Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems

by Henri Cole

reviewed by William Doreski

Drawn from twenty-five years of published work, this modest (66 poems, 134 pages) volume of selected poems presents an evolution from elegant formal decorum to a first-person narration more subtly harrowing than that of Sharon Olds.

The terse, compact, and sharply rhythmic lines of Cole’s early work gradually yield to a more prosaic, less clearly accentual line, a simplified syntax, and less aggressively formulated tropes. His most recent poems, those published in this new century, may challenge those who prefer a clearly delineated aesthetic grasp of the visible world, but they reward the reader who appreciates a rhetoric of quiet passion rather than of decorum. But then this is a matter of emphasis: Cole has not abandoned his carefully cultivated poetics, but he has challenged lyric stasis with a stronger narrative line.

The early poems, perceptive and entropic, elaborate upon the natural quotidian:

Out of vivariums, out of seclusion
from under stones and turfy grass, the half-
grown caterpillar emerges; out of unsewn

mast of silk; out of winter lethargy,
the hibernating chrysalis unruffles
its royal self… (“Heart of the Monarch”)

Their vocabulary sometimes burdens these poems by imposing complexities that in the absence of a more compelling rhetoric seem more ornamental than functional. However, “The Marble Queen,” the title poem of his first collection, transcends self-consciousness to generate a powerful empathy:

Some unforgettable picture wells inside her

until she sees it hovering
like the bees and mayflies humming
in the blue afternoon—

there so long, so simple,
she has misunderstood it:
the terrible monotonous despair…

Prepared by forty-one lines of dramatic setting, the reader receives “terrible monotonous despair” with the shock of recognition only genuine poetry affords.

In Cole’s second collection a tension between elegant syntax and vocabulary and the underlying emotional drama frequently reveals itself. The subject matter becomes more personal. Rather than focusing on the epiphanic still-lifes of nature, poems like “The Annulment” and “White Sheets” confront family angst and more candidly expose the speaker’s uncertainties. The strongest poem of this period, “The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge,” unravels the whole of evolution and history in a family visit to the zoo. In these poems, Cole begins to overcome his ornamental tendencies by enlarging his narratives without abandoning his rich language. Yet language still occasionally seems as much hindrance as aesthetic medium. Cole’s bent isn’t especially musical; he has never embraced the sonorities of lyric. Almost secretly, his poems have always strained toward narration, but an appetite for local effect inhibits the earlier ones. But by the time of his third and fourth collections (The Look of Things, The Visible Man), the story more than the metaphor is shaping the poem.

In the poems from his most recent collection, Blackbird and Wolf, Cole completes his evolution and discards the last traces of rhetorical self-consciousness. Double-spaced to underscore the step-by-step progression of their linearity, these poems embrace prose constructions like Chekhov’s and reject the verse-sculptures of his earlier models (James Merrill, for instance). Much more open to event, much less inclined toward still life, these recent poems engage subject matter familiar to aging baby-boomers: the decline and death of parents, childhood memories, and so on. Cole avoids the clichés and sentimentality of this ubiquitous subgenre by developing a flat descriptive narration that with a simple prosaic rhythm generates an air of objectivity free of the more predictable emotions. The opening of “Oil & Steel” demonstrates how deliberately flat this effect can be:

My father lived in a dirty-dish mausoleum

watching a portable black-and-white television,

reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,

which he preferred to Modern Fiction.

Although the outmoded TV suggests a hint of pathos, the subject’s commitment to reading the encyclopedia suggests this man remains firmly in control of his life. The fact that in the next few lines he dies might negate this view, except that the poem allows him to comment on his own situation—“‘Dead is dead,’ he would say, an antipreacher”—to reassert his self-adequacy.

These recent poems all deal with death, as in “Beach Walk” and “Dead Wren,” and risk the pathos of contemporary unheroic endings. But “Dune,” the final poem and Cole’s best to date, is a manifesto of a fresh vision, “a dizzy / honeycomb gleaming with amber light.” With a nod to Emerson (“Sometimes, I feel like a large, open eye, / in which there is a sifting of too many things”), Cole develops a more inclusive worldview to accommodate his buffeted sensibility. The poem convinces with its self-renewal through landscape, even though it ends with a dangling question—“even when the world seems just a heap of broken things?”—because it creates such synergy between the landscape and the lone human figure in it. Cole is a poet of aloneness—not loneliness—but if there’s still a hint of sadness in that stance, “Dune” rejects self-pity and closes the book with “warmth, going forward,” an enriched and enriching sense of self.

Published on July 11, 2013