Ruth Ellen Kocher, One Girl Babylon New Issues Press, 2003.
$14.00 paper (ISBN 1-930974-33-7), 74 pages.
Indiana Review, Winter 2004
Reviewed by Jennifer Perrine
If Babylon has been used one too many times to evoke a city of revelry, of material pleasures, Ruth Ellen Kocher turns this expectation of a communal celebration of sensuality on its head in her third collection, One Girl Babylon. In this latest work, Kocher intertwines urban cityscapes with more rural or suburban environments and infuses each with the landscape of a desert wilderness, “as though no boundaries existed / between there and here.” This “suggestion of space without walls” lends itself to envisioning a largely uninhabited world, a lonely Babylon in which sensual pleasure may erupt, but always with the awareness of loss or of being lost, of how far the postlapsarian world has fallen and the longing to close that distance.
Kocher’s collection is structured around this understanding of the Fall and of a desire to return to innocence. Divided into five sections entitled in Latin, Kocher’s poems begin with invenio (“to discover”), lead us from peccatum (“sin”) through deprecatio (“prayer”) into innocens (“blameless”), and finally leave us with explio (perhaps a combination of expleo--“to finish,” explico--“to undo,” and expio--“to purify”). Despite the headings that might imply a separation between poems of sin and those of innocence, each of Kocher’s poems combines these seemingly discrete categories, so that we understand the sensual holiness of a woman who can “know her hips / walk on water / part the sea in her red shoes” and the wounded innocence of a world in which “the alleys sulk with their bruised / eyes and their hurt smiles / and the city promises them, saying / I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Never again.”
In the midst of both sin and innocence are stories of Eves, every woman “desiring Earth as heaven / when Heaven is what she had.” In “Plea to Pennsylvania,” a modern, postlapsarian Eve remembers her garden, a “state of pathways” with “cities / (each climbing out from under / the steel grip and black silt haze of mining).” The plea in this poem is that of a woman who, distanced from Eden, struggles with both a yearning for that home and a rejection of it: “You have wrecked each other, / land and girl, / pond and memory-- / let go.”
These Eves wrestle, not only with a yearning for home or for innocence, but also for some absent God. In “Last Night in the Garden,” the speaker learns this yearning through her own solitude:
and so I know the words of Eve
spoken to the cruel, independent stars
through the first years she’d ever know,
words whispered into earth’s first-born fog
circling hills damp with this birth,
the words “Give him back. I want to love.”
In Kocher’s poems, this separation from God is consistent with an understanding of language as originating in the postlapsarian state. For Kocher, language is a reminder of our fall from the real into the symbolic world; “To Speak is to Speak About The Fall,” the single poem that comprises the deprecatio section of the collection, suggests in its title this association between speech and a lost reality. In another poem, “His Daughter Whispers Ars Vivondi,” the speaker dreams of how language reminds her of this loss: “what he takes from us / is meaning. What he leaves is the precious sound / of the vowel as it mourns each of our tongues.”
Yet through this language of mourning, Kocher attempts to close the distance between God and us. While such an attempt may be doomed to failure, Kocher’s poems are nonetheless successful, for they harbor a lyric grace in which God’s absence and presence are commingled. In “Meditation on Breathing,” the final poem of the peccatum section, the speaker learns “to speak to God / through my hunger for air, asthmatic / searching” and recognizes the music of laughter as “God / expelling breath from the body’s instrument.” However, in the same poem, the speaker understands how distant God remains from her experience:
Incense on the back of the throat
does not taste like God. Lilac does not
taste like God. Breathe in the failing
season, the rotting blossoms of an overgrown
tree, or a rabbit’s severed leg
left to rot on a garden wall.
You will not exhale the taste of God.
The same speaker who finds God “somewhere between the lungs’ pink folds” also urges us to “Breathe in the failing,” to remember,“God is not home.” The final moments of the poem’s meditation suggest both hope and skepticism as they ask us to “Breathe. Breathe hard, / as though someone might hear you.”
The poems in the section entitled innocens strive not so much to close the distance between God and us as to recognize the impossibility of doing so. In “Pleurisy,” Kocher suggests that to forget yearning and to love what is present is the only true possibility in a fallen world:
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.
Forget him. Forget him.
However, for Kocher, such attempts to return to innocence through forgetting are impossible, too, for we cannot forget the trauma of the past, which surfaces in poems like “What It Was Like” and “Fire Walking.” “The Life the Heart Leaves” shows us people who seem to remember no trauma, but for whom it is present nonetheless:
--no project past, no man who beats a baby into purple blossoms on new
sheets, no gurney, no uniform who arrives with a plastic tarp and shovel...
no past, no woman upstairs where a shotgun echoes
the torn heart of her husband,
no girl tied up with her own laces...learning what rape is,
no spilled arteries, no blades...
Kocher’s poems present a world full of trauma, of failure, of forgetting, of loss, and yet the collection is a hopeful one. If One Girl Babylon is “a city / surviving its stories,” it is also “a failing / light that fronts the way.”