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.”


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