In the sonnet “American Kestrel,” Henri Cole pictures the poet at work, “trying to create something neither confessional/ nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.” This glimpsed ars poetica gets right to the heart of Cole’s originality, the singular place he has made for himself in contemporary American poetry. Relying neither on traumatic anecdote nor on ostentatious materiality of language, Cole marries verbal rigor to disciplines of memory and observation. The result is a poetry formidable in its power to startle, “like the moon breaking through the pines.”
“American Kestrel,” from Blackbird and Wolf, which appeared in 2007, opens with an act of violence in the animal world, coolly observed. Such violence—in this case, a kestrel tearing a mouse apart—serves as an emblem of Cole’s larger vision. His poems abound in beasts, many of them dangerous (tarantula, bear, shark, hornet, snake), and in scenes in which the human beast is wounded or wounding. “I see you sitting erect on my fire escape,” Cole writes, addressing the bird, “plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse,/ like the red strings of a harp, choking a bit…” With the first words, “I see you,” we are in the realm of vision verging on prophecy; but the fire escape lands us back in the quotidian. Throughout Pierce the Skin the reader finds herself in this state of bifocal optics, between a guarded sublime and an obdurate, prosaic realism. In “Pillowcase with Praying Mantis” from Middle Earth (2003), the poet speaker is imagined both as “St. Sebastian bound to a Corinthian column,” and as “just Henri lying around reading.”
Poetically, Cole is the child of William Blake and Elizabeth Bishop. The guts of the mouse as the strings of a harp resonate with the torments of this book: parents attacking each other, dying lovers, desperate sex, loneliness, and danger. Plucking at these guts of experience, Cole has made psalms of the ordinary, both personal and impersonal in their beauty.
Pierce the Skin, a selection from Cole’s six earlier books, confirms him as a poet of commanding maturity. It is bracing to watch a writer find the right relationship between the subject matter urgent to him and a style that evolves to meet the needs of that subject. In this dual process of discovery, Cole lets neither raw material nor style—nor stylization—dominate; in poem after poem, the clashing forces fight to a draw, and that draw is the work of art.
Not much in Cole’s first two books—The Marble Queen (1986), and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989)—would have predicted the powers that broke through in The Look of Things in 1995. The early poems are elegantly executed and observant. The suave off-rhyming couplets of “V-Winged and Hoary” (“blue”/”Peru”; “fitzbew”/ “jewel”; “finch”/ “chink”) seem decorative, and they obscure rather than reveal the core action, gulls diving to devour “fledgling trout” in ice. This is the kind of scene the older Cole will know how to use, but in this early poem the drama is diffused and made safe, observed by vaguely plural “children,” and described in low-wattage diction (the children “starry-eyed,” the air “frosty”). The poem wills itself into epiphany by stating that “the children are in love with the miraculous/ oval-lipped trout,” but nothing has given evidence of that love, or of its cost, or of a miracle.
“Heart of the Monarch” does a similar number on the butterflies, expending a lavish verbosity reminiscent of Clampitt in its off-rhyming quatrains and its glee in detail, but taking refuge in coy puns (“foul-tasting to hungry fowl”), and in a cutely reassuring conclusion: “There’s nothing to fear. They’re on their way.” Nature will have much to offer Cole, and he will soon use his verbal gifts to probe rather than to evade knowledge. “To write what is human, not escapist,” he will demand in the scary sequence “Apollo” in The Visible Man (1998). A large part of the thrill of Pierce the Skin is watching him learn “to write what is human.”
Yet The Marble Queen contains seeds of the poetry to come. The title presages later poems grimly engaged with memories of the poet’s mother, “Chiffon Morning” from The Visible Man, and “Sycamores,” “Mimosa Sensitiva,” and “Gulls” from Blackbird and Wolf. In “Chiffon Morning,” the mother, released from a hospital, her neck scarred ear to ear, is juxtaposed with a beauty pageant queen waving “serenely” from a television. This queen mother has already appeared in an earlier version, in The Marble Queen, where the style is toughened and tempered: “I remember the shade where I found her/ spent and bruised like the fallen apples./ Like them, she was full of darkness.”
In The Look of Things (1995), Cole got down to business. All prettiness fell away from these poems. They adjust their lens to a world of lonely sex; AIDS; injured and injurious parents. The style is curt, flexible, precise. Cole hones his technique of juxtaposed, unexplained images, and his theme of the self hungry for love, experiencing consciousness as a painful, sometimes grotesque physicality. “The Pink and the Black” exemplifies this vision. The romantic anecdote, barely suggested, is projected in a scene of dead octopuses which in turn color our perception of the sky: “The inky cloud, like an octopus’s secretion, moving overhead./ The sun a watery white mess.” The only grammatical sentence occurs in the last line, coinciding with the flash of personal revelation: “I had been so lonely, hungry as a snake.”
The family romance, which will occupy Cole’s imagination in the books to come, appears in The Look of Things in the exquisitely cool quatrains of “Harvard Classics.” By this time, Cole knows how to apply Pound’s dictum, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Details, like the threadbare nap of the rug, tell the story of the disintegrating marriage, and sly rhymes convey the subtle dissonance of the scene. One feels the poet’s excitement in the efficiency of his instruments, not the least of which is syntax: the poem turns on the quiet, devastating logic of the coordinating conjunction “so”:
Except their marriage is
already dead. I know
this though I’m only six.
So we visit pharaohs…
With The Visible Man, Middle Earth, and Blackbird and Wolf, Cole maps a territory all his own. Often unrhymed sonnets, these fearless poems keep their balance, prosodic and emotional, in treating the most radioactive subjects. The style veers between stark prose statement (“I am lying in bed with my mother,” “Chiffon Morning” ); clinical observation (“a delicately striated, crepelike scrotum,” “Blur” ); and the sublime (“I love the light of the water shellacking/my arms and legs, like something from Ovid,” “Dune”). At the heart of it all, the imagination tries to orient itself as a self. Some of these fictions are physical, in poems that explore the flesh—Christ astonishingly seen as a “White Spine,” and endless self-portraits as animals: “I get up—tailless, smooth skinned, eyes protruding” (“Original Face”). The book sets up an alternating current between self as body and self as soul; neither wins, but the buzz and flow are poetry.
In his most recent three books, Cole has wrenched a tale of soul-making from exorcisms of his mother’s depressions and his father’s violence and solitude. As Keats wrote in his famous letter, it takes a World of Pains and trouble “to school an intelligence and make it a Soul.” The vale of soul-making, for Cole, is always a dark place. Poem after poem conjures the distant father, reaching an apogee in the brilliant anti-elegy, “Oil & Steel”: “I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet/ and some motor oil—my inheritance.” The selfhood the son rescues is experienced as a ghastly self-awareness, as in “Olympia”: “and it was as if that was all God wanted:/ not a wife, a house, or a position,/ but a self, like a needle, pushing in a vein.”
In Cole, the conversion of pain into art may startlingly resemble sperm, as in “The Tree Cutters,” where “my life,” comically moaning, produces “a tough, lustrous thread the pale yellow of onions.” But pain for Cole also changes into honey, a classical and Biblical symbol of prophecy. Pierce the Skin ends with the spacious “Dune.” Its sequence of similes leads to an Apollonian view of poetry and of Cole’s ambition: “like a dizzy/ honeycomb gleaming with amber light,” to “like something from Ovid,” to “like an open hand,” to “like me in my twin bed,” to “like a single voice/ raised in lament, looking for liberation,” to “like a large, open eye,” to conclude with the blackbird catching a bee, and the bees murmuring over wild thyme and dying, “…but not before changing gum/ into gold, like poetry…”
Cole is now such a master of his means, and at the same time so modest and vulnerable in his recording, he can risk such a gesture and get away with it. He brilliantly channels Marvell, Dickinson, and Stevens, and sounds perfectly like himself—the fictive self, the voice that holds its own amid squalor.
Rosanna Warren's most recent book of poems is Departure (2003).