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 --
Conceiving and reconceiving the self is a habit of poets of the imagination; birth is a good metaphor for the regenerative powers of the mind. This may be particularly true for the childless -- Cole’s dwelled-on state -- and for the semi-Catholic. Over the course of the five books, he baptizes himself in a sauna, a hot tub, a whirlpool, the Chesapeake, a bathtub full of “green, green / sacramental water,” a “saline, glaucous” spring and (in a dreamy 1960s moment) the swimming pool at the Pentagon, a “steamy natatorium.” As meaning drains from received religious images -- “sometimes, when I turn to the crucifix, / all I see is a naked man, wounded / utterly desirable, hanging on my wall,” he wrote in his last book -- Cole begins to see as a mystic, lending to the world and its ordinary objects a rich significance.
This collection marks the birth of Cole, a writer in his late 40s, as a poet for a wider audience. He displays his sense of humor and takes an unguilty pleasure in his visions. The animal poems get funny; the creatures are more human and less tame. In “Myself With Cats,” Cole makes conversation with some strays sunning near his laundry line.
“I don’t belong to nobody,” Yang insists vulgarly.
“Yang,” I reply, “you don’t know nothing.”
Yin, an orange tabby, agrees
but puts kindness ahead of rigid truth.
I admire her but wish she wouldn’t idolize
the one who bullies her. I once did that.
Another poem shows a cast of bugs hovering around the light in his room (where presumably he’s trying to write), performing “The Tempest” and insisting he play Prospero “and forgive / everyone” “ ‘What is this!’ I moaned. / Dear unnatural Ariel, I loved him, / the island setting, the auspicious revenge -- / how could I resist?” “Pillowcase With Praying Mantis” has Cole being provoked by another theatrical insect:
I found a praying mantis on my pillow.
“What are you praying for?” I asked. “Can you pray
for my father’s soul, grasping after Mother?”
Swaying back and forth, mimicking the color
of my sheets, raising her head like a dragon’s,
she seemed to view me with deep feeling, as if I were
St. Sebastian bound to a Corinthian column
instead of just Henri lying around reading.
I envied her crisp linearity, as she galloped
slow motion onto my chest, but then she started
mimicking me, lifting her arms in an attitude
of a scholar thinking or a romantic suffering.
“Stop!” I sighed, and she did, flying in a wide arc,
like a tiny god-horse hunting for her throne-room.
The scholar and the romantic -- Cole is both. He teaches at prestigious universities for a living (currently at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.) and spends a lot of time thinking up ways to describe yearning. He is also a remarkable fabulist, now writing the poems of his career. “I felt like a realist, recovering from style,” he says in a poem. It isn’t true: He is still afflicted by great style (and rhythm and rhyme and timing), and the realism -- of emotional pitch and wisdom -- is spectacularly dressed up.