Phantom Pains of Madness
Wave Books, 2016
Review by Erin Lyndal Martin
In his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” Viktor Shklovsky wrote: “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself, and must be prolonged.” Shklovsky, in other words, sought to differentiate between poetic language and our utilitarian, everyday language. Poetic language, he argued, made the reader aware that they were experiencing art.
Since Shklovsky’s landmark essay was published, defamiliarization has become an important part of many movements. The term accounts for such iconic pieces as DuChamp’s “ready-made” urinal, and would later become a tool for culture jammers seeking to appropriate the logos and language of corporations and the mass media.
There are no urinals or logos in Noelle Kocot’s Phantom Pains of Madness, but defamiliarization (of lines, of language, of the self, of faith, and of beauty) drives the themes and forms that make up her book. Every poem in the collection has the same unusual form: one capitalized word is centered on each line. The words form coherent sentences, but they have been extracted from their usual horizontal context. Poem titles are in small type, perpendicular to the text itself. To experience the book is to experience language, itself, unmoored; to easily swallow lines but be unable to fully digest them as poems flow into one another.
Defamiliarization is a natural aesthetic choice in a book whose speaker is distanced from herself. Most of the poems are spoken as a “we,” sans any indicator of who the other party might be, which contributes to a somewhat paranoid atmosphere. Is the speaker conjuring an other as a witness? Indeed, the poems that feature a “you” often seem directed at the speaker herself, and they ooze self-loathing:
Later, Kocot writes:
Throughout the collection, Kocot searches for redemption, but her faith—in the divine and in language alike—vacillates. All is mutable as she flirts with large concepts like “destiny” and “life.” A key poem in the collection, “Life Is Beautiful,” functions as a microcosm for the rest of the book:
The poem ends with a celebration of poetry, of its ability to be a “singing language” around life. The speaker sheds her self-loathing here, and instead rejoices in the possibilities of language. Yet a later poem, “Crazy,” concludes with her questioning the value of that language:
But is Kocot saying that poetry is meaningless, or merely that it’s an inadequate vehicle for the full spectrum of living and the experience of the divine?
The sublime seeps into the ordinary in these poems … often humorously, as in Sunstorm:
In “Addict,” form and content meet directly, the short lines mimicking the insistence of the speaker’s thought process:
A few poems later, in “Pills,” Kocot writes:
This expression of endless want looks back at the theme of “Addict.” As faith in language and in God weave in and out of possibly skewed perceptions, what object of desire could be so unwavering as to provide satisfaction? The book ends with the image of a light green bug hopping from “word / into / sun.” So, too, does Kocot hop through language—into the self, into want, into God, and into whimsy, desire, and beauty.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, critical prose writer, and essayist living in Madison, WI. Her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, and dislocate. She can be found on Twitter at @erinlyndal.