26 April, 2010Issue 12.1LiteraturePoetry

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Say All I Need to Say, Better

Andrew Chan

foerHenri Cole
Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982-2007
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010
160 Pages
ISBN 978-0374232832

The idea of an anthology of Henri Cole’s selected poems will likely inspire conflicted feelings among his most ardent readers. Much like a museum retrospective does for a visual artist or a greatest-hits album does for a pop singer, this kind of collection can serve two important functions in the life of a poet: not only does it implicitly coronate him as a major force within his art form, but it also symbolically sets aside his previous work and enables him to advance into the next chapter of his career.

The problem with this format, though, is that like many of his peers, Cole tends to write books, not just loose arrangements of easily excerpted poems. The scope and texture of his finest verse is best appreciated by reading his three most recent volumes as they were originally published, back to back, in as few sittings as possible. While modern poetry’s bias toward book-length projects can often seem like a beleaguered genre’s attempt at self-aggrandisement, in the case of Cole and other authors of his caliber, it allows for an expansiveness of mood and form, and endless possibilities for juxtaposition and Whitmanian self-contradiction—qualities that inevitably get lost when the poems are reassembled and recontextualised.

Though it may not be an ideal introduction, Cole’s attractively slim new anthology, Pierce the Skin, provides ample opportunity for new readers to fall under his spell. While the unique emotional arcs the volumes create are less discernible, the book gives readers the chance to focus on the strengths of the individual poems, each of which is self-enclosed enough to permit removal from its original context. Another satisfaction this selection offers lies in watching an artist pay his dues, inching toward genius with small, tentative steps. At first Cole seems stingy in excerpting from his out-of-print collections, The Marble Queen (1986) and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), but this strategy ends up casting his erratic early poems in a more flattering light than their reputation had suggested was possible. Keeping these selections to a minimum, Cole allows new audiences to appreciate the technical mastery and intricate detail in poems that otherwise read like apprentice work. Left out are the long, winding narratives that bogged those first books down with stiff diction and often slavish mimicry of the poet’s acknowledged idols, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill. What remains is a handful of highlights, some of which share the central features of his recent work (poems like “The Mare” anticipate his now-routine use of nature and animals as figures of the sublime), and others that reveal a gift for characterisation that would later be replaced with an intensely private, first-person vision.

Pierce the Skin paints a refreshing portrait of a writer who experienced a decade of false starts and minor triumphs before taking full ownership of his powers. The opening poem, “V-winged and Hoary”, is representative of the early work’s virtues and vices. Composed of densely worded sentences arranged in rhythmically startling couplets, it’s a lovely feat of lyricism that begs to be read aloud and streams down the page with Merrill-like fluidity. At the same time, it stands at such a polite remove from the reader that even its vivid avian imagery begins to blur. Fifty pages later we get the thrill of watching Cole move toward a looser syntax and more direct phrasing—a progression that paradoxically coincides with his embrace of a greater formal brevity. The Visible Man (1998), the book that inspired Harold Bloom to name Cole “a central poet of his generation”, is a rare transitional work that stands on its own. Carrying over from 1995’s The Look of Things his increasingly explicit preoccupation with homosexual guilt (which he often contrasts with a sexual desire to “make something sweet of fear”), Cole produced both his most personal and his most openly erotic poems to date, the most astonishing of which are multi-part tapestries divided into sonnet-length stanzas.

“Chiffon Morning”—which is included here in a shortened version but deserves to appear unabridged—unfurls as a series of six episodes starring (presumably) young Henri and his pill-popping mother. Bestselling memoirist Augusten Burroughs has since rendered such material a cliché of popular gay narratives, making it all the easier to marvel at the poem’s carefully measured emotional distance and its palpable atmosphere of tenderness and dread. The pain of a young man coming out to his dysfunctional family is confined to a flash of extraordinarily blunt dialogue: “Must you tell everyone what you are?” For all its brutality, though, the poem equates itself to prayer within its first two lines, as Cole calls upon the words to “say all I need to say, better.” This tug-of-war between the compulsion to speak and the desire for a refined, perfectly pliant, and expressive language becomes an important tension in Cole’s work, and here it results in him summoning up past resentments and depressive states with an enviable clarity and musicality. Cole’s virtuosic flourishes are reined in so that each image carries its own weight. His gifts as a formalist are concentrated in each stanza’s concluding couplet, which usually ends on a half-rhyme that embodies the unscratchable itch at the poem’s heart.

The leading gay American poets of our time—Frank Bidart, Mark Doty, and Carl Phillips, among others—have in their various ways embraced the duality between suffering and joy that Cole lays out in the final line of “Chiffon Morning”. This fascination with masochism has since become a cliché in gay poetics, which makes it difficult to read a brilliant, exquisitely tormented erotic sequence like “Apollo” (also from The Visible Man) without thinking of it as yet another retread. One of the great achievements of the next two books, the Pulitzer Prize finalist Middle Earth (2003) and Blackbird and Wolf (2007), is the way they dissipate the trials of Eros across a much broader, more open field of inquiry. The poems in these books are, with few exceptions, free-verse sonnets, with each meticulously wrought line perched on top of a band of white space. Poised between an acute awareness of the sensual body and the dreamspace of the mind, they feel, as Cole puts it, “sub-born—pre-verbal, truculent, pure.” So delicate is their approach to language that any emphatic attempt to dress up sexual anxiety in myth would feel out of place. Where poets like Doty have fallen into the trap of hyperbolizing the gay orgasm as some form of spiritual enlightenment, Cole takes us back to the level of ordinary flesh and the sheer mundanity of its ecstasies—”smelling flesh,/clutching flesh, sucking violently on flesh,/cleaning up flesh…” The voice he develops in Middle Earth is pitched at a whisper, at once hieratic and profoundly personal, easily moved to utterance by the slightest touch—as when Cole pets a hare on his chest or places his face on his lover’s stomach.

This is language that is constantly engaged in the process of othering itself. Cole seems bemused by the alienness of the soul to the self, and by the performances of everyday identity. To evoke that sense of being a mere visitor in one’s own body, he deftly employs elements of orientalism (red and gold kimonos, tea ceremonies) that would seem distasteful in a lesser poet’s work. Cole is a master at evoking the fragility of selfhood with an unexpected sleight of hand, as when he sums up the condition of the self as “a needle, pushing in a vein” or ends a poem by “push[ing] a needle into [his mother]/and bright beads run out, as from a draining bird.” These images of injection and destruction are all the more devastating because the poems themselves contain moments that are so rooted in the wholeness of the body and invested in charting its myriad sensations. But Cole is equally interested in depicting the tenuousness of corporeal experience, finding himself painfully other to all parts of the world—to self, to nature, to language. The speaker emphasises the empty space around each word through the strategic use of caesura and pared-down phrasing, giving speech a foreign quality when placed against vast expanses of silence. The beauty of this book is that it allows itself to linger in that lonely, liminal zone between states of unity and uncognised perception. Instead of rebelling against the constraints of subjective experience, the poetry defines its task as the precise evocation of the ineffable and the untouchable leaving traces on the sensory world.

On a first read-through of Blackbird and Wolf, it can be jarring to discover a poet possessed of such unique linguistic and imaginative powers leaving them behind on a journey through the subtlest modulations of tone. The hide-and-seek with identity that gave Middle Earth an alternately theatrical and a metaphysical quality (particularly in poems like “Original Face”, “Mask”, and “Self-Portrait as the Red Princess”) had been stripped away. That book’s seemingly bottomless well of hazy, mysterious memory has been exchanged for a more immediate, plainspoken language set primarily in the present. It is as if Cole wants nothing to stand in between the reader and the words, and has thus adopted an austerity and a preference for unadorned declarative sentences (“I don’t want words to sever me from reality”) best left to the likes of Louise Glück. But after repeated readings, Blackbird and Wolf seems more and more like Cole’s most brilliant work—a view he must share, considering how generously excerpted it is in Pierce the Skin.

Here he makes apparent many of the aesthetic and thematic concerns that move as undercurrents in his earlier work. The simultaneous urges for privacy and human connection are present, as is the conflict between the confessional impulse to reveal and the Bishop-like tendency to neutralize pain through omissions, understatement, and an intense focus on exterior details. Cole’s directness sometimes manifests as emotional nakedness (“I’m sorry I cannot say I love you when you say/you love me”), at other times as childlike whimsy (as when he addresses a weed with the question: “Can you tell me how to survive?”). Cole has never been more natural and unaffected in the first person, and whole poems are strung together with an “I” suffused with longing: “I love”, “I want”, “I feel”, “I don’t want”. His navigation of the sonnet space, and his sense of how syntax can expand and contract that space, have also never been more masterful. Coming at the end of a book that begins as ponderously as Pierce the Skin, Cole’s most recent poems are all the more exhilarating, particularly in how they achieve a sense of weightlessness without sacrificing their sincerity or seriousness. Reading them as part of the trajectory of a life’s work, it becomes clearer that their stylistic transparency is a form of liberation, the result of a writer finally freeing himself from his own virtuosity.

Andrew Chan recently graduated with an M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University.