Ruth Ellen Kocher. domina Un/blued. North Adams, VT: Tupelo Press, 2013. 81 pp. $16.95, paper.
Ruth Ellen Kocher’s fourth book, domina Un/blued is an austere, surreal, imaginative exploration of historical servitude, dominant/submissive relationships, and found/lost personhood that poet Lynn Emanuel justly selected to win Tupelo Press’s coveted Dorset Prize. Often, modern readers of poetry seem to approach a book as if the text must prove itself to the reader, as if it must offer itself up and unspool meaning in accordance with the reader’s preconceived conventions. Such an approach will be unsuccessful with domina Un/blued. One must, rather, offer oneself up to this work.
domina Un/blued is, for Kocher, “an experiment in palimpsestic writing” built upon/through fragments of two earlier manuscripts, Hybrids & Monsters and The Slave’s Notebook. In reading domina Un/blued, the notion of palimpsest comes through in several poems interrogating the act of translation, where the poem itself is a footnote to an exercise that is white space. In “D/domina: Issues Involving Translation,” the poem appears as white space interrupted only by footnotes at the bottom of each page, such as: “Exercise 3. / Possessive case for the word ‘slave’ does not exist in Italian. // The slave owned not own nor owns / Nor evolves. Nor provision any make consonant belonging.” Thus, even within the footnote to the white space, Kocher uses extended spacing between words to highlight the erasure inherent in the (dominant) enacting of translation. In “Translation Exercise Esercizio di traduzione,” Kocher creates a poem from two parallel columns of text, one English and one in Italian, both offering translations of the same line. For example:
|it is hot
|the handcuffs begin with me
|le manette iniziano con me
|i am the lock and the key
|io sono la chiave e lo schiavo
By structuring her poem in this way, she permits—even encourages—readers to subvert the dominant linear reading of texts in favor of a more fluid, multiperspectival approach, where one could read the English column then the Italian column, or the English line then its accompanying Italian line before moving on, or, depending on one’s fluency and desire for language as sensual sound play versus meaning-making, one could move across these columns at will, without linear order.
While multiple poems involve Italian words, sometimes with translation (as above) and sometimes without, readers need not be fluent (or even familiar) with Italian to experience the impact of Kocher’s writing—one need only be open to loosening the quest for meaning (which is, perhaps, a quest for dominating) into a sensual receptivity to the pleasures of music. In “Translation Exercise II,” the lines “Some people I sweet delicate who would aggressively / animaleschi who would elegant refined who would sport,” and “I assure you that I like the game and fun the transgression me / irresistibilmente,” are amplified by the inclusion of Italian—which subverts the dominance of English even while offering readers word roots (“animal” and “irresistib[le]”) that make them participants in this elision of language.
Furthermore, Kocher’s use of white space is provocative throughout. In most of these poems, each present stanza is separated by enough white space to hold traditional stanza-break space plus an absent stanza, forcing readers to read absence as a presence and to submit to a magnified version of the delayed fulfillment we experience in stanza enjambment—a fine illustration of dominant/submissive relationships through both form and content.
Kocher’s background in classical literature and linguistics is apparent in this text, for she frequently returns to the Corinthian column (iconic structure of empire and civilization) and the theory that its design was inspired by a basket of acanthus leaves placed on the grave of a slave girl. “Un/blued” features three identical columns of text that begin: “the columns are / capped with / acanthus,” then repeat down the page “empire Empire / E/empire / empire Empire / E/empire,” before terminating in “baby, baby, o / baby / girl.”
Linguistic play abounds in works such as “D/domina’s Feet,” where Kocher writes, “These woods [period] All Woods [period] No / matter / How hard ‘All / Woods’ desires to be only wood all woods is all / woods.” In “D/domina,” Kocher uses transgressive capitalization to explore dominant/submissive relationships:
sorry to request
sorry to Y/you to be unworthy
(this morning on the train Y/you show M/me that Y/you are)
(this morning on the train Y/you yolk as uniform as the egg’s shell)
i thank Y/you again
(the egg knows an order)
In the poem “Translation Exercise,” Kocher writes, “i am the slave and the key / the keys / i belong to / my self not my sex.” Speaking from a personhood where “Possessive case for the word ‘slave’ does not exist in Italian,” one must conclude that, since “black is only a thing the slave owns that is nothing,” the slave cannot even own the capital I. As an African American poet, Kocher’s astute exploration of historical servitude has significance for European and American readers.
Beyond Kocher’s complex theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, the musical, lyrical language glimpsed in her earlier books is vibrant and electric here. In “D/domina: Daughter,” she writes, “and within that conversion / your loss as a first nothingness.” In “D/domina: G/gnosis,” she weaves together image and lyric: “Her body / hid from its parents Forgot its sisters Bathed / each morning as though performing ritual // leaving Her body knew before she knew / Soon like hesitation It would forget return.” Repetition of sound and image works to evoke almost pre-lingual reverberations within the reader, again using language to destabilize itself, as in “D/domina: Look,” where readers find “grass nearby cut and clumped. grass clippings. grass smell. grass / green and gasoline. engine. night / streetlights come on // say night come on.” And, in “M/meditation I Dominance,” the poem subverts our expectations of agency by exploring the voices of temporal entities—those we may more often see as spaces for action, not as actors themselves: “The once has never said / Nor the next day stammered.”
In a world dominated, at times, by three-section manuscripts, Kocher’s choice to offer her collection without section breaks is effective. By doing so, she reaffirms the slipperiness of language, domination/submission, and identity—for can a poet ever say where one section’s themes/motifs end, with certainty? Can a poet’s work, which often arises from a swirl of influences lived, imagined, and co-constructed, be that easily partitioned? Such an act may be reductive, forcing the text to submit to reader expectations, and domina Un/blued, fierce in its beauty, will bow to no one.
And, as in her earlier books, Kocher proves that she knows how to close a collection, powerfully, in her last lines:
There is no field. There is no clover no green. You listen
anyway. Hear a voice follow you into the afternoon Language
crosses a clearing the stark way a thing revealed
when thinned clouds expose better light.
You the tree tip toward words as they bring outward
In domina Un/blued, Ruth Ellen Kocher establishes herself as a sophisticated writer who holds a command of image, syntax, and line, even as she invites the text to de/stabilize this authority. What, then, can readers do, but submit to this destabilization as well?