‘Touch’ and ‘Pierce the Skin’

by Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011/2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar

“…to the whiteness of death”

Henri Cole’s new book of poetry, Touch, follows Pierce the Skin, which selected poems from his six collections published between 1987 and 2007. In the context of his work-to-date, Touch only gains in significance.

Although Cole’s The Visible Man was perhaps his most notable encounter with autobiography and gay identity when it came out in 1998, many of his abiding concerns and conceits have been present from the beginning. Despite the ongoing evolution of style and substance in his work, Cole has consistently written contemporary lyrics. Sometimes commemorative, as in “To the Forty-third President” in Blackbird and Wolf, sometimes occasional, as in “The Annulment” in The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge, Cole’s verse finds meaning in the luminous skin of the world.

Cole’s lightness and delicacy, his reserve and restraint, also unify his work. Situated on the branch of modernism that extends from Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Stafford, Henri Cole operates a poem through the senses, figures out the world through imagery. His lines are “tempered and formalized,” like the “Poppies” of Blackbird. His elegy for his father in Middle Earth, “Radiant Ivory,” shows humble objects doing heavy lifting in service of the poem:

After the death of my father, I locked
myself in my room, bored and animal-like.
The travel clock, the Johnnie Walker bottle,
the parrot tulips—everything possessed his face,
chaste and obscure. Snow and rain battered the air
white, insane, slathery.

Underneath the hood of these pristine poems roars a combustion engine, “memory, the motor of everything,” as Cole describes it in “Self-portrait with Red Eyes” in Blackbird. In “Chiffon Morning” from The Visible Man, he could be describing the sustaining act of writing when he says, “the mind replays what nurtures it.”  Blackbird’s “American Kestrel” offers an ars poetica:

…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.

Beauty is always tempered by brutality in Cole’s work. And a dynamic tension runs throughout, like a dangerous undertow. The comprehensiveness of his view is reflected in his unselfconscious melding of East and West, of Japanese and Chinese culture and classical Greek and Roman mythology. Childhood and adulthood alternate within one poem, as “the essence of self emerges / shuttling between parents” (“Self-portrait in a Gold Kimono,” Middle Earth), and “a son’s life is punishment / for a father’s” (“Apollo,” The Visible Man). With each new book, the poet reveals more of the violence of his childhood. But these seeds were planted in the beginning, including “The family squabble, the bruised cranium” of “Ascension on Fire Island” in Zoo Wheel.

In his newest book, Henri Cole stretches the limits of his minimalist style, delves deeper into family memory, and widens the scope of the tensions he explores. Touch is divided into three sections, moving from the poet’s mother’s death to a troubled relationship with a younger man addicted to drugs. The volume begins with “Asleep in Jesus at Rest,” a poem of long lines laid out in overlapping caesuras, a looser and more expansive form than what we’ve come to expect from Cole. He repeats this form later in “Legend,” a bit further into the volume. And he includes “Grebe,” a poem that he translated from the French with the author, Claire Malroux. Although he continues his familiar syllabics, Cole includes more experimental pieces in Touch, such as the free verse collage of “By the Name of God, The Most Merciful and Gracious,” which gives voice to a victim of torture. If Blackbird’s “For the Forty-third President” signaled a more engagé stance, Touch does not disappoint, with additional anti-war poems such as “Quai Aux Fleurs” and “Sleeping Soldiers.”

Like his seniors—Glück, Gilbert, and others—and like his contemporaries—Frost, Powell, and others—Cole explores aging, loss, maturity, and mortality. If self, identity, and body have been enduring concerns throughout his work, then in “Myself Departing,” he treats the issue of age humorously:

My hair went away in the night while I was sleeping.
It sauntered along the avenue asking, “Why
should I commit myself to him? I have a personality
of my own.” Then my good stiff prick went, too.
It opened the window and climbed down the escape,
complaining, “I want to be with someone younger.”

This is in stark contrast to the stunning pathos of the first section of Touch, which is devoted to the poet’s mother’s illness and death and his affectionate care (as well as guilt and melancholy). Read Touch if only to appreciate the powerful poem “Shrike” in its full context. Cole begins by watching a bird capture a cricket, and then through association makes a poetic leap worthy of a trapeze artist. The cricket

. . . holds up
pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.
Once, long ago, when they were quarrelling about money,
Father put Mother’s head in the oven.
“Who are you?” It pleaded from the hell mouth.

In our inured age, we have ready clichés to describe abuse in families. Repetition has numbed their impact. Through understated elegance and direct simplicity, Cole makes this image indelible. In this section, Cole accurately captures the complexities of grieving, elaborating on the simple human truth he had first presented in “Paper Dolls” from The Look of Things: “goodbye / in a scene / at first holy, / then lurid.”

As a minimalist, Cole comes by ingenuousness naturally. An unlikely subject, such as a “Taxidermied Fawn,” leads to the discovery of a resonant truth:

A minor smear on the white spots is the only
evidence of a violent passage from bridal innocence
to the whiteness of death, which is the absence
of everything, and, in the end, all there really is.

After a career of deftly conjuring evocative imagery, Cole has earned the right to utter plain speech, as in the poem “Ulro”: “Cigarettes, love, work, liquor, brooding, despair— / one thing not controlled can destroy a life.”

More of the poet’s dexterity is on display in “Mechanical Soft,” which doubles and triples imagery, twisting the strand, while describing a son feeding his mother in hospice:

I am not
a typical son, I suppose, valuing happiness,
even while spooning mechanically soft pears—
like light vanishing—into the body whose tissue
once dissolved to create breast milk for me.

Cole’s Touch justifies the poetic obsession with childhood. As we age, circumstances call forward past experiences. We are never done remembering, or for that matter, discovering, as in “Dolphins”: “Recently, among Mother’s things, I found this: / ‘I am afraid of him. He need psychiatric care. He lead me / to believe strange things. He ignores me, threats me.’”

The dynamic tension of opposite forces evident in Cole’s previous books acquires deeper significance in Touch. The image of his mother’s hands in “Broom”—“hands that once chased me gruesomely with a broom, then brushed my hair”—underscores how we know tenderness through cruelty. Other poems help extrapolate: we know peace through war, age through youth, closeness through isolation. But these are not simple binaries, as Cole explains in “Hens”:

There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

Through the accumulation of images of “the push-pull thing, the polarity stuff” (“Ulro”), we perceive the balancing act of walking a web of connections, the risks and rewards, pains and pleasures, and every subtle variation in between, tied to each step. Cole’s menagerie of poems grows with several more additions besides “Hens,” including “Pig,” “Hairy Spider,” Bats,” and more, in Touch. Animals tend to be more humane than humans and humans more bestial than beasts in Cole’s cosmology.

The tradition of story and storytelling encourages us to assume that those who suffer in youth find happiness—or at least escape—in age, like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk. The poems in the last third of Touch help subvert those expectations. In “Passion,” Cole begins with the ending: “Our love has ended. / We only have a little time, darling. Let’s read / swim, and sleep in one another’s arms.” Ending and beginning run simultaneously, as do pleasure and pain. If “a son’s life is punishment / for a father’s,” then here we see a mature son engaged in a troubled relationship: “I watch you emerge from the bathroom, / having breathed your fix” (“Laughing Monster”). Cole may be the first poet to incorporate a partner’s texts: “‘Loser old man u r a cheap cunt,’ he wrote, ‘I need coke. Unless ur buying, answer is no’” (“Resistance”).

Cole’s elaboration of two additional themes from his previous work—gender identity and language—helps broaden the focus of Touch. The last poem in the book, “Swimming Hole, Buck Creek, Springfield, Ohio,” takes forward the questioning of masculinity and femininity that Cole started in such early poems as “The Marble Queen” and “My Father’s Jewelry Box.” Or the exploration of language and writing in “Apollo” from The Visible Man resurfaces in Touch, with the poet’s reassurance that “writing this now, / sometimes in a rush, sometimes after drifting thought, / I feel happiness, I feel I am not alone.” No mere ephemeral beauties, Cole’s spare, masterfully controlled poems are a sustaining activity, a necessary function to help keep the poet, and the reader, safely positioned in the world.