Cole's Poems Evoke Heartbreak Through Simplicity

'Touch' by Henri Cole (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Melissa C. Wong

Like the Gospel of Matthew, Henri Cole’s new collection of poems begins with a genealogy. “Asleep in Jesus at Rest,” the first work in “Touch,” describes Cole’s origins in biblical language: his ancestors have names like Noah and William Christmas, they are listed in the Census, and “Those that lived were sprinkled on their foreheads / and went to Sunday school.” The good news unfolded through the rest of the slim volume is the conviction in each of its works that beauty transcends suffering; it floats above trials and hides in the most unexpected depths of grief. “Touch” is arranged in a triptych, like Cole’s 2007 anthology “Blackbird and the Wolf” and his 2003 “Middle Earth.” The themes holding each section together are more obviously heavy than in previous works—his mother’s death, war and mortality, and a failing relationship—yet as he has been since the explosive “Visible Man,” Cole pens poetry that is always becoming more refined and more reserved.

Though restrained in his production, and despite his mother’s words “Don’t be an open book”—the epigraph of the first section—Cole is still an autobiographical poet through and through. If anything, the epigraph seems to serve more as a reminder for Cole himself, as he constantly has to moderate his impulse to reveal himself completely. The “I” figures largely in the majority of his poems, and his first name is mentioned in several others. “Immortal,” for instance, is a whimsical description of the life of a woman, remembered in front of a mother’s coffin. “‘Look, Henri, isn’t she beautiful!’ / my aunt exclaimed, / but I couldn’t. / I don’t need to know / what I already know.” The fantastical woman who “sits in an / acrylic cylinder / at a temperature of zero / … for five / hundred years” is related by the dialogue to his own family. Given that his most recent works have dealt with a dying mother, works like “Dead Mother” and others with similar references resonate as honest confrontations with all-too real events the poet has himself suffered. Cole’s decision to open the volume with a deeply personal matter lends credibility to the voice throughout “Touch.”

For lesser poets, this commitment to honesty would quickly disintegrate into unmitigated self-indulgence and even irrelevance. Cole carefully avoids this, in part through his continued reliance on the pseudo-sonnet form he developed in years past. By restricting himself to an elegant 14-line structure in most of his poems, Cole is not only able to give distinct shape to his musings but also to develop them into surprising and poignant revelations by the poem’s end—which mirrors the traditional twist of a sonnet. In “Shrike” Cole recounts a horrid fight between his parents: “Once, long ago, when they were quarrelling about money, / Father put Mother’s head in the oven. / ‘Who are you?’ it pleaded from the hell mouth.” Cole is able to gently tease out a consequence bigger than the event with the help of his formal retraint—and the result is more life-affirming than the previous content would immediately suggest. In the final line he writes, “Earth was drawing me into existence.”

Thus, Cole writes difficult poetry—but not in the same sense that defines many other contemporary poets. Cole’s works are unconcerned with academic debates; though clearly aware of the canon preceding him, he is not obsessed by it and resists being reactionary. That is, though his topics are complex, Cole refuses to play language games that would only obscure his intent: for the poems in “Touch” language is a means rather than an end. His agenda is summed up in “Orange Hole”: “introducing the idea of beauty as a salve / and of aesthetics making something difficult accessible.” By stating plainly and sincerely the ebb and flow of emotion, Cole’s poetry demands that beauty be recognized even in situations where life seems painfully absent.

It is in this precarious balance between relentless honesty and measured control that lines that could be passé are rendered timeless, as moments of profound discovery. In “Cherry Blossom Storm” his mother’s surgery is described in graphic detail: “Then a collar incision / was made at the base of my neck and the strap muscles / incised, the dissection continuing sharply over / both my lobes as inferior vessels and veins / were isolated, litigated, and divided …” It is astounding then, that the conclusion the poet ultimately struggles to get to is that “Sometimes / awful things have their own kind of beauty.” What would be a trite aphorism is transformed by Cole’s artistry into a defiant testimony.

While largely successful, the devotion to authenticity fails Cole at times in the final section of “Touch.” The most egregious example is in his frequent use of abbreviated text-message language. In “Laughing Monster,” a meditation on identity in a relationship—“‘Who am I and why?’ Lunging forward / to assume positions so imprecise to our natures”—is disrupted by a parenthetical “it numbs u if it’s real / it numbs ur throat and nose, and it numbs u inside.” Though Cole’s audacity is laudable, his attempt to hint at modern developments in technology is still too forced to ring true.

However, this blemish is only a minor by-product of the ideology that makes the rest of the collection so powerful. Cole takes a daring approach to very human themes and avoids hiding his revelations in overwrought sentimentality or in overly flourished language. As beauty presents itself subtly in times of anguish, so too does the beauty of “Touch” emerge, delicate and tender.

Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at yedenkim@fas.harvard.edu.

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