The Whole World Clanked Like an Iron Shovel

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The horror of watching the self separate from the self—the schism of self-awareness—it’s almost vertigo-inducing. Kocot’s gift as a poet is being able to explain such complexity with such uncompromised frankness.

The poems in Noelle Kocot’s fifth book of poetry, The Bigger World, telescope seamlessly from small, unexpected wonders, to the largest impossibilities—always hinting backward and, depending on the point of view, magnifying something seemingly unimportant, or merely hinting at something huge just out of reach, something never articulated, only felt.

Composed of “character poems,” or miniature narratives that encapsulate everything from a lifelong relationship to the sudden weightiness of dread, The Bigger World tells a bigger story by focusing on the smallest moments, such as Pandora, looking at herself in the mirror before releasing the terrors of her box unto the world. “She was dangerous, / And when she looked in / The mirror, her eyes sparkled / With I’ll kill you.” It’s a familiar moment in any person’s day—a flash of hatred, directed inward—a flash that often goes unsaid, buried beneath the folds of details, in the name of carrying on.

There’s a reason why myths are passed down from generation to generation—they’re easy to relate to, elastic in their timelessness. They teach lessons. And that myth-making voice is very much alive in Kocot’s poems, employing clear, unadorned language. It’s easy to be lulled into a suspension of disbelief, to actively take part in the world-building of these people, these characters.

In, “On Becoming a Person,” Kocot writes, “But Bruno decided that he could live / Without his self. And so they parted. / When they did, Bruno saw his / Self off in a taxi without headlights. / His self wobbled like a rocking horse / In the cab. Bruno felt an indescribable / Happiness, and went on to save / The world from its self, happy to be / Of service, sad for the miles he had / To go before he slept and slept again.”

The horror of watching the self separate from the self—the schism of self-awareness—it’s almost vertigo-inducing. Kocot’s gift as a poet is being able to explain such complexity with such uncompromised frankness. Her sentences are crafted around the organic sounds of speech, and so it’s easy to get swept up in the flux of it all, to read over the best moments to be found in this collection. Often, I had to go back and re-read whole passages just to let everything sink in.

Kocot’s poems are often filled with surprising twists of logic—small gifts of unexpected behavior that can be both funny and sad. In “Homage,” we’re told that “Rick liked to hunt wild mushrooms / in the starlight.” And then later, with the same matter-of-fact flatness, we read that “Rick traversed many lands, / And he also traversed the red / Acres of language in the form / Of many books.” These flourishes of language—often alarming in their placement within the poem—are a real joy to come across.

There are plenty of references to “the world” throughout the book, reminders of this thing that tethers bodies together with its gravity. In “Welcome Mat,” we’re introduced to George, for whom “The whole world clanked like / An iron shovel.” As the collection progresses, quickly cohering into some sort of whole, we’re given a sense of Kocot’s larger vision. Sometimes the bigger world is that tiny hint of feeling we keep buried deep down inside, that killer smile we flash ourselves in the mirror each morning. Earlier, I used the word “telescope” to describe how Kocot’s poems shift their attention from the micro to the macro. Perhaps the best example of this “telescoping” effect is “Daniel.”

Told in short, declarative statements, “Daniel” unfolds its beauty in seemingly disconnected increments. “He loved the way her hair / Curled in the rain,” Kocot writes. And then, “He loved the sun, / The way a cat loves the sun. He loved the ruins of old / People ambling down the street. / He loved. And lost. And / Loved again.” These are nice sentiments, if not shallow, sliding over the surface of something. And so it’s that much more powerful when the poem finds full impact with its final lines: “He / Kept away from edges, / Soothed himself to sleep. / He loved the fall, loved to / Rake leaves in the fall.” It’s instructive in the way we’re inviting to revisit the poem’s opening lines and it’s hard not to be impressed by how well Kocot pulls all the poem’s disparate elements—love, loss—into an image that’s nearly heartbreaking in its melancholy.

The first time I finished The Bigger World, I had to put it aside on my desk and try to forget about it—I was so moved by its charm, its humor, its unrelenting sadness, that I couldn’t bear to think about it. But then, nearly a week later, I felt myself being drawn back in, moving from poem to poem the way I might hold my gaze over old photographs in a scrapbook. I was reminded of where I was when I first found out a close friend had died, the way my heart pounded when I realized I was in love, the gross sweetness of decay in the fall air. Some of those moments in my life were small moments. Some were indicative of something bigger. I could explain them to you and then you’d understand.

David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is He lives in Chicago. More from this author →