On October 22nd, at the third meeting of the ALSCW’s Chicago chapter, Rosanna Warren began her introduction to Henri Cole’s reading in this way: “There are books I can’t live without, books I carry with me when I travel, books I need to be able to touch and open at any hour. Henri Cole’s Blackbird & Wolf (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) from 2007 is such a book. So is his new collection, Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).” Warren, Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, sketched Cole’s career, beginning with his first three books of rhyming verse, then the breaking of his style in The Visible Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), followed by his three volumes of unrhymed sonnets, a volume of selected poems, and now, Nothing to Declare. The modest title belies the riches this slim book contains. As Warren observed: “All the old lyric richness of the early poems has been sublimed into sophisticated unrhymed sonnets, and into roomier or thin elongated poems, carrying the reader from one surprise to another as the poet tracks his own metamorphoses.”
Along with the ALSCW, the Committee on Social Thought—where Warren is the new Director of Graduate Studies—and the Committee on Creative Writing sponsored Cole’s appearance. He read selections from his last four volumes to a large crowd in a room on the 8th floor of the University of Chicago’s gleaming new art building, the Riva and David Logan Center.
Cole is tall, his voice soft, his Virginia accent unmistakable. When he read, he moved a piece of cardboard down the page. The little square of cardboard looked worn, smooth, as if it had served him well: an object that had become, after long use, a talisman. He is a remarkable reader of his own work. He does not declaim, but he does more than merely speak; the poems, saturated with meaning, are exactly fitted to his voice and his inflections.
Speaking about his “American Kestrel,” from Blackbird & Wolf (2007), Cole said, “I think of the last lines of this poem as a sort of artistic credo.” Addressed to a kestrel that from time to time eats a “dinner of flayed mouse” on the fire escape outside Cole’s Boston apartment, where he has lived for twenty-two years, the second half of this sonnet-length poem reads:
The love word is far away. Can you see me?
I am a man. No one has what I have:
my long clean hands, my bored lips. This is my home:
Woof-woof, the dog utters, afraid of emptiness,
as I am, so my soul attaches itself to things,
trying to create something neither confessional
nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.
These lines are plain but full, modulated. “The love word is far away,” but love is not—the kestrel lovingly observed. While the dog’s utterance may or may not be the comment that prompts the poem’s speaker to make his extraordinary claim, and while it is conventional when training a dog to bark that we ask it to “speak,” ultimately, dogs cannot speak. And if the dog alerts the speaker to his own fear of emptiness, the speaker’s soul attaches itself not so much to things as to words and offers a description of a vision. The echo of Williams’s injunction “no ideas but in things”1 seems inescapable. But the soul of the speaker of “American Kestrel,” in attaching itself to words, reminds us that words are things. “Trying to create something neither confessional / nor abstract,” the soul making art must rely on words, which are abstractions. If the kestrel is making coarse sounds, “plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse, / like the red strings of a harp,” the irony is sharp because the harp is the instrument of heavenly beings, of saved souls, while the poet’s soul, in fear, resorts to language, an instrument of humane music.
Cole offered brief remarks about each poem. Introducing “Extraordinary Geraniums” from Nothing to Declare (2015), he recalled, “When I was a young man, one of my favorite things is what we called a ‘sugar sandwich’: Wonder bread spread with butter and sprinkled with Domino sugar.” As Cole’s mother was French, he joked that perhaps the sugar sandwich was a poor man’s version of a tartine, when in fact it was likely a “Depression-era leftover.” He meant a leftover in two senses: a small meal from when there was little to eat and any meal of remains, of leftovers. He told his audience that he took the title of the final poem from Nothing to Declare (2015), “The Constant Leaf,” from Charles Burchfield: “I love the paintings of Charles Burchfield.” Then he added, “And the drawings,” careful not to commit a sin of omission. Cole is scrupulous about praise but unafraid to speak plainly.
After the reading, he took questions. About the year he lived in Japan—where he was born and where he returned to after his father died—Cole had this to say: “I felt like my own poems were full of stuff: I worked to rake out and simplify.” That year, he wrote many of the poems that comprise the beautiful, and beautifully designed, Middle Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). Then he blurted out that he had read all the novels of Kawabata and loved them, and he seemed for a moment almost abashed, as if he had revealed a passionate, private affair. He had; every passionate reader knows the feeling. Asked about what music he listened to while working, he regained his cool. “One of the curses of the modern world is piped-in music,” he said. “It’s everywhere: in restaurants, in elevators. I can’t do it. When I write I need total silence.” In response to a question about the risks of confessional poetry, he leaned forward: “I grew up Catholic, so the confessional is where I went to confess, not to write poetry.”
As Warren pointed out in her introduction, despite his frankness about his grief and his pleasures, Cole is not a confessional poet. “These poems derive their power, not from sensational private subject matter, but from sensational acts of style and structure.” It is the sinuosity and sensuousness of Cole’s lines—the abrupt shifts of tone and register—that make one mistake his poems for confidences shared rather than objects masterfully constructed. It is their artifice that persuades us to suspend our disbelief, not their occasionally prosaic content. “The Bee,” for example, from Nothing to Declare (2015), begins
There’s a bee
In response to the persistent buzzing, the speaker wonders, “Maybe this Bee / is stupidly in love / with me.” And, a few lines later:
a new kind
. . . . . .. . . . . .
that doesn’t go away,
even after lots of sex—
These lines provoke titters, but it is easy to miss that “The Bee” is deeply indebted to Donne’s “The Flea,”2 and it is as articulate and serious and desirous of love as the speaker in Donne’s canonical poem. As Cole opined, “The process that is the most interesting is the assembling of words into sentences,” reminding us that words are among the most important things to the poet. Cole admitted more frankly, “Sex is overrated—compared to writing well.”
Cole has won many prizes and awards, including the Kingsley Tufts, the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Rome and Berlin Prizes, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. At one moment, just before he began reading “The Rock,”3 he stopped: “Now, behind you, the sun is really doing its performance.” The reading had started at five, and the eighth-floor room where it took place has floor-to-ceiling windows along the whole eastern wall and parts of the northern wall. Sure enough, those who could tear themselves away to turn around saw the Gothic-style campus buildings of the university glazed in orange, the effect like alpenglow. But not many did turn—we preferred to listen.
1 William Carlos Williams, “A Sort of Song,” in Selected Poems, ed. Charles Tomlinson (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1985), p.145, lines 9–10.
2 John Donne, “The Flea,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), p. 309.
3 “The Rock,” in Nothing to Declare (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), p. 44.