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The Passing of a Secret Agent

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The distinguished poet, Henri Coulette, who died in March at age 60, was born in Los Angeles and, except for a few years in New Mexico, in the Army, and in Iowa City earning a doctorate, he lived in Pasadena his whole life. It is odd to speak of the distinction of a person whose name has been almost forgotten in the great literary world. I wonder if even his native city will be much aware of the honor of being his birthplace, but he seems to me the finest American poet to have emerged thus far from Los Angeles. Although he was a modest man, his near-anonymity was not so much the result of a distaste for self-promotion as it was his cultivation of virtues that appear to be of little interest to a younger generation: technical mastery, urbanity, wit, moral seriousness, emotional restraint, and learning. Already they have an old-fashioned sound, but Henri liked old fashions, “old rooms, old tunes.” There was a time when he was disheartened to find his work overlooked; in recent years he had come to look at the literary scene from a considerable distance and to accept his obscurity with serene resignation. He was a very shy man and perhaps he guessed that fame, had it been his luck, would have been a heavier burden.

He was not at all what is called a confessional poet. Believing in and maintaining a certain distance between life and art, even as he understood that they were not separate things, he once described himself thus:

“I consider myself a maker rather than a bard . From this consideration, all else follows. I am interested in technique, and take pride in demonstrating it. . . . I like to think that I bear witness to my experience, i.e., that my subject matter is being me, here, now. I hope that I may rise above these limitations, but I have no illusions about being a spokesman for others, or of possessing the truth. Limitation is mystery, and I try to live with the excitements and discomforts thereof.”

He did what he hoped to do. Despite the widespread assumption that formal elegance and ingenuity must somehow block or conceal true feeling, one discovers in Coulette’s poetry that through all the play of wit, the great skill, the polish and subtlety, a person shines forth, not Henri exactly, but someone resembling several of his selves--a gentle, passionate, complex person, tough-minded to the point of cynicism yet brimming with human sympathy, reserved and secretive yet terribly vulnerable in his candors. What uncomfortably ambiguous things he will reveal, jokes that are perhaps not jokes, blunt ironies, true lies. In a poem about an abortion, he writes:

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. . . playing the role

I have come here not to play.

I think what a good poem

this will make, a modern one,

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something suited to my style.

And it is a good poem, one that nine stanzas later dismisses itself as not “good enough to live.”

Whatever private longings and terrors he had to live with, he lived with them, at least in his work, with both mindfulness and detachment, cool intelligence, warm imagination--which is to say, courage. He knew that the boredom, fear, and pain of living were unavoidable, even if like all the rest of us he tried to avoid them. Unlike many, he refused easy consolations. He disliked literary works that traffic in slogans and cant, and he kept his distance from the modish dogmas that surround us, “the great truths,/ At the ends of their chains, barking.”

He read a great deal of fiction and history dealing with espionage; his special obsession was the world of the double agent, the man or woman who leads three or even more lives. These stories of the multiple selves inhabiting a single person fascinated him, and he was more aware than most people of the fictions and duplicities of which a self is constructed; it was, in a sense, his subject. The title poem of his first book, “The War of the Secret Agents,” is a youthful but still wonderfully absorbing long poem (consisting mostly of funny, pathetic, and horrifying dramatic monologues) about a compromised spy network in France in World War II, abandoned to save “an underground beneath the underground,” at the end of which we are made to understand, if we have not already guessed, that all this is metaphor. It ends:

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Reader, you have been as patient

as an agent

waiting at midnight

outside a deserted house

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in a cold rain. You will ask

yourself

What does it all mean? What

purpose does it serve,

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my being here in this rain ?

Reader (you will be known

henceforth by that name),

there is no meaning

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or purpose; only the codes.

So think of us, of Prosper, silly

Prosper, or Archambault of the

marvelous eyes,

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of Denise combing her hair.

Good a book as “The War of the Secret Agents” is, the next one, “The Family Goldschmitt,” was a great advance; Jascha Kessler, reviewing it in these pages in 1966, saw it as “compressing unbearable depths of emotion . . . into every phrase.” Not only surer in tone, more in command of its resources, it is also a book , not just a collection, and one that speaks of large matters--the Holocaust, the wars, the Nixons and Kennedys, the ‘60s, the little tragedies of modern love. Zbigniew Herbert thought “The Family Goldschmitt” “a truly remarkable development.” But it attracted little attention and soon disappeared.

For a good many years Coulette wrote next to nothing and believed that he would write no more. However, the Muse cares nothing for a poet’s opinions, and he was to compose 50 more pages of verse, the best he ever did. For a taste, here is a brief lyric called “Petititon,” in 5-syllable trimeters:

Lord of the Tenth Life.

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Welcome my Jerome.

A fierce, gold tabby.

Make him feel at home.

He loves bird and mouse.

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He loves a man’s lap.

And in winter light,

Paws tucked in, a nap.

As a friend has said, that is worthy of Herrick.

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Sensing that there was not much time left, he called the book “To Come to Closure.” Knowing that it was not the kind of poetry that is popular nowadays, he never got around to sending it off to publishers. No doubt it will find a publisher now.

He died what we might call a good death. It came to him in sleep, swiftly and painlessly, a few hours after he had put the finishing touch to his last poem, “These United States,” a warm tribute to William Carlos Williams. And now he is among the subjects of his thought--the antique hats, the silver screen, the double agents, the misfits, Jews, bindlestiffs, girls with dandruff--last effects. The final poem:

Elsewhere in Rutherford, thanks

to his hands,

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Mother and child have entered the

new world,

Separate now, save for the one

shadow.

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Medicine henceforth will be all

mother--

A laxative, a mustard plaster, a

kiss.

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The boy will grow, grow hair, and

grow beyond her.

And there will be a war, and he

will go.

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The mother will send pictures of

herself,

Taken too late to capture what she

was.

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Chest full of ribbons, a condom in

his boot,

He will straddle a stool at an Owl

Drug, and gaze

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At a red-headed girl in a tight

skirt.

The good and naked doctor, emp -

tied now

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Of those anatomies, more gray

than Gray,

Will sleep for a few hours, his

mouth open.

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During a recent memorial at Cal State L.A. where he taught for some 30 years, one was surprised again and again by how many separate lives Henri seemed to have led, for he usually saw friends one at a time (so never realizing how rich in friends he was), and many of them did not know one another. He probably liked to think of himself as a double agent (though he was loyal to them all), and yet

there were times, and I speak

perhaps only personally,

when everything coalesced--

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and all the Henris were in a way one, for most of the Henris that people knew were very intelligent, witty, courtly, generous and kind. And they were, above all, devoted servants of poetry. They all came together in the poetry, to mourn and celebrate, to be alone with what they were. Reading this whole body of work from beginning to end, I recognize again and again what I already knew, that our friend Henri, all of them, was a master.


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