Kit Fan

*Review of Henri Cole, Blizzard (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020)

  One of the most acrobatic sonneteers since Shakespeare, Henri Cole has breathed life and risk into variations of fourteen lines, making memorable music that often reminds us of Donne’s hot metaphysics, Wordsworth’s investigative self, and Lowell’s erudite playfulness. Resonances aside, Coleian sonnets tend to be fierce and vulnerable, momentary and mnemonic, channeling a meticulousness and spontaneity found in the finest games and arts. Reading Henri Cole is like playing Jenga when your eyes and fingertips are concentrated on the minute movement of every phrase and line, steadying yourself for an internal balance externalised out there on the page, as each winning or humbling move requires a sense of calculated risk and well-practised athleticism.
  “Sometimes, when I look at art, all I see is ambition,” Cole remarks in his auto-bio-photo-graphic essay Orphic Paris (2018), “And the same is true with poetry, when ambition is larger than talent. This, in part, is why I’m drawn to the sonnet, with its lean, muscular, human-scale body.” Arguably, body fitness is an international industry built around ambition, and the individual talent is inseparable from tradition (which happily rhymes with ambition). Nevertheless, the word “scale” seems to be one of the Coleian locks and keys, as he suggests that, unlike other poetic forms, the sonnet imparts a sense of humility, almost counter-ambition. Angela Leighton in her dazzling book On Form (2008) observes that “form can signify both the finished object, the art form in its completion, or the parts that make up its technical apparatus. It can signify a visionary apparition in the mind, or the real, physical properties of a work.” Similarly, for Cole, the sonnet is both the spirit and the body, both mercurial and functional, procedural and definitive. Many of his poems read like haiku-style radiographs of feeling, or “memory of feeling,” borrowing a phrase from the title poem “Blizzard,” in which the speaker, restless in the middle of the night, observes the world inside-out in suspended animation:

As soon as I am doing nothing,
I am not able to do anything,
Existing quietly behind lock and key,
Like a cobweb’s mesh.

It’s 4 a.m.

The voices of birds do not multiply into a force.
The sun does not engross from the East.
A fly roams the fingers on my right hand
like worms. Somewhere, in an empty room, a phone rings.
On the street, a bare tree shadows a brownstone.
(Be precise about objects, but reticent about feelings,
the master urged.)

I need everything within

to be livelier. Infatuation, sadism, lust: I remember them,

but memory of feeling is not feeling,
a parasite is not the meat it lived on.

Although six out of the fourteen semi-broken lines involve some form of negation, the poem stays acutely aware of external interruptions, as the speaker reveals, in a Bishop-esque bracket, that the art of reticence is counterbalanced by the frank recognition of “Infatuation, sadism, lust.” From “nothing” to “anything,” “everything” to “feelings,” and “memory of feeling” to “not feeling,” the sonnet moves forward fragmentedly and confidently, retrospectively and prospectively, as if contradictions were sources of inspiration. By summoning the ghosts of William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things”), Elizabeth Bishop (“One Art”), and Frank O'Hara (“In Memory of My Feelings”), Cole finds new connections between ideas and objects, memory and feelings, the self and art that are simultaneously revelatory and concealing, quotidian and uncanny. While the sonnet is familiar territory, its ground has been shaken up by the poet in order “to be livelier.” Louise Glück describes Blizzard as “a profound change” and “an event for the art itself.” Cole’s title poem not only encompasses a blueprint for an aesthetic sea-change, but also an overarching mood that pervades the whole book, capturing a fragile, divided, and violent world that is still treasured by an inquisitive self in love with language, food, friendship, intimacy, and memory.
  Poets, like other creatures, evolve at their own pace – some see each collection as an aesthetic leap forward, while others develop along a baseline-continuity. In a sense, Cole is a hybrid of both. His early collections – The Marble Queen (1986), The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), The Look of Things (1995), and The Visible Man (1998) – all have hypersensitive antennae, taking the pulse of animate and inanimate things, while always keeping the first person at arm’s length. Middle Earth (2003) can be seen as a breakthrough in which the sonnet takes centre stage, performing “a way of self-forgetting” that is also “a way of facing self.” The book brings an inward eroticism together with a meditative scrutiny that is unlike the Confessional poetry of Plath and Lowell. Blackbird and Wolf (2007) deepens Cole’s investigation into the history of the self and its disappearing act, as the speaker in “Self-Portrait with Hornets” discovers “the self receding from the center of the picture” and another speaker in “Gravity and Center” proclaims “I want nothing / to reveal feeling but feeling – as in freedom.” Echoing and departing from Thom Gunn’s Touch (1967), Cole’s Touch (2011) astonishes us with a series of skin-deep elegies, stress-testing the sonnet form, as in “Hairy Spider,” where the speaker recognises “There’s something unsettling happening, I know, but it tests / the connections between everything.” His next book Nothing to Declare (2015) seems like a controlled experiment with shorter lines and a lighter tone, and yet the sonnet (in form and spirit) is never out of the earshot, as the book extends a loyal hand to many of Cole’s abiding preoccupations such as bees, weather, flowers, mother, animals, conflicts, danger, pain, art, and self-portraiture – many of which return in Blizzard.
  Why did Louise Glück think that Blizzard is “a profound change” in Cole’s oeuvre? In a sense, the book’s three-part structure, its formal fidelity to the sonnet, its lyrical suppleness and reflexology of the self – all carry strong family resemblances to his previous collections since Middle Earth. Yet, on closer re-readings, one can’t help but recognise that through the poet’s house of mirrors, Blizzard shows a light-hearted inquisitiveness that blossoms from page to page, as well as a sharp-edged political engagement that tightens the reader’s heart. It is as if Blizzard is a product of Cole’s poetic grafting, combining the fruitful qualities of his previous books to create new growth and roots that offer rigor and resilience. Whether it is a contemplative poem about a snail or a grim portrayal of migrants, Cole approaches his subjects with an inclusive spirit that exposes and conceals, ironizes and empathizes. The result is an astounding collection marrying the private and the public self, the mood of an afternoon and the climate of our time.
  With fourteen poems in each section containing mainly sonnets, Blizzard exhibits a fine structural symmetry, anchoring the book firmly in the midst of turbulence. Section I takes off from the capitalized epigraph from James Merrill – “NOW DO U UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS / IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING.” Like Merrill, Cole situates heaven on an equal footing with the surround of the living, but in Cole the two interdependent territories are lower-cased. The book opens with “Face of the Bee,” one of many bee poems in his repertoire, as the speaker confronts a “fuzzy black face” while “smearing / jam on dark toast.” The poem ends with a sudden shift in perspective as the speaker imagines what the bee sees: “a cisgender male – metabolizing / life into language, like nectar sipped / up and regurgitated into gold?” Something fundamental changes when the poet ends with a question mark rather than a full stop. Not only does it destabilize the grand statement about birth sex, nectar, and gold, it also questions our own experience of linguistic metabolism, asking us to reflect on the way we regurgitate language and life in a way we haven’t done before. This spirit of undoing and rediscovery flows through the whole section, in heartbreaking poems such as “On Peeling Potatoes” in which the speaker feels “a connection across time” to all the potato peelers in history, and in “Black Mushrooms” where “the entire fungus world” is reimagined as “desire creating desire” and “some milder version / of a love that is temporary and guiltless.”
  Despite the human warmth in these poems, the words “tumult,” “tumultuous,” and “turbulence” run insidiously throughout the first section of the book, suggesting a sense of public disturbances and pain hovering over Blizzard. In section II, there is widespread fear and anger: the “dissidence” and “distorted version of its normal self” in “Doves,” the dark “three corpses bound to a tree stump” in “Goya,” the “massacres” and “mounds of corpses” in “Weeping Cherry,” the powerful leader “descending the long white marble step / from a White Hawk helicopter” in “Gross National Unhappiness,” and the “tanks and armored vehicles,” “spin rooms and / war rooms” in “Land of Never-Ending Holes.” This is a poet who has rolled up his sleeves to confront lies and injustices eating up a nation and its people. Against the backdrop of a vast array of weaponry, helicopters appear in three poems, each time to spine-chilling effect. “(Re)creation,” one of the most politically visual poems in Blizzard, takes us to the heart of Taliban atrocities, with “helicopters and jets” overhead, while “far away, a flute played, a missile launched, / and a child kneeled drinking before a well.” Cole fearlessly tackles some of the most troubling human experiences of our time in “Migrants Devouring the Flesh of a Dead Horse,” a poem that captures the loneliness, hunger, and desperation with unflinching empathy:

the mama is exhausted but also rather mild
in her expression, and the baby resembles
a seahorse compelled to know something painful.
No one appears left out – stabbing, licking, or chewing –
or see the texture of the animal’s insides

Here, the surgical observation of the animal being devoured is balanced against the tenderness between mother and child, as if the speaker was as unsentimental and unbiased as the crowd. Each line cuts through meats and needs, guts and emotions in a quietly undramatised manner, without being at all judgemental, until the sonnet ends with a rhymed couplet: “Eat me, it neighs now. The tree of life / is greater than all the helicopters of death.” If this final comparison between “life” and “death” is unrelenting, it is hard to decide which is more shocking – the horse’s consent to be devoured or death personified by (presumably American?) helicopters. What is “the tree of life” in the poem’s context? The horse devoured by the migrants, or the cosmic world tree of creation, or both? This unexpected ferocity of the end frames the sonnet within its poignant politics, and yet simultaneously releases it from its specific premise, widening its reach to engage grippingly with profound religious and ethical considerations. Robert Hass in “Study War No More: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant” suggests that there are at least “three ways in which literature has resisted the imagination’s love of war. The first…is by imagining peace. The second is through laughter. The third is through witness.” Cole’s poems about conflict often embrace peace, laughter, and the role of witness, as we see in “Haiku,” a sonnet about pollution and violation that is devastatingly and playfully dovetailed with a haiku:

         In the distance,
  a man waved. Unnatural cycles seemed to be
  establishing themselves, without regard to our lives.
  Deep inside, I could feel a needle skip:
Autumn dark.
Murmur of the saw.
Poor humans.

“A poem is organized violence,” Cole remarks in Orphic Paris. With images as haunting as Ezra Pound’s and a seasonal awareness as keen as Basho’s, Cole combines the sonnet’s well-established power of capturing the world’s “unnatural cycles,” in contrast to the haiku’s crystalline wit about human intervention in the natural world. The poem is a distancing act, as well as a surgical needle, probing the difficult negotiation between the public and the personal self in time of crisis.
  The social boundary of personal bonds comes to the fore in the final section of Blizzard, which bears an epigraph from the 1986 court ruling of “Bower v. Hardwick” regarding “the constitutional right of privacy” and “homosexual behaviour.” Cole quoted Justice Blackmun’s memorable words defending the idea that “much of the richness of a relationship will come from the freedom an individual has to choose the form and nature of these intensely personal bonds.” Despite this apparently progressive claim, it should be remembered that the court upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. Though this ruling was later overturned in 2003 in “Lawrence v. Texas,” it is considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions. Cole’s epigraph, therefore, puts a spotlight on Blackmun’s lonely flame against the pitch-dark backdrop of a homophobic legal and social climate, inflamed by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. With this flame, Cole records a variety of gay experiences that are public and domestic, enduring and fleeting, fun and painful, with a spontaneity and candour reminiscent of Rembrandt’s rueful self-portraits and Rothko’s internal weather-scapes. Here are some sample lines: “My pride was like a giant, oblong / pumpkin. My words were farting on stone” (“On Pride”), “Even in death, will I still want you? / Don’t want, can have. Can’t have, want” (“Red Dawn”), “Each night I dreamed the dream called elevation / in which a wondrous man sought my hand and my heart” (“Elevation”), “My lips were not yet content / with stillness” (“Keep Me”), “Where I am hairless, at the lips and groin, / there is pinkness and vulnerability” (“Ginger and Sorrow”), and “Lord, look at me, / hatless, with naked torso, sixtyish, padding alone upriver” (“Kayaking on the Charles”). It is hard to stop quoting, with so many gripping lines and poems. The voices of the speakers in these self-praising, self-mocking poems echo Gunn and Yeats, as if the poet were at home with time passing and at ease with aging, raising a glass to sweet and bitter memories.
  “I want to create an imaginative world that seems to be entirely my own, one that is neither confessional nor abstract,” Cole wrote at the beginning of Orphic Paris. It is tempting to put “my own” alongside (auto)biography, as Cole’s first-person speakers generate a compelling intimacy like Baudelaire’s or Plath’s. However, (auto)biographical materials are not the only springs of Cole’s imagination. Instead we often hear an ambivalent, self-scrutinising voice painstakingly hard at work, investigating the process, rather than the endgame, of feeling. “The person I call myself – elegant, libidinous, austere – / is older than many buildings here,” the speaker observes in “Gay Bingo at a Pasadena Animal Shelter,” the final poem of Blizzard. The combination of adjectives is eye-catching, but the emphasis, as Cole intimates, is on the italicised myself, which has something of the irony, humour, and poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Write it” in “One Art.” Reflecting on the Confessional Poetry championed by Lowell, the speaker in “At the Grave of Robert Lowell” confesses that “I rewrite / to be read, though I feel shame acknowledging it.” If re-writing is as habitual as re-reading, Cole in Blizzard has enabled the reader to see how “the ancient / and the modern intersect, spreading germs of pain / and happiness.”
  On balance, Blizzard captures more happiness than pain, especially the kind of quotidian joy found in food, friendship, and conviviality. You see this in “Lingonberry Jam” in which “Natalie’s lingonberry jam pierces right / through into some deep, essential place, / where I am my own master and no sodomy / laws exist.” Indeed, very few poetry collections contain as many culinary delights as Blizzard. Apart from jam and toast, potatoes and mushrooms, we can sample vodka and espresso, meat and cheese, grapefruit, small seeds, antipasti, slow-cooked beans, tarts, pheasant, avocado, lemon, peas, carrots, rice, and the most tempting of all his dishes – “Tonight: mushrooms and bean curd, / with lemon sauce” - in “Man and Kitten.” The warm sense of sociability found in Thom Gunn beams through Blizzard, as if for Cole, the love of food is as indispensable as the food of love. “On Friendship,” a breath-taking sonnet in the final section of the book, captures memory and forgetfulness through the language of company and food:

Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle.
In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier
kneeling on soft mats. Everything seems possible,
as when I hear birds that awaken at 4 a.m. or see
a veil upon a face. Beware the heart is lean red meat.
The mind feeds on this. I carry on my shoulder
a bow and arrow for protection. I believe whatever
I do next will surpass what I have done.

Cole uses the first line quoted here as the epigraph of Blizzard, and if there is a sense of hesitation in the half-rhyme of “commingle” and “possible,” there is also confidence in “I fear me” and comedy in “a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.” The poem exercises the mind, as much as it stretches the heart muscles. It is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly what “the mind feeds on” –the heart, love, friendship, fear, self-defence, self-belief? Perhaps this is a trick-question, as not many things we experience in Blizzard, and in Cole’s poetry, are mutually exclusive. Numerous starry poets and critics (Sharon Olds, Dan Chiasson, Maureen McLane, Harold Bloom, William Logan, to name a few) have praised Cole’s lyrical originality and self-searching luminosity, but what springs to mind after reading Blizzard is Cole’s capacity for being numerous, like the many shimmering incarnations of “I” reaching out to be acquainted with the reader. “What / has happened to me / Has made poetry,” George Oppen claims in “Of Being Numerous,” which sounds a fine counterweight to Auden’s “For poetry makes nothing happen.” From his ingenious reinvention of the sonnet and sonnet-like poem, Cole weaves a dazzling tapestry where the numerous voices of the first person find their place in an uncertain world overwhelmed by the risk of nothingness and supercharged by constant happenings. “What was that back there?” one of Cole’s first persons asks in “Departure,” and the poem answers “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” Reading Blizzard, I find myself running towards tenderness. If the book marks a departure from some of Cole’s earlier preoccupations, it also announces the arrival in changing territories of a poet of exceptional receptivity and candour.