You Weren’t Born By Yourself

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In Touch, Cole once again breaks into new territories of form, subject, and voice, channeling pleasure and pain into a collection of poems that triumphs in the face of their inseparability.

In 2003, Henri Cole reached an echelon in poetry that is most often reserved for the dead: his fifth book, Middle Earth, received Harold Bloom’s endorsement. Identifying the “oxymoronic pleasure-pain” in Cole’s work, Bloom called for a modification to Wallace Stevens’s mandate that poetry “must give pleasure” and operate as “a thing final in itself and, therefore, good.” That Cole’s poetry fuses our most intense and disparate emotions—joy with sorrow, desire with loss, tenderness with dread—is a fact made more inscrutable with each book he publishes. But while Bloom touched upon one of the most pronounced aspects of Cole’s work, he neglected certain of the innovations that place Cole among the most unique poets writing in English today. In Touch, Cole once again breaks into new territories of form, subject, and voice, channeling pleasure and pain into a collection of poems that triumphs in the face of their inseparability.

Appropriating the sonnet in such a way that it has become synonymous with his work, the bulk of critical curiosity surrounding Cole’s poetry concerns his treatment of form. For a poet whose voice initially inclined toward the baroque—in 1986’s The Marble Faun he wrote of the monarch butterfly that “lesser fritillaries or crescents might / have lost their tribe in the Piedmont”—the sonnet seems a likely form at which to arrive. But Cole’s recent sonnets operate on readers through their suggestion of formality and poetic ancestry. Since it’s unlikely the sonnet will ever be displaced as the form we associate with the fulfillment of great verse, the sonnet’s appearance in contemporary poetry creates a lingering taunt. Show me what you can do, it seems to say. Fourteen lines is hardly room for an epic, and this makes a poet’s ability to cover great emotional and narrative distance in a sonnet all the more memorable.

In “Quai Aux Fleurs,” Cole begins by telling us he wants to “keep on smearing butter / & jam on toast with a blunt knife” and then maneuvers through the sonnet in such a way that he is able to end on the image of a soldier who feels “the strangeness throb in his blood / as he touches the scope to his cheek.” As he’s become more comfortable with the sonnet as his form, Cole has distanced himself farther from the iambic pentameter and intricacy of speech that are its hallmarks. “Resistance” finds Cole going so far as to incorporate what is by all rights the contemporary antithesis to formal verse—the language of the text message and email:

I didn’t go to him for virtue.
I liked the sound of someone else breathing.
I wanted to know what it felt like, eating honey
like a wasp. “Loser old man u r a cheap cunt,”
he wrote, “I need coke. Unless ur buying,
answer is no.” Now, the whole insane,
undignified attempt at loving him is over,
the horrible sticky body that was mine
is mahogany in daylight.

In his prose, Cole has elucidated the emotive potential he locates in the sonnet: “And what about the volta, or turn,” he wrote in 2010, “which introduces the idea of transformation and change, of conflict and resolution, of restraint and surrender, of emotion and reason. The volta is like a soul in flux.”

The means through which Cole most often accomplishes his volta’s transformation and surrender is family. If 2007’s Blackbird and Wolf was his intensely vulnerable and sober commemoration of his dead father—with the one remaining schnauzer “that guarded his corpse / found holding a tumbler of Bushmills”—then Touch is Cole’s definitive and deeply conflicted account of the death of his mother. In “Shrike,” watching the eponymous bird impale a cricket sends Cole into a sharp volta that is only resolved by a recollection of his parents’ marriage:

Poor cricket can hardly stand the whistling,
not to speak of the brownish-red pecking
(couldn’t you go a little easy?), but holds up
pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.
Once, long ago, when they were quarreling about money,
Father put Mother’s head in the oven.

Among his innovations with the sonnet and volta, Cole is unmatched in his willingness to confront and inhabit bereavement. What distinguishes Cole from his peers is not his vulnerability in the face of autobiographical detail, but his willingness to participate and collaborate in the writing of his own history. In the sequence that begins Touch, a sly, if not harrowing epigram—“Don’t be an open book”—is attributed simply to “Mother,” a designation that carries over into one of the book’s best and strangest poems, “Asleep in Jesus at Rest,” in which Cole whittles his genealogy down to mother, father, and Henri, who “weighed nine pounds of flesh”:

Their names were Victoria, Ebbenezer, Noah,
                                      Fannie, Travis, Alex, Pleasant,
William Christmas, and Jane.

[…]

They were my ancestors and lived along the Pee Dee River,
                                        under tupelo, oak, and gum,
where wolves made dens
                            (“You could smell dem wolves!”).

What makes this last line so fascinating is how, either in spite of or because of the parenthetical, we feel that a voice from Cole’s past is suddenly among us, participating in the poem. Elsewhere Cole quotes lines from a poem written by “one of them” (“‘there in the boughs, in a tiny nest, are three baby birds / with mouths open wide”) and closes with a sliver of wisdom from his old man: “‘Remember you got a father,’ he used to say. / ‘You weren’t born by yourself.’” Where Blackbird and Wolf found him pushing the boundaries of personification through speech—with wind that stroked an “ugly weed,” saying “‘My weed, my weed,’”—in Touch Cole briefly inhabits a fugue-like spectrum of voices in a way that both fulfills and moves past the book’s title. An aunt steps forward to remark on the beauty of Cole’s dead mother, a “girlish nail salon / operator” on death row refuses her last words with a sharp “No, sir,” and in “Cherry Blossom Storm,” Cole inhabits the voice of his mother for an entire sonnet, narrating with painstaking remove the incisions that a team of doctors make in her body as they perform surgery. This profound embodiment of the mother reaches its nadir in the book’s title poem, where Cole assumes her voice not in order to speak to us, but to speak to her husband, Cole’s deceased father, as she is lowered into a grave beside him:

On a hillside,
they lowered me with ropes into a rock,
and those who looked
glimpsed the buffed star on your coffin glinting in the black,
instead of a sea of skulls.

Then I lay down beside you,
dissolving loneliness,
and the white maggots wriggled.

These last two lines demonstrate what Bloom is talking about when he calls Cole a poet of pleasure-pain: death itself cannot prohibit the companionship his mother and father achieve, and yet the grotesque, destructive work in which nature takes pleasure continues.

Inscrutable as this poem is, certain of Cole’s endings in Touch veer away from his previous handling of closure and denouement, into a territory that strives for a cleaner, more digestible ending to a poem. In his last book, Cole’s endings, like his metaphors, often refused closure and broke into a realm of further abstraction and mystery. Take for example 2007’s “Hymn,” which ends, “and a terrible instrument / struck down out of a depthless blue sky.” Cole’s metaphors in Touch perform similar work, with “orange smoke drifting out of a misty hole, / introducing the idea of beauty as a salve,” but a few of his endings, in aiming for a transcendent conclusion, barricade the work rather than allowing it to disseminate. “Beauty remains unshattered,” he writes at the end of “Dolphins.” And remembering two canaries at the close of “Touch,” he tells us that “Though they didn’t know where they were going, / they made their prettiest song of all.” Transcendent as they are, endings such as these seek to finish poems whose beauty lies in the fact that they must be abandoned.

That said, Touch stands as the culmination of a relationship to pain and loss that began for Cole with the publication of Middle Earth. With so many elements at work—his volta, his appropriation of speech, his occupation of bereavement and the deceased—Cole has situated himself as a poet whose evolution is as fascinating and exhilarating as the work itself, demonstrating the possibilities of poetry and revealing new directions in which to take pain and the pleasure of rendering it through language.


Danniel Schoonebeek's poetry and reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Awl, Publishers Weekly, American Poet, La Fovea, Underwater New York, and Maggy. He was born in the Catskills and may be reached at [email protected] More from this author →