When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering by Ruth Ellen Kocher

When the Moon Knows You're Wandering coverRuth Ellen Kocher makes being lost sound not only attractive but essential, occasionally with a hint of blues—

If he asks, tell him I am gone.
I am the movement you’re just now forgetting.
Tell him the waves have taken my form.
That I am his past and I am lost also.
(“The White Camel”)

—but most often in language so consistently unpredictable I read with mouth agape. I reach the end of a poem and am not sure how I got there, but it feels right. The paper is thick, almost card stock, so you can’t see through from one page to the next. Each poem feels like another tooth forward on a ratchet. I am just awake enough to appreciate this poetry, but not enough to really do it justice.

What do you say with memory—
that the continents long for each other
just as children who are bundled ghosts
leave their voices as trails in the woods,
the lakes are burdened with notions of ice
and heaviness, just like us.
The things we trust are less
and less true in winter.
(“February Leaving”)

All I can say is I like the way these poems make my mind feel. They satisfy better than most Mina Loy’s definition of poetry — “prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.” Listen:

The shadow slant of your own body
somehow takes the ground in,
desperately wanting the surface of grass,
rock of the familiar in the moon’s eye:
light that blues your midnight form.
How many years have you been gone?
And who drove you away—not a man or a stone
seeming to mark some path you run towards,
but a wind that rose in the pink depth of your lung
like first breath, the exaltation in knowing

you are lost. Say your own name backwards to prove
you exist, an ancient tongue that steels the simple evening air on which
you rely like Pharaoh building the tomb for years.
(“When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering”)

I enjoy finding references to local and regional landscapes scattered through the book. Kocher lived in this area for a while some 20 years ago, and even then was one of the most accomplished poets in the State College poetry reading scene, though I lost touch with her after she went out to Arizona to pursue advanced degrees in creative writing and literature. So you can imagine my pleasure when a mutual friend gifted me with this volume last Christmas, and I read a few pages and realized that Ruth has risen more or less into the stratosphere. If we lived in the sort of society that honored its poets, you can bet I’d be bragging up a storm about our old connection.

Appalachians continue
to wear soft layers of moss
down to the rock teeth inside. The river
cuts deeper. Sky descends
to Atlantic storm.

This is where the people sing,
far from me, where winters seem coldest
and the deep call of wilderness
screams through trees into the sore
landscape of quarry cliffs,
where woods turn suddenly into a city
of narrow roads…
(“At Home the People Sing”)

The earth is doing very interesting things in these poems, and I want to know more about that: I will have to re-read soon. In “Herself, in the Window,” for example,

The ground is a black cloth
the white birch climb from. The real woods
died years ago. No matter how hard she looks
there isn’t a song here.

“Lay Down Lilies” made me look at burial in a new light — and how often does that happen? Here’s how it starts:

The sun burned no harder than the moon
the evening we walked a mile to bury the blue fish
that had lived in the freshwater tank we’d bought for it.
The air split when it met our lungs,
swallowed and spewed in half seconds,
a visible breath that went its own way
as the smoke from burning houses departs
from the lives inside them.

These poems are haunted, not only by literal ghosts but by the still-living who are dreaming of elsewhere, fantasizing about war, masturbating in a field. As the title poem puts it: “The moon knows you’re wandering,/ even though the road thinks you’re home.” Take this blog post: it seems nearly complete by any reasonable standard, and yet I’ve barely begun to articulate what I admire about the book. I have not even quoted from my favorite poem, “Sleepwalker on the Mountain” — which is what I’ll become here if I don’t hit Publish soon.

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