“Something Gallant amid the Horrifying”: Henri Cole’s Orphic Paris

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Henri Cole
Orphic Paris
New York Review Books, 2018, $15.95

Henri Cole’s Orphic Paris records one long sojourn or several short trips; it isn’t clear which, nor does it much matter. The book does not trace a journey in time from arrival to departure but a period of reflection and personal growth. He begins with what amounts to a prologue: names his address in the Latin Quarter, and offers a brief account of Ste. Geneviève, patron saint of the City of Light. The patron saint of Cole’s Orphic Paris might be Baudelaire. Cole visits Baudelaire’s cenotaph in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Part 1, where he also discusses Elizabeth Bishop’s visit to Paris, which was extended while she waited for her friend Margaret Miller’s release from hospital. He reports that Miller, Bishop, and a third friend were thrown from their car in an accident while driving in Burgundy to visit churches. Miller lost her arm below the elbow, and Cole quotes from Bishop’s journal, in which she imagines Miller’s severed arm speaking “quietly to itself.” Cole’s calm recitation of the accident, the even tone of his account of Ste. Geneviève’s miracles on behalf of Paris—threatened by Huns, ravaged by ergot poisoning—, the passage from Bishop’s journal that records an arm longing for the body it has been severed from—all reinforce Cole’s claim about Bishop’s reference to Baudelaire in her birthday poem “The Bight”. “Baudelaire appears in a description of the low tide: ‘One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire / one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.’ She is referring to Baudelaire’s idea relating color to sound. But also, her discovery of something gallant amid the horrifying [.]” Both “gallant” and “horrifying” accurately describe Cole’s best poems.

Cole has made a habit of leaving the country to write his books and to break his style: to Rome for The Visible Man (1998), the most radical break; to his birthplace, Japan, for Middle Earth (2003), the first of his three books of sonnets; and to Paris, I suspect, to compose Nothing to Declare (2015), the stock phrase one finds on a customs form. This last book contains Cole’s translation of a poem by Apollinaire, his translation of a poem by his French translator, Claire Malroux, and a poem dedicated to Malroux, who appears more than once in Orphic Paris. In Part X, Cole writes, “Sometimes, when I hear bees buzzing, I think, ‘What else could love be but lots of buzzing, or hate?’” These words are very nearly the final lines of “The Bee,” the third poem in Nothing to Declare. That book’s title is not just a formal declaration that a traveler has nothing of value in his luggage, but also a refusal to make declarative statements. Orphic Paris, too, despite its diaristic form, reveals little about its author, other than his habits, his reading, and the company he keeps. As he says in the final sentence, after a long, sentimental list of things he loves about Paris, “I cared fully for myself [in Paris], and felt no guilt and confessed nothing, and in this place I wrote, I was nourished, and I grew.” [170]

In Paris he visits friends, reminisces, walks, reflects, eats, reads, listens to the bees in the Luxembourg gardens, wanders in the Louvre, and writes. He stays long enough that friends, like Jenny Holtzer, come from the States to visit him. Gallant and circumspect, only close friends are identified by first and last names: his translator Malroux for instance, but most often James Lord, the artists’ model, memoirist and biographer of Picasso and Giacometti. We never learn the surname of Octave, the only figure who disrupts the capacious, imperturbable, neoclassical syntax, which transforms a trip to a café into an epiphany: “This morning, standing at a nearby café bar, I listened across time as the boiling water, under pressure, was forced through finely ground beans, and my shot was poured into a little bowl with piping hot milk and served with a pyramid of sugar cubes on a tin plate, each square as flawlessly cut as a stone block made by a mason for an aqueduct or a temple.” [42] In the ticking mechanism of this sentence sensation is transformed into sensibility. Cole describes his morning coffee from preparation to service, and his attention comes to rest on the restful pyramid of sugar cubes that are finished as blocks dressed before they become part of something permanent, an aqueduct or a temple, elements of civilization. For Cole, each poem is a little temple or aqueduct; he considers himself an artisan; his blocks are words he dresses and assembles alone.

The book contains dozens of black-and-white photos, not quite one per page. Snapshots of food and animals and sculptures, expired identity papers, family members, stock reproductions of paintings and monuments, film stills, and vistas anyone might pause to capture. Many are charming in the way a postcard is a charming illustration of an occasion. We turn to the message on the back, and if we cherish the message, we face the image outwards, towards us, a secret in plain view, loosely kept. The photos break up Cole’s text, grace notes that create breathing spaces between his aphoristic observations, calm accounts of his perambulations, and of his one journey out of the city to the south of France. While useful as punctuation, they provide little more than candid evidence of his travels, and the natural but invidious comparison is with Sebald, whose photos complicate our relationship with what his words render. There is one unforgettable exception, a portrait of a snow leopard on page 32. The seriousness of the leopard’s eyes and the hieratic stillness of his posture make the line of his mouth look both subversive and demure, like a moustache on a poster of the Mona Lisa.

The amputation of Margaret Miller’s arm is not the only horrifying episode the book puts before us. Richard Ellman’s description of Oscar Wilde’s death in a cheap Parisian hotel, which Cole quotes from, has none of the poise of Bishop’s journal entry about Miller’s bereft arm. Wilde’s death, probably from complications from syphilis, is grotesque, though Ellmann’s account appears out of the context of his scrupulous biography. The description of ergot poisoning on the first page is another instance: “(a sickness caused by a fungus in rye and other cereals), which affects the nervous system and causes a delirious and psychotic state in which spasms, diarrhea, itching, headaches, nausea, and vomiting lead ultimately to death” [73]. Cole was in Paris during one of the terrorist attacks—he does not say which one—only that it prompted him to “dream a dream called France.” This is not as cavalier as it sounds. His mother’s family emigrated to Marseille from Armenia; his father received a Bronze Star “for exemplary conduct in ground combat during the Rhineland Campaign” [73]. His father’s family hails from Wolf Pit, North Carolina. One wonders how a town like Wolf Pit got and kept such an ominous name, unless wolves were in fact rounded up and caught in pit traps there, and the town became famous for eliminating a threat. Cole’s grandparents were “sharecroppers. They received a house and groceries in exchange for labor. They grew peaches and tobacco.” Cole continues: “Many of my father’s ancestors were classified as ‘mulatto’ by the American census” [74]. In light of this complicated ancestry, the wolf menacing the blackbird in Blackbird and Wolf (2007) acquires a new meaning too. The violent past of Cole’s people shapes, and preys on, his aesthetic.

According to the entry on Orphism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, “Because man has been formed of the ashes of the Titans who had devoured the Divine Child, he contains within himself something of the divine and something of the evil Titanic nature.” If this is the creation myth of the ur-poet, the kind of violence that must be “organized,” or better yet owned, by any poet, becomes painfully clear. A secular version of this story informs Cole’s aesthetic: Because the poet has been formed from the ashes of History, he is constrained by the Force of History. And a sacred version too: In an interview with Christopher Hennessey, Cole was explicit about the effect of violence lived with and studied. The Visible Man, the book he wrote in Rome, “was partially a result of viewing [. . .] thousands of images of a man nailed to a cross, of a man dead in his mother’s arms, and a man rising out of a tomb.” Less explicitly than Lowell’s, Cole’s subject is the self’s confrontation with violence. The marriage of a refugee from genocidal violence to a soldier of an occupying force, in flight from a fate of at best second-class citizenship, is not uncommon. Even if the conditions that thrust Cole’s parents together are too ordinary to remark on, they are nonetheless dismal and dispiriting: love among the ruins is common. In his Paris Review interview with Sasha Weiss, Cole allows that in his youth he “wasn’t sure how to be a man.” His uncertainty sounds like an admission about the difficulty of responding to and accounting for systemic violence.

Weiss says Cole has described himself as “an autobiographical poet”; he rejects the epithet confessional. Cole has shared some of the details of his life elsewhere, notably in “The Art of Poetry No. 98,” and in the brief essay “How I Grew.” Cole’s Paris Review interview was published in the summer of 2014, roughly midway through the period during which Orphic Paris was serialized in the Page-Turner section of newyorker.com. Occasionally in Orphic Paris Cole seems to be quoting himself, repeating almost word for word what he has said elsewhere. This is not uncommon: when our lives settle, the stories of our lives take a certain form. In a few instances, though, Cole appears to have revised his life. In the interview, Cole says it was Richard Howard, with whom he studied in graduate school at Columbia, who told his class, while speaking of Bishop’s “The Bight,” “Poetry is organized violence!” But, in Orphic Paris, recalling his first encounter with Plath’s poems in college, Cole declares, “I believed then, and still do, that a poem is organized violence.” While it’s possible, it does seem hard to believe that Cole came to this insight, in just these words of Howard’s, years earlier, in college; and in either case, it seems even less likely that both accounts are accurate. This kind of revision is unexceptional—we often misremember—yet some might take exception to it.

In his interview with Weiss he denigrates confessional poems as “more diary-like and confined to the here and now and without aesthetic dignity,” yet Orphic Paris is diaristic and occasional, a record of a man living comfortably and well, in thrall of an Apollonian calm (a memoir including more of Cole’s time with the mysterious Octave would have been a different story). There are a handful of moments as monumental as the pyramid of sugar cubes, penetrating observations about artists as diverse as the 18th-century painter Chardin and the 20th-century sculptor Felix Gonzalez-Torres, striking observations about bees and beekeeping, but I keep returning to the two kinds of refinement at work in Cole’s moment in the café. Cole’s refined sensibility comes to rest on cubes of refined sugar, a commodity introduced from elsewhere, from the colonies. The coffee, too, comes from afar. Cole “listens across time” as these two sought-after products of the tropics, on which so many of us depend, are prepared, reminding us that all kinds of violence are sublimed in the satisfaction of our daily appetites.