb the figures that inhabit this book of poems have to make the hard choice between life in this world and the next. Here are Rita and Emil in, “The Love That Lasts After Death”:
Rita sprouted wings like a seagull
And flew off to meet her long-lost
Love, Emil. Emil had died in a wreck
Years before, but a seagull would
Know where to find him. Emil
Welcomed Rita, told her she never
Had to be human again, that she
Could stay with him forever. It
Was tempting for Rita, but she
Decided to go back into the world
— from The Love That Lasts After Death
And here’s Tristan:
…When his partner
Died, Tristan found himself being
The lone survivor of an alien race
Of two. His partner had left him
A note. “I leave you my space-
Suit. I will see you again. Tristan
Didn’t really know what to make
Of the note, but he started to build
A shuttle in his house.
— from Favors From the Dead
Who hasn’t wanted a space suit or some ship to take us to things we’ve lost? I was sitting in the hotel room listening to the men outside and eating a piece of toasted seaweed I’d fished out of my bag when I realized it was just a few days before the day ten years ago when I got a call telling me to come to a hospital room in Connecticut because, “If anyone can bring her back you can.” I imagined the white rental car I drove through the incomprehensibly cold night after getting off of a plane from California. And how I sat in the hospital chapel because I was too scared to go up and just said “Please” over and over. The priest came in and I said, “What do you do when you’re too scared to touch someone?” And he said, “This. And then you go touch them.”
The Bigger World seems to me to make the same claim. As much as its brilliance lives in the sheer audacity of giving us a book of characters (not persona poems or a long historical narrative recounted by survivors or ghosts or carny folk) the really staggering achievement of this book is its compassion for the reader. How patient Kocot is. In poem after poem people make the most of their everyday lives amidst so much devastation. Partners die and parents die and people do the craziest thing of all and fall in love. And Kocot watches and tells us about it. And slowly as we listen and look at what these people see and dream we get closer to the unspeakable fear, not of losing things but of loving things in the first place. It’s not just people. It’s the whole world of things that glimmer and send us running towards them and often disappoint us: giraffes and butterflies and bananas. Owls and turkey dinners. You finally meet the man who knows how to get rid of the giant anaconda that’s been chasing you around. How the hell are you supposed to breathe? How do you touch something like that?
You just do. And sometimes it turns out terribly. And then you have a decision to make. Emily Webb says, “I’m ready to go back.” So do the characters in Kocot’s world. Back where? Join us this month and let’s find out together.