Book Review

The Bigger World by Noelle Kocot, Wave Books, 2011. $16

Reviewed by Athena Kildegaard

An idea put forward by some physicists is that our universe is surrounded by a membrane, with all the information of this universe encoded on that membrane. The membrane of our universe touches the membranes of neighboring universes and in this way information is shared amongst the multiverses. The science writer Jim Holt, in his Egghead column for Slate magazine, wrote about how this wild branching of choices in multiverses leads to an absurdity:

If the choices we make in our everyday lives seem a little absurd from the viewpoint of a single vast and eternal universe, then, from the viewpoint of an infinite ensemble of universes containing infinite copies of ourselves, all making every possible choice, they are absolutely absurd. Thankfully, in our own little world, those choices remain terribly meaningful and important.

Noelle Kocot, in her new book of “character poems,” The Bigger World, uses the absurd that arises from imagining multiverses (a bigger world) to explore emotionally charged experiences—grief and loss, fear, despair. This might sound like surreal poetry, and there is an element of the surreal in these poems, but Kocot does something else here, too: she uses the narrative technique of folk tales. In this way her poems resemble the work of some Scandinavian writers such as Louis Jensen, Inge Pedersen, and Tomas Tranströmer, writers who join the absurd to the satisfactions of tales.

The characters in Kocot's 37 short poems are innocents at home in absurdity. In “On Becoming A Person,” the character Bruno says to himself “'Self, I proclaim / You shiny leather, and I love / The way you fit my migration. / Go to it!” Characters like Bruno are irresistible—you find yourself going with them wherever they go. Finally, “Bruno saw his / Self off in a taxi without headlights.” The poem ends, as many of these poems do, with Bruno going to sleep. It's as if Kocot is reminding us that the material of the absurd and of the surreal often comes from the sleep world—a sort of internal universe with a membrane touching our waking universe.
“God Bless the Child” begins “Horatia hated children, / Fat children, short children, / Tall children, small children . . . .” Horatia gives birth to a full-grown son who is “good and loyal” and forgives her. “Horatia felt at peace, finally, after so / Many years of bottled-up hatred / And fear. She and her son walked / Silently on, not out of the flames / Or anything, but just walked on.” The reconciliation of Horatia's hating self with her mothering self is expressed in the action of simply going forward.

In some of the poems a sense of redemption is achieved through what, in other hands, might seem overly sentimental. The poem “Rainbow Lanes” begins like this:

Saskia took a turn for the better.
“I've turned my life into an
Artists' colony, cats run around,
I feel like I'm in a cozy hotel
Somewhere downtown.” Saskia
Decided to go bowling . . .

Of course she did! Life is good and cozy, who wouldn't go bowling? There's something delightfully sweet about Saskia. But she doesn't go bowling right away, and that's because “she / Was drowning in a miasma / Of malaise.” So she sits in the grass “outside the / Rainbow Lanes.” On the one hand, sitting in grass is a perfectly normal thing to do, but not on the way to something else. We've entered the absurd. While she's here Saskia takes a look around and says to herself:

                                “Let's see,
There are two farmers for every
One farmer, two cows for every
One cow, but in my infinite
Turpitude I am no longer able
To count how many cows or
Farmers there might be.”

In this membranous world, any cow is two cows and the wounded observer—which is to say all of us, any of us—is unable to count all the cows, all the farmers. So Saskia goes bowling, and given the splitting world of multi-verses, she “bowled a perfect split.”

Here's how the poem ends:

The remedial darkness fell.
Saskia was afraid to look outside.
So instead she looked into the void,
And there were rose petals.

There is no redemption or hope in the absurd, but the tale—found in the delightfully direct delivery of these poems—leads the reader to rose petals. In this way, the membranes of several universes exchange the news. And the news is direct. As Kocot writes at the end of “Fugue,” “'God bless us all,' / She said aloud to everyone and no one. / There is no other life.”

Athena Kildegaard lives in western Minnesota. Her books are Rare Momentum and Bodies of Light, both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey, forthcoming from Nodin Press. In her first year of marriage she lived in southern Minnesota and her husband in Chicago, and they traveled many times across Wisconsin full of eagerness.