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Desdemona's Fire.

Ruth Ellen Kocher. Desdemona's Fire. Detroit: Lotus P, 1999. 62 pp. $12.00.

This shapely first collection, 1999 winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, rises with independent grace from its framework of myth and allusion. The title, Desdemona Fire, certainly signals the book's chief subject. Desdemona, here a "poor white girl from the edge of town," bears a child by a traveling African American jazz pianist. The "fire" designates both the mother's passion and its product, a restless girl who prowls the volume in a red nightgown. In the title poem, the speaker addresses her father, cast as Othello: "I am writing myself into your story / because you murder again / not knowing my birth." Kocher's references, in fact, range from Louise Gluck and Wallace Stevens to Greek myth and Buddhism. However, this volume finds a deeper coherence in its autobiographical voice, which appealingly balances vivid poetry with spare forthrightness. While these poems sometimes treat stock situatiions--sessions of braiding and straightening hair, the sounds of violence in the projects--Kocher often u ses allusion to defamiliarize these scenes, and the restraint of her style highlights her scrupulous fairness in writing a complex world. As she remarks in "Odyssea Home," "Sometimes, words are simply / too accurate for anger and lust."

The structure of Desdemona's Fire dramatizes Kocher's attractive unpredictability. It divides roughiy in half, a binary which suggests the obvious racial and cultural split within the speaker. Part I circles obsessively around the absent black father, but while Part II offers many complementary versions of the speaker's white mother, the volume doesn't really work so neatly. Instead, from one half to another this collection changes spirit. While abandonment and murder darken the first half of the book, the second half seeks and finds moments of reconciliation.

Kocher's best poems explore how agonizing differences and tentative connections can coexist among people, accessibly sketching how race, especially, complicates human feelings. "The Migrant," a powerful poem several pages in length, provides a memorable example of these concerns. Kocher recounts the "First time I saw another / brown face": While staying at a farm rented by her white mother's relatives, she watches black migrant workers pick tomatoes. The little girl strongly feels the paradox of her situation and hides from both groups, the migrants whom she physically resembles and the gathered family to whom she also belongs. While she imagines the workers' angry children rushing the porch to smash the heaped tomatoes, she also projects forward to real violence, an attack by her white cousin she will experience years in the future. As in the rest of the volume, Kocher expresses estrangement from her white kin in sorrowful or bitter tones; after all, they ought to claim her, while the darker women eyeing he r curiously from the fields owe her no such debt, or at least a far frailer one. Elsewhere, Kocher finds generous community with the neighborhood women of color who braid her hair ("Braiding"), in sharp contrast to the alienation she feels from mother and scowling grandmother in "Liturgy of the Light-Skinned." In "The Migrant," however, Kocher frames her own painful sense of otherness in an atmosphere of attempted connection:

My cousin,

years before he would hold me down

angry that he'd become a man,

is now happy with his trucks

and cake, and birthday cards,

wraps his long arm around my neck

and pokes my ribs at the flash

so that later

I am the scowl in a wash of smiles,

the dark dot in the photo

with hands touching,

hands all around her.

These hands suggest future violence but also resonate with more positive images within the poem, such as her mother's voice calling her missing child, her mother's soothing of itchy hives with calamine lotion ("as though pink can heal me"), and perhaps most importantly her mother's final tender gesture: "My girl she says and folds me in, / gives me back to darkness."

Kocher, who often casts herself as a migrant, displaced from all possible homes, appropriately closes the volume on this ambivalent note. The mother's nurture remains inadequate, even wilfully ignorant, but nonetheless infuses the poem with insistent kindness. Kocher brings worlds together in the most truthful spirit possible, not insisting on a nonexistent harmony but documenting the fantasies, fears, and loves that shape their intersection.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wheeler, Lesley
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Communion: Poems, 1976-1998.
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