The Piercing Art of Henri Cole

a review of Henri Cole’s Touch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

by Sam Buntz

At a reading I attended earlier this Fall, Henri Cole said that he originally planned to entitle this, his latest book of poems, Mechanical Soft, after the method used to manufacture the canned fruit fed to hospice patients.  Indeed, many of the verses in this new offering deal with time Cole spent taking care of his dying mother, but his poems have always been unflinching–autobiographical and not “confessional”–plunging down into the darkest and most fertile soil lying at the bottom of experience.

Touch is a scalpel of a book, cutting very exact lines across very blue veins.  Perhaps no poetic work in recent memory has ever merited the adjective “piercing” more than this one.  We see a disinterested lover using amphetamines, witness a kidnapping and beatings delivered by secret police in an undisclosed country and terrible instances of domestic abuse (Cole’s father–presumably–is seen threatening Cole’s mother by forcing her head into the oven.)  Also, a fox slaughters chickens at a farm Cole visits, and a large pig journeys to the abattoir strapped down to a flat-bed–yet all of this rough subject matter, largely culled from Cole’s own life, is handled with such a finely tuned sensibility that it hardly seems sensational or indulgently morbid.  Cole is able to wonderfully transfigure a pregnant woman with gas thusly: “Fragrant convolutions from her insides / filled the room with the strife of love.”  And one of the most exquisitely painful and memorable moments comes when he feeds his mother some of those “mechanically soft” canned pears — “like light vanishing — into the body whose tissue / once dissolved to create breast-milk for me.”

In addition to relatively contemporary influences like Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, crucial precursors for Cole seem to be Walt Whitman and Giacomo Leopardi (I’m certain about Whitman, but Leopardi is something of an educated guess, as I lack any knowledge of Italian and have only read a little of him–but Cole’s poem “My Weed” reminded me of Leopardi’s “Broom,” and I noticed that Cole dedicated his Selected Poems to Jonathan Galassi, an excellent translator of the Italian genius )  Cole has nothing of Whitman’s tramp persona, of course. He is nothing like the rough-and-tumble celebrant of democracy, since that Whitman is largely a fictitious self-creation, anyway.  But he has everything to do with Whitman’s “dark side”–not dark in the sense of wicked, but dark in the sense of private, hidden–the real Whitman.  (I follow Harold Bloom in this.)  In the “Sea-Drift” elegies (as Bloom has observed) Whitman fuses the Sea and the Mother into an image of  of death and oblivion, and likens the physical world and the people in it to so much seaweed, so much flotsam and jetsam washed up on her shores: “I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift, / A few sands and dead leaves to gather, / Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.” “Sea-Drift” laments the final dissolution of everything, the frustration of all our little attempts to get away from our Common Mother–the Sea from which we first wriggled onto land in the ancient past, and the Earth into which we will be reabsorbed.  An earlier poem by Cole, “Beach Walk,” is a kind of incredibly original revision of these great poems, in miniature.

But this image also has a comforting side–it is an escape from time into the sweet eternity of obliviousness, the lack of individual identity that an infant can still enjoy but which we have departed.  In “Song of Myself,” Whitman likens the dead in their graves to babies held again in the laps of their mothers and invites the sea to, “Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse.”  Dozens of other American poets have picked up on the same image association before, including Cole–but in the poems devoted to his mother, we see the emergence of a major elegy (taking them together as a whole.)  It is more often than not a desperate lament for the mother’s passing–her merger with the greater mother, the unknowable sea of Death–though Cole too can gaze into the ocean and find that he is calmed and pleased to see, “an enormous bed / in which the world is no longer a place / of rigid structures.”  In another, somewhat less soothing passage, Cole dreams that he lies down like an infant beside his mother in her coffin: “Then I lay down beside you, / dissolving loneliness, / and the white maggots wriggled.”  He feels his individuality subside along with his loneliness–there is a kind of horror mingled with this comfort, with this return to our primal mother.

But there are other strengths in Cole’s work, aside from his intense engagement with this profound aspect of American poetic tradition. He is able to sympathize with and visualize the world of animals in a way both akin to and strikingly different from D.H. Lawrence. And despite the emotional turbulence and dark inertia portrayed here, there are moments of sudden sanity and clarity. Even if any flicker of hope for an improvement in external circumstances has gone out, Cole is still able to summon up a reliance on his poetic gift, on his sense of imaginative freedom.  Putting pen to the page allows a self-communion that can dissipate melancholy.  (This is the Leopardian side of Cole, I believe.)

I love Cole’s poems–though love is perhaps an odd word with which to express my affinity for subject matter that is, in a higher sense, so violent.  They seem to me to be pre-eminent poems of our time–while also, as William Blake said was true for all works of genius, being somewhat above it.  Cole is living fully in our world.  Even when he brings in natural imagery divorced from contemporary chaos, the concerns and problems that press on so many of us with a peculiar insistence never disappear from view (the tribulations of modern love, the death of romance, and dysfunctional families among them).

Like many lovers of poetry, I long for a return of the truly ecstatic and visionary dimension of the art, as exemplified by Blake or Shelley.  But sustaining such intensity in our own era has not been an easy task for poets, and to salute a stoic endurance has proved to be a more consistently possible–if still difficult–task.  Cole, at times, yearns for such transcendence–looking into a bar mirror, he says, “I want to press my face up against the glass and climb out.”  But what his poems really provide–at least, more frequently–is a sense of rugged, this-worldly sanity, the ability to go on even when life has lost everything that once lent it a faint gleam.  As he writes — “The ring was gone, but the finger lived.”


“Man or Tool?” — The Uses of Socialism

by Sam Buntz

The great British writer, John Ruskin–child prodigy, aesthetic theorist, essayist, philanthropist, painter, and socialist–once said, “You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him.  You cannot make both.”  This was the opinion of a person whose Socialism was not that of Karl Marx, let alone that of Joseph Stalin.   When Communism took hold in Russia, the question the revolutionaries asked themselves was not, “How do we use Socialism to make life a truly beautiful, interesting, and enjoyable experience?” it was “How do we extract the maximum amount of efficient labor out of each human cog?”  They wanted to do the reverse: to make people tools and not people.  Even Marx himself, in reality, did not see the essence of Socialism as a union of mutual understanding between people, which would then allow a universal strengthening of the relationship between each man or woman and his or her own soul–he saw it mainly as a way of making people come back into contact with their labor, to find meaning in their work.  Well, fair enough, as far as it goes–but he did not see that a positive relationship with one’s labor was the direct result of the relationship one had with oneself, as developed and perfected through art and spirituality.  Marx doesn’t seem to me to have been a man who had any sense of what life could be other than an attempt to adequately provide human beings with the requisite amount of vitamins and minerals and with fairly non-boring work.  John Ruskin, on the other hand, had an absolute sense of life.  (As a side-note–this is a particularly relevant discussion considering the controversies surrounding the Occupy movement and what approach it should be taking.  Not that I am involved in it in any way whatsoever–I just wanted to make the discussion feel more timely, as I think it is.)

I walk by Memorial Hall in Cambridge nearly every day and am reminded by its example of how Ruskin sought to revive Gothic architecture with a Victorian twist, and give humanity structures it could feel at home in, as opposed to the post-modern slabs of concrete that intentionally heighten the sterile feeling of modern urban life–the differences between Marx and Ruskin actually riddle the landscape around us.  However, the socialists of the 20th Century clearly chose, by and large, to follow Marx, and proceeded to choose even less wisely among his true disciples–Stalin ruled, and Ramon Mercader assassinated Trotsky with an ice axe.  But while it lasted, British Socialism in the 19th Century was a far different affair–William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Ruskin, and others helped spearhead Socialist initiatives that still managed to take the human need–the need to be more than piano key, to be a free person–seriously.  People were treated as though they had desires and aspirations that needed to be fulfilled in places other than a factory or a farming collective.  To see the contrast, look at the icy architecture and rightfully-forgotten poetry of Stalin’s faithful lackeys and “futurist” toadies, and compare them with the furniture and buildings produced by Ruskin’s “Arts and Crafts” movement.

Shamefully, contemporary socialists too often echo the anti-human pronouncements of the Soviets.  The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once attacked individualism, writing, “Who needs a ‘1’? / The voice of a ‘1’ / is thinner than a squeak… / A ‘1’ is nonsense. / A ‘1’ is zero.”  Today, Tony Kushner, the Socialist playwright who wrote Angels in America, likewise notes, “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” I liked Angels well enough, but this completely turns my stomach.  Contrast this blather with the words of Oscar Wilde, who, with some humor, wrote, “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.  In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.”

Wilde, of course, does not mean that we shouldn’t have compassion for people–as he explains further on in the essay, we are right to yield to the claims of our charitable feelings, but we are not right to set them up as the aim and goal of human existence.  After all, they wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t make somebody poor or sick or subject people to any of the other refined tortures of which humankind is capable.  Like Socialism, Christianity has too often been misinterpreted in the same mode that Wilde warns against.  It actually says, as I understand it, that people must throw off the support of the wider society and enter into the community of believers because that gives one the time and space–the right atmosphere–to become more of a fully-developed personality–to become more like God, in other words.  Take that metaphorically or however you will, but it should be the aim of Socialism as well.  George Bernard Shaw (another prominent Socialist) lamented, “[W]hat is the use of writing anything, if there is not a Will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods?”

But Christianity and Socialism have both ossified into the means of doing the opposite–church institutions and Marxist rallies too frequently make sentimental conformity and dependence of mind their central features–the lowest common-denominator interpretations of the Bible and of Das Kapital are the rule.   Service to others becomes just another dull round of meaningless duties–buying the stairway to heaven with one Jesus-point after another–rather than a way of helping one another in order to reduce our common burden and find more to time to explore our own individuality–to perfect ourselves in song, dance, poetry, or what have you.  As it is, Socialism is the enterprise of morbid statisticians and filth-besmeared neo-druids.  Christianity is more of a mixed bag–it has its true saints, living even today–but it is still, on the whole, too timid, too staid to permit the individual to cast off clerical authority and stake out his or her own relations with the Divine.

This is our current situation: we are forced  to choose between a heartless, money-centered individualism–with no real sense of beauty, or of the higher ethical purposes and more developed pleasures of the senses which money ought to serve–represented by the Tea Party, and, on the other hand, various forms of leftist ideology that lack imagination, futilely trumpeting for the triumph of Ralph Nader-style politics.  But one of the most lovely things about Ruskin’s or Wilde’s socialism is that it isn’t something that relies on the outcomes of elections–it is something that like-minded people (the “children of light” in Luke’s phrase) may simply do together–they combine their efforts in order to reduce their shared workload (ideally and depending on the quality of their planning) and leave more time for the cultivation of art and the spirit.  It can be done in a city block or in the middle of the woods.

If and when this occurs–and it already has occasionally in history–people will come to know what the descent of the Holy Spirit–experienced by the disciples at Pentecost–actually means.  The imagination will burn up all the rotten old fetters that restrain it and overwhelm all the bad art and bad science that continually try to convince the human race that it isn’t really at the center of Creation.  For there is nothing more plainly written in Nature than that the human being is Her own perfection–the universe become conscious of itself.  And the beauty of this form of Socialism is that it allows this consciousness to flower, to gain more and more of an understanding of its own goodness, beauty, and ultimate limitlessness.  Otherwise, too long constrained, it turns in on itself and lacerates itself with shame, remorse, and un-deserved misery–with exactly those circumstances which we continually witness all around us.

Two Offices

by Sam Buntz

I have found myself surprised and pleased at the quality of the most recent episodes of The Office. It seemed shaky during the last season — whenever characters start pairing off and having babies with each other, and there’s one pregnancy and wedding after another, it usually heralds imminent decline. But occasionally a show can be reborn or find a way to re-perpetuate its old formula without growing stale. In this case, I give plenty of credit to the writers, obviously, but also to Ed Helms for assuming the role of the new boss and to James Spader for being the new CEO. Their characters are certainly amusing, but they also manage to capture and retune certain underlying vibrations that constantly hum at back of the American mind. They are caricatures of particular kinds of Americans and of almost all Americans as they exist within themselves, if not as they exist in public: Helms, like Steve Carrell before him, is a bushy-tailed aspirant, gloriously naive and good-natured, a kind of comic-idiot-romantic-quester (though riddled with insecurities), whereas Spader represents the savvier end of the spectrum, the slick expert with the entirety of Matter and Life perfectly pinned under his thumb.

This brings me to my actual point and my reason for writing — to demonstrate how our pop-culture illuminates the crucial differences between Americans and their British forebears, and, more specifically, how it reflects (if a little faintly) the opposing intellectual stances staked out by two of the greatest essayists to ever live: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Samuel Johnson. If you’ve ever seen the British version of The Office, you’ll immediately recognize how incredibly foreign these personality types (Helms, Spader) would seem in the work-environment of that earlier incarnation of the show. The UK boss, as played by Ricky Gervais, is an absurd failure — he drives his company into the ground in the course of two seasons. The series ended relatively quickly, in accordance with his massive incompetence and persistent mismanagement. Steve Carrell’s boss, to the contrary, tended to fail ever upwards (though he was clearly beset by persistent self-doubts he struggled manically against them). The best the other characters on the UK show can do is to simply keep chugging along in a world where “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”

That’s a famous quote (it would look nice on a refrigerator magnet or a coffee-mug) from Dr. Johnson, doubtless the person most qualified to be called “the mind of England.” I place it here because I think it goes to show how a great genius like Johnson, two hundred and fifty years on or so, can continue to define and comprehend the atmosphere of his nation and illuminate the secret psychological roots of its popular culture. For the U.S. version of The Office, one would need to suggest Emerson as governing sage, the majestic forebear of its assorted zanies. Emerson urges unflagging self-reliance: “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” Dwight Schrute, Michael Scott, and Andy Bernard never lose confidence in themselves — at least not more than momentarily. They are constantly trying, in quixotic style, to reach the unreachable star. The British Office is, to say the least, something closer to a transcription of reality, in all its dryness and hopelessness (except for the Christmas Special, which tacks on an unbelievable–and wholly Hollywood and American–happy ending.)

This might sound like I’m saying that Americans have endless reserves of vitality while the British are at the end of their rope. By no means. The respective genius of each nation is, in his own way, correct. Johnson sees that the we are not sufficient unto ourselves — limited and weak, we can only keep on the best we can, turning to fresh tasks, and (fervent Christian as Johnson was) can try to place our trust in a higher Providence. We can enter into a covenant with a source of goodness outside of ourselves, but the world will continue to be a fallen universe — Johnson’s major poem is, after all, entitled “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (which could easily be the sub-title for the British Office). Emerson, by contrast, knows only a source of goodness and strength within himself –Nature and the orthodox Christian notion of God can only reflect the “Aboriginal Self’s” great qualities back to it.  One should sign a covenant with the God within because of how untrustworthy and maliciously wily Nature and the God without must be.

Emerson knows better than anyone that the world is going to beat him down, but he still, ceaselessly, is determined to re-assert himself and his principles. Johnson found peace by sharing the world with God and with his fellow Christians — whereas Emerson, an eternal rebel who quit his job as a Unitarian minister, always believed that “for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts: I [the Self] and the Abyss.” Emerson’s sense of self is un-limited, while Johnson’s is limited. The latter finds peace by locating himself in a divine order, but Emerson sees the deepest part of the Self as the only divine order that there really is. With a little critical application one can easily see how overwhelmingly relevant this distinction is in interpreting the cultural artifacts (like the two Offices) of our contemporary world.

I greatly admire and revere Dr. Johnson, while my temperament is clearly that of an Emersonian. But both perspectives possess immense value. Of course, the British have had their rebels against the Christian-classicist Johnsonian worldview — William Blake and Percy Shelley being foremost among them — and American writers from Poe to Hawthorne to Melville have dissented from Emerson. But in our current cultural situation, at a time when awareness of the central intellectual figures of both of our countries seems to have waned considerably, and the American exaltation of the self is increasingly exported throughout the world and distorted into a merely material exaltation (as opposed to the spiritual and intellectual freedom Emerson actually envisioned), it would seem that a large dose of both thinkers, in equal proportions, would do well to correct these abuses and hasten an awareness of ourselves as both Emersonian individualists and as Johnsonian members of the human species, mortals made of the same clay as Adam.  And when we become more conscious of these facts, we are enabled to read and decode the other, less high-brow, aspects of our culture — we can graft them into the larger and more refined cultural picture.

Reading Emerson, we — meaning Americans — understand exactly who we are, what we’re trying to do, and how we’re screwing it up by embracing a variety of self-centeredness far inferior to the Sage of Concord’s. Reading Johnson we get the antidote that prevents our self- reliance from becoming a kind of petulant egotism — and I imagine Britons will be able to find an even deeper resource in his writings, an inlet into themselves. In the end, the difficulty of seeing ourselves and the universe consists in this: being able to know both that the entirety of existence can only come to us through our own senses and intellect, individually, (that’s Emerson) while being able to see, simultaneously, that one person is ultimately but a particle of the whole, of a great chain of being (that’s Johnson). One may, after all, be a particle reflecting the whole — but still a particle. To balance these contradictory notions — that one is “both everything and nothing,” as Harold Bloom once remarked — and keep them balanced, could be called the definition of wisdom.  Plus, we enjoy and appreciate our entertainment even more when we sense its resonance with the deeper levels of our being.