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A scholar and a romantic

May 04, 2003|Dana Goodyear | Dana Goodyear is an editor at the New Yorker.

Middle Earth


Henri Cole

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 58 pp., $23


In 1949, Wallace Stevens -- 35 years along in his argument that God should be spelled with a lowercase "g" and six years shy of his supposed deathbed conversion -- wrote that "[t]he great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of earth remains to be written." He was being modest, but happily poets such as Henri Cole continue to respond to his challenge. "Middle Earth," Cole's transcendent fifth collection, is a gift to pagan literature.

A questioning Catholic, Cole finds another religion in seeing. These are the poems of a conjurer, ceremonial and hypnotic. He sets the mood in the title poem, turning down the lights and beginning an ars poetica mantra: "I repeat things in order to feel them, / craving what is no longer there. / The past dims like a great, tiered chandelier. / The present grows fragmentary / and rough."

In "Self-Portrait in a Gold Kimono," Cole adopts a slightly foreign syntax and the traditional costume of Japan, where he was born and where he returned to write much of this book.

Born, I was born.

Tears represent how much my mother loves me,

shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.

My heart as innocent as a Buddha's,

my name a Parisian bandleader's,

I am trying to stand.

Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,

like a glassblower on a flame ...

Tears, copper-hot tears,

spatter the house

when father is drunk, irate and boisterous.

Out-of-body, he writes freely about the origins of his fantasy life.

I drop acid with Rita.

Chez Woo eros is released.

I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue.

In reality, things were less trippy. Cole's family, a military one, moved from Japan to Virginia, where he experienced the brutal side of life on Earth. That story he has already told, most numbingly in his previous collection, "The Visible Man," which was published five years ago.

Far off, in the little neighborhood

where I grew -- with neat cement walkways

and crab-apple blossoms --

money ran through the fingers

of our house, with nothing much

to record its loss but unhappiness:

one of us ironing servilely,

one of us sobbing in a bedroom,

one of us sleeping on a rifle,

one of us seizing another by the hair,

demanding the animal-like submission

we thought was love.

Witness to a cold marriage and the victim of punitive, exclusionary religion -- it loved him but hated his homosexuality -- Cole's initial impulse as a writer was to deflect. In 1986, while serving as the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, he published "The Marble Queen," a closely observed, well-mannered book. Incisive bird, animal and insect poems invited comparisons to Marianne Moore, but Cole has said that it was James Merrill's influence he had to "guard" himself against most at that age. That restraint is clear, as is interest in social mores, lean, elegant women and European towns.

The early books are virtuosic (almost scholarly) in their use of form -- there are even several concrete poems, shaped like their subjects -- but overall Cole favored quatrains built around carefully slanted rhymes, such as "diaphanous / mussed" and "pinkish / paralysis." The effect, though impressive, is effortful, and he was exhausted by the time he came to write "The Visible Man." In the opening poem, he declared "the end of description & rhyme, / which had nursed and embalmed me at once."

But all the exercise was good for him. He is a skilled rhymer (think of "tiered chandelier" and its mate "what is no longer there"). Among the jagged lines of "Middle Earth" are a number of loose 14-line "sonnets" that don't stick to the metrical rules. The form is stable yet flexible, meditative and brisk, and provides an aura of trancelike calm: "Sitting on my bare heels, making a formal bow / I want an atmosphere of gentleness to drive / out the squalor of everyday existence," he writes in "My Tea Ceremony." Cole uses these poems to recall and enlarge discrete memories, for example, in "Radiant Ivory":

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. Nothing poured

out of me except sensibility, dilated.

It was as if I were sub-born -- preverbal,

truculent, pure --

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