Blackbird and Wolf
by Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007
Reviewed by Matthew Yeager
Life as Crucible, World as Church
To put it simply, in Blackbird and Wolf, Henri Cole’s latest volume of poetry, we are encountering someone who is writing from the absolute center of himself. The aspect of intentionality – that puss of youth – feels entirely drained from these poems. The influence of other poems or poets likewise feels non-existent – like schoolteachers who’ve left the room, or clothing kicked off.
It’s not that Cole has cut off his lines to tradition. Blake is directly mentioned; Eliot’s “Waste Land” makes a secret cameo in the final line of the book; Marvell’s “The Garden” is referenced when Cole writes “a red thought in a red shade.” You’ll also find traces of his grapplings with Harold Bloom’s formulae. What’s happened, we must conclude, is that both tradition and the idea of tradition have been assimilated. Cole is impersonating no one; nor is he impersonating an earlier version of himself, wriggling around in a homemade box, pawning off a star-painted ceiling as the night sky. He is moving forward into a poetics that is entirely his own. Middle-Earth was a large step. Blackbird and Wolf is another.
Because the poems have that queer sense of purely existing, as leaves or flowers do, they can be somewhat evasive to talk about. William Logan said as much in regard to Cole’s previous volume Middle Earth – something like, “these poems escape all the praise I can heap upon them.” He’s very correct. Attempting to read Blackbird and Wolf with a “sentence-forming” mind is quite a bit like attempting to walk out across the surface of a pond. Immediately you sink in. On one hand this is frustrating. On the other it is such a pleasure, and it goes a long way towards revealing the nature of these poems. You could say that that they “resist the intelligence almost successfully,” but this notion tends to cast the poem as an infallible citadel, the intelligence as spear-chucking infantrymen. Blackbird and Wolf, in contrast, resists you by absorbing you.
The way that these newer Cole poems pull a reader in is by immediately establishing a situation and a setting. The work is swift, specific, and simple in a way that reveals it as an aesthetic choice. (Cole’s earlier poems are more ornate, more filigreed.) At most, a title and two lines are all he requires. Some scenes are commonplace, with a quiet sensuousness. “Haircut” begins: “I sit on the dock for a haircut.” Others are more traumatic. “Ambulance” starts off: “Gentleness had come a great distance to be there / as paramedics stanched the warm blood.” The deploying of simple language to produce a vivid, instantaneous image calls to mind prose writers like Hemingway or Richard Wright. In the context of Cole’s earlier work, it is an act of trust.
Once you’ve been through three or four, you find you can enter the next Cole poem as you can a pool once you’re acclimated to the water temperature. Rather, you enter like you do a favorite show with a through-running plot, a show that unfolds in installments. Like a TV character (and as one who counts the characters on The Wire among his friends, I’m speaking positively), Cole – the “being-in-the-world” that is his speaker – possesses a sense of being alive continuously, between poems, between his occasions for speech. Perhaps this is because the situations have a cumulative variety that, on the whole, replicates “life” as most of us know it. He writes well, for instance, of sickness. His speaker has headaches, fevers, colds that don’t necessarily debilitate him, but contribute to an overall mood.
One of the pleasures of reading James Schuyler is that the room he’s in almost always enters the poem, and it tends to resemble – in spirit, at least – the room that the reader is in. There are such precise little details: an apple core on his desk, a paperback on an end table fat from having absorbed a spill, a desire to unplug a ringing phone. Cole’s is a similar knack (there is such a moisture to his writing), but what’s truly remarkable is his ability to leap from these securely pinned-down commonplaces to a spiritual meditation with far-reaching implications. More impressive is that he does so without attempting to heap an artificial importance on minutiae. He’s honest. He doesn’t b.s. The happenings of life are rendered at their precise emotional size, and the world as a whole comes out feeling sanctified.
On an entirely different note, Blackbird and Wolf (like Middle Earth) is also one of the finest volumes in terms of layout that I can recall reading. The first thing you’ll notice, in picking it up and flipping through it, is that the poems are double-spaced. This suits them well. Moreover, the font size and margins of these double-spaced poems dictate that a title and exactly fourteen lines appear on a single page. As thirty-one of the thirty-eight poems in the volume are sonnet-length, the result is that the majority fit perfectly onto a single page, like cars into parking spaces. Although in the name of fourteen lines, he occasionally breaks off his poems too soon, on the whole it’s very gratifying aesthetically.
Of course, there is a basic – yet somehow mysterious – animal pleasure in a perfect fit. A toddler, seated at a primitive wooden puzzle, slipping a triangular block into a triangular hole, feels it. As does the fifth grader at his math test, right at the moment in the long division problem where he sees he’s going to be left with no remainder. Why is this, I wonder? Though a cigar is often simply a cigar, there’s an impulse to channel the inner Freudian and assume an inherent sexual aspect to all this – as if we are sexual creatures in all our interactions, not merely when we fantasize, fuck, or kiss. I am presently recalling the panic that swept through the bicycling community in New York City several years ago. It became known that the Kryptonite chain and lock, the industry standard, could be picked using the hollow tube of a Bic pen. I have little doubt the shit-storm of thefts and factory recalls could be traced to one bored man, alone in his apartment, who noticed a size/shape similarity between the opening of the pen and the circle-shaped key hole and, out of curiosity, just stuck it in there. A question: would he have were we not, at bedrock, sexual?
I wonder what Cole would say to that. Regardless of what he’s writing about, he writes a highly sexualized poem. He’s also unusually tuned into that aspect of animal comfort that comes when a body is right in its space. I simply find it interesting the way he is posed throughout his work. “Shaving” begins with “Outstretched in a tub, like a man in a tomb.” In another poem, he remarks: “and hunchbacked loons in flight, projecting / their feet out behind, like me in my twin bed.” (Out of curiosity, I substituted beds of various sizes into this poem (“like me in my double bed,” “like me in my queen-sized bed,” “like me in my California king-sized bed.” Try it: it’s dazzling how much if lost if the size of the bed is increased.)
Connections, connections, even more connections. A twin bed, a tomb, a bathtub: sleep, death, purity.
There is, as most would agree, a symbiotic relationship between a poet’s poems and his ideas regarding the making of poetry. Because the creative process is ineffable, we must find terms to express it, and whatever terms are set forth tend to constitute a blueprint, an instruction manual. What I mean is that if someone, drawing on his experiences of making, says, “Writing poetry for me is like pounding on a wall that, after a certain amount of thumps, transforms into a door that opens me into an unexpected place,” then chances are that the creative act will indeed be like that. That person will not make poems on the first try. If someone else says, “Poetry for me is a natural act like excretion: I ingest experience, I crap poems,” then his verse will tend to lean on his life, as upon a crutch. He’ll need to have experiences the way a car must have gas. It’s akin to the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take a poet like Yeats. Yeats’ idea of a soul enlarging as a body decays, of vision clarifying as eyesight dims, proofs itself in a poetry that keeps improving and improving as he nears death. Witnessing his higher and higher and still higher flights, one secretly thinks, “Well that will be my idea too.” But the thing is, you can’t control your idea. It has you; you don’t get to have it. Cole says as much himself. In Dune, the volume’s best poem, he writes “[Poetry] is stronger / than I am and makes me do what it wants.”
In thinking about Blackbird and Wolf, particularly in light of Cole’s earlier work, you almost feel like the rituals of purification, which he enacts in individual poems, have occurred on a larger, macrocosmic scale. Purification is a process of subtraction, a removal of impurities in quest of an altered or ideal state. It involves suffering, and for many is the only logical way to process suffering. Undertaken actively, it has an end in mind. In a poem like “Gulls,” one of Cole’s best,a kind of clarified vision seems to be the aim. Like the view from any peak, vision is a temporary phenomenon, so it’s no wonder that so many of Cole’s poems follow a similar movement, that they scale the same proverbial hill. Here is the poem in full:
Naked, hairy, trembling, I dove into the green,
where I saw a form that was Mother
in her pink swimsuit, pushing out of water,
so I kicked deeper, beyond a sugar boat
and Blake’s Ulro and Beulah; beyond grief, fate,
fingers, toes, and skin; beyond speech,
plagues of the blood, and flowers thrown on a coffin;
beyond Eros and the disease of incompleteness;
and as I swam I saw myself against the sky
and against the light, a tiny human knot with eyes,
my numb hands and repeated motion, like the gulls aloft,
touching the transparent structure of the world,
and in that icy, green, silver frothing,
I was straightening all that I had made crooked.
Beautiful stuff, eh? When I read this poem a second time, it brought to mind a line from the book of Malachi:
“He [the Lord] will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”
It’s one of the bible’s most beautiful similes, and also one of the most beguiling. Like many metals, silver is heated to remove imperfections. The process requires constant attention, as too long a subjection to the heat ruins it. So how does the refiner know when his silver is pure? It becomes suddenly reflective, a mirror; he can see his image in it.
What’s interesting is that, in this metaphorical terrain, after swimming past the pressures of literature, his own body (where he seats desire), diseases, recollections of funerals, Cole’s speaker sees himself as tiny – “a tiny human knot with eyes.” An experience of smallness is common to all experiences of mysteriumtremendum: the I shrinks, the not-I enlarges. Even colloquially, when we speak of “putting something in perspective,” we most always mean we understand something, or ourselves, to be of less consequence than we once did.
And what is this thing that he mentions, “the transparent structure of the world?” Whatever it is, it seems to connect to a belief, expressed throughout Blackbird and Wolf, that all on earth is molded from the same substance, cut from the same cloth. As a reader, you not only find it in the parallels Cole habitually draws between the human body and the animal body, but in his overall use of simile, which is now less logical, more freely associative, a merging of essences. “Trees, mammals, fire, snow – / they are like emotions.” As Cole is such a powerful poet, we believe him when he says things like this just as we believe Stevens when he says, “the deer and the dachsund are one.”
Forgive me for exploiting the fact that this is an internet review, with somewhat looser guidelines….
I actually paid (or rather, am slowly in the process of paying) $1,500 dollars for Blackbird and Wolf. Strange story. Originally I ordered it from a used bookseller on the Amazon network, but over a month passed without it arriving. I sent this seller a series of agitated emails. Nothing. After meeting a friend one evening, I poked my head into St. Marks bookshop, saw it on the shelf, and went through a few poems standing up. Though I was convinced that if I bought it, a manila package would materialize in my mailbox the following day, I went ahead. The clerk slipped it into a small plastic bag. Harlem, where I live, is about a forty-minute bicycle ride from the East Village, and for some reason I was riding without a pack that night. (Why this was, I don’t know. Riding without a pack makes me feel naked, a wrist without a watch.) Still, holding a “drugstore-style” plastic bag in one hand while steering a bicycle is simple. No more difficult than holding a cigarette while steering a car. After a few blocks, though, in an attempt to switch the bag from one hand to the other, I pitched over the handlebars.
I’m always amazed at the body, how it can remain quiet as to its true condition. My hand hurt, but not unbearably. Maybe I was simply embarrassed at having fallen and being asked by half-giggling, half-concerned people, “Are you alright? Are you okay?” (My bicycle is my nicest possession, and sprawled on the street, I felt a bit like a pool player who screws together a fancy, two-piece cue at a bar and then emphatically blunders.) The next morning, like an idiot, I went to the emergency room. NEVER GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM IF YOU CAN HELP IT. EVER. I was charged almost a thousand dollars to be told my wrist was broken, then sent to a hand doctor. Can you believe that? The equivalent would be crossing a street so as to ensure a confrontation with a group of young men with a “we’re going to mug you” vibe about them…..
Anyhow, the poetry world is small enough that of course I have imagined meeting Henri Cole and telling him about this (all as those behind me in line at a signing sigh and think, “Oh Jesus just get on with it.”) Or perhaps I’d make sure to get at the back of the line, as in a line at a water fountain. I’ve heard he’s a nice person, with a dry sense of humor. Perhaps he’d ask if I got my money’s worth. Truthfully, looking at my current bottom line, I’d have to say no. I’m just not doing very well right now. But that isn’t to say that Blackbird and Wolf isn’t one of the best books of verse to come out in quite some time. We should all be looking forward to what he comes out with next.