I’ve only been through customs a handful of times, and I’ve never had anything to declare yet I’ve always been one of the people selected for random screening. Perhaps I look like shifty? Do the customs’ agents see the poet in the type of luggage I choose to carry?
I’m not really a risk taker which is probably a large part of why I’ve never had anything to declare at customs. As I travel and make purchases I ask myself: is this cheese really so good that I will risk sneaking it into the US? Does this caution translate to other areas of my life? Do I take any risks in poetry?
I found myself asking these questions as I approached Henri Cole’s newest poetry collection, Nothing to Declare. Before I even started to read, the clever title already had me intrigued. Does the title imply that Cole has nothing to say? Does the title mean that Cole is also someone who avoids the risks of customs?
Obviously, by writing the poems Cole is doing the opposite of the title. By creating something and sharing it, he is declaring. I’d also argue that Cole is also challenging the import/export use of the “nothing to declare” phrase because he is taking risks with these poems.
To discuss some of the risks that Cole takes in this book I’m going to pull a few examples. Since the title of the collection as a whole became a jumping off point for me as I read the book, I decided to focus on the poems I felt had the most compelling titles.
In “Extraordinary Geraniums” we encounter a speaker eating a sugar sandwich while contemplating the geraniums outside their window with “big heads as American as Martha Washington.” The speaker’s lyrical consideration follows the geraniums as they go from having “puffed-out mouths and throats” that “when night falls” will have them mixing “glamour with the gutter, like Paris or Rome.” This transformation of the geraniums brings the speaker to revelation. To the point where he must declare, “I am here!” He now feels the “opposite of self-obliteration.”
So what risk is here? I’d argue the decision to personify the geraniums is a big risk. I’ve often been told that using a pathetic fallacy in poetry is weak. The overall subject matter of the poem itself could also be argued to be somewhat run-of-the-mill and therefore risky, but Cole takes this potentially cliched subject matter and makes it unique. He makes it his own.
Another potential risk in composing poetry involves the use of allusions. If you refer to Burger King and twenty years from now it no longer exists does this hinder your poem? Does Cole’s “Gelding.com” take a risk with is reference to the internet? Or is the internet such a thing now that it will not require a footnote?
The title of this poem is playful, but also a bit dark. That description could apply to quite a few of the poems in this collection. There is a subtle black humor throughout the book. In this particular piece the speaker is describing a horse that shares the same name as the poet who is a gelding “in good / shape” but also “he cannot / be ridden” yet he can still “pull a load.” This horse needs a new home and is being advertised on the website mentioned in the title. The poet is the horse. The horse is the poet. It is an old trick. Could Cole alienate some of his readers by speaking to the contemporary or is this another fine example of how he takes an older theme and makes it work in the modern day?
Perhaps where this book excels the most is in the shortest of poems. Not because Cole can’t pull off a long poem (see “The Paranoid Forest” for example), but because there is an art to the carefully crafted short poem. When you work in a shorter form I feel you are taking a bigger risk. You have to say something fresh in such a short amount of space. So let’s consider “Hand Grenade Bag.”
The poem opens with, “This well-used little bag is just the right size / to carry a copy of the Psalms.” Already you have a man writing about a sometimes gendered item and then he throws in religion within the very first line. Cole doesn’t let up in this short space as he even has you question reality. Does the bag actually have, “plain-woven / flowers and helicopters” or are these images more to do with the hand grenade? Are they one and the same? The poem risks absurdist humor with the line, “he who makes light of other / men will be killed by a turnip.” It is a powerful short poem that calls for multiple readings into meaning, but also just for the sheer beauty of the imagery exemplified by how the poem ends with the evocative and ominous, “A man who needs fire / will soon enough hold it in his hands.”
Henri Cole’s Nothing to Declare is a clever and well-constructed collection. The title is a wink at how carefully Cole worked through these poems. He took risks, and I hope I can learn to do some of that myself. Maybe not with actual airport customs, but through my choices of poetic subject matter and how I find the right words at the right time. Cole definitely has something to declare, which is not a risky thing to say, but well worth repeating.