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'Nothing to Declare'

"Nothing to Declare" by Henri Cole (FSG)

The spirit of Henri Cole’s latest collection of poetry is beautifully encapsulated in its title, “Nothing to Declare.” This playful irony, of a declaration coyly denying itself, pervades Cole’s new work. His poems—which explore subjects as varied as the buzz of a bee and the preparation of Abraham Lincoln’s body for burial—are notable for their wonderful twisting and turning quality, as they explore given objects from many angles, and for the rich multiplicity of their vision. They recall artists such as Dickinson—Cole shares her appreciation for nature as a wellspring of poetry and her ear for a well-placed dash; Bishop, in her capacity for gaining human insights from natural encounters; and Jenny Holzer, a conceptual artist and sometime collaborator of Cole, in her taste for the tartly aphoristic.

One of the most compelling poems in the collection, “Lightning Toward Morning,” is emblematic of this turning and twisting technique. The poem begins beautifully, almost pastorally, with lush natural imagery that is so visually dense as to give the sense of being hidden, “thoroughly camouflaged” with the speaker in a “thicket of bayberry,” listening to the twittering birds overhead. Not until the very bottom of the first page does the subject of the poem become manifest—the bones of the departed speaker, from which “probably only / an examiner / could distinguish / a raccoon’s bones.” The poem further bends towards the grotesque and monstrous, as the sexual assault and murder of the speaker is described in powerful and evocative, if sparing, detail. The speaker’s body is sought, searchers cut through the landscape, closing in on her—and here, too, there is a certain brutality. What is especially powerful about this poem is that it doesn’t end here, in this horrific space. Rather, the final image is one that seems natural, abstract, dangerous, and complicatedly beautiful all at once: “where in summer, / toward morning, / lighting falls / straight down / to the earth.”

Cole also writes poems that turn brilliantly from the grotesque to the lovely. One of the best and funniest poems in the collection, “Dog and Master,” opens bizarrely, with an ermine shown in all its violent, devilish glory: “territorial, noxious, thieving…Mesmerizing its victims / with a snake dance, killing with a bite to /the back of the neck.” It is therefore a delightful surprise to see that the ermine being discussed is not out hunting, but rather is “huddled / in my arms for warmth,” a tender image. The speaker continues in this poignant, almost sensual style: “His rounded / hips shiver like mine.” There is a Bishop-like moment where the speaker communes with the ermine and gains some insight into his own humanity from this creature: “He prefers to give himself / up when hunted, rather / than soil himself. This is / civilization, I think, roughly / stroking his small ears.” The poem then twists away from this moment of supposed wisdom, wonderfully subverting itself. The ermine leaps out of the speaker’s arms and begins to gallop about the house, the speaker “chasing him around / the dining room,” haplessly shouting no. The speaker ponders the moment, first deciding that he and the ermine are “two stupidly / loving, stupidly hating / creatures” and then providing a powerfully strange, meta alternative—the ermine is “some weird / division of myself / split off and abandoned / in order to live.”  "Dog and Master" demonstrates Cole's special skill for unexpectedly changing directions and shifting tones.

The subject of Cole’s poetry is often his poetry itself, and the production thereof. In the second poem of the collection, “Free Dirt,” he allows a peek inside his home and workspace. This poem is marked by its frank tone—he comments on his “unpolished floors” and “rumpled sheets,” his habit of “making meals from discrete / objects,” and the nature of his day-to-day life: “Alone, I guzzle / and litter and urinate / and shout.” Of all this he speaks with a folksy wisdom: “We all have / chapters we’d rather keep unpublished, in which we / get down with the swirl.” At the end of the poem, he turns from discussing the production of his poetry to considering the nature of his self-representations in his poetry; it ends strikingly. Many of Cole’s poems feature naturalistic, unabashed details, a particular virtue of Cole’s.

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Later in the collection, Cole presents a more positive vision of how to relate to language. “The Rock” begins with a Bishop-like vista: In the second stanza he pans up from a lake to trees to the sky. The scene is lightly but lovingly drawn; it also offers what could be viewed as Cole’s moral philosophy of poetry. He rejects “traditions and dogmas” as being like “well-made beds…to die in.” Rather, he speaks of the beauty of language and life with “no hierarchy.” “On my rock, it’s as if everything is lit from / below or from within.” Importantly, things are not lit from above; he is not the poet shining light down on the world, but rather he is accessing the light and spirit within things. On his rock, everything is calmly unified—“pelican, water, rock, cedar, sk, and me” and all is as it should be—creating “A sense that all’s right with the world prevails there.” He communicates with the rock, and in typical Cole style, this communication takes a doubled form: “Some kind of rock language, / with crude dents pressing my flesh, / and little fishes kissing my submerged feet.” This image seems to answer one of the central questions of the collection: how to be a poet. One must see the world from multiple angles, so as to be receptive to all the world’s forms of communication, from the “crude” to the “little.” Cole’s language offers a real sense of space and is always fresh.

This powerful, sophisticated, and complex collection, with its expansive range of subjects, varied range of styles—from lyrically thick poems with long lines to thinner, more sparing poems—and its multifaceted vision, communicates to readers in this double style, with language that is both “crude” and “little” with “dents pressing…flesh” and gentle kisses. It is an intoxicating and illuminating read.

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