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Blackbird and Wolf
By Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Henri Cole
All rights reserved.
I came from a place with a hole in it,
my body once its body, behind a beard of hair.
And after I emerged, all dripping wet,
heavy drops came out of my eyes, touching its face.
I kissed its mouth; I bit it with my gums.
I lay on it like a snail on a cup,
my body, whatever its nature was,
revealed to me by its body. I did not know
I was powerless before a strange force.
I did not know life cheats us. All I knew,
nestling my head in its soft throat pouch,
was a hard, gemlike feeling burning through me,
like limbs of burning sycamores, touching
across some new barrier of touchability.
Polishing your eyeglasses, I try them on
and watch the nurses hoist you — blind, giggling,
muttering nonsense French. For a moment, like a spider,
you dangle at the edge of the present,
pondering who I am: "Ma, I'm Henri.
You made me." Then my eyes flee the here-and-now.
You're pulling yourself out of the deep end,
your skin like the seamless emulsion on a strip of film.
Sensuality is confirming beauty. I'm eleven again.
Then the banal shatters everything.
In a tangled nightgown, your skin marsupial,
you're pawing through leaf mulch for pain medicine
you can't function without. The thrash of your hands
smolders like wet black ash.
In Chinese, the basic phonetic value of horse, ma,
turns up in the word for mother.
"Horse-mother, look!" I cry. Soldier-ants
are suckling on the big pink heads of your peonies.
Horse-mother flickers like a candle in the dark.
Horse-mother, why does your mouth have a grim set?
I know that all beneath the sky decays.
I know that you once cradled me in sleep,
our belly empty as a purse. "Horse-mother, look!"
I repeat. The mimosa tree is going to sleep,
its tiny pinnate leaves closing and drooping,
like you, sensitive to light and touch,
mimicking death when I push a needle into you
and bright beads run out, as from a draining bird.
Naked, hairy, trembling, I dove into the green,
where I saw a bulky form that was Mother
in her pink swimsuit, pushing out of water,
so I kicked deeper, beyond a sugar boat
and Blake's Ulro and Beulah; beyond grief, fate;
fingers, toes, and skin; beyond speech,
plagues of the blood, and flowers thrown on a coffin;
beyond Eros and the disease of incompleteness;
and as I swam I saw myself against the sky
and against the light, a tiny human knot with eyes,
my numb hands and repeated motion, like the gulls aloft,
touching the transparent structure of the world,
and in that icy, green, silvery frothing,
I was straightening all that I had made crooked.
OIL & STEEL
My father lived in a dirty-dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil — my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom —
neglected, needing nursing — this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.
Gentleness had come a great distance to be there,
I thought, as paramedics stanched the warm blood,
signaling one another with their eyes.
I was not as I was, and I didn't know why,
so I was aware of a shattering, of an unbidden,
moving under the influence of a restoring force.
Like a Japanese fan folding, my spirit seemed possessed
of such a simple existence, the sexual principle
no longer at its center, nor memory.
I felt like the personification of an abstraction,
like mercy. My hands were red and swollen.
A great chain, the twitch of my life, dragged against decay.
Then I heard shouts. Far off, a horse whinnied.
I blinked back tears as I was lifted forth.
"Hey, human, my heart feels bad,"
a crow asserts, as I am reading and drinking
chenin blanc on the balcony. His buddy
is sampling a limp rodent and seems
to want to say something, holding out
a clenched yellow foot, like a tiny man:
"Whatever you want, want it for yourself,"
he beaks, quoting Rumi, plainly disappointed,
but also kind of visionary, as if his crow mind
senses my own private Hell. Still, my hands
rubbing my neck have the intensity
of a mother's, touching a child, so I say,
"Talk to me, crow," defending the human,
"Didn't God make flesh feel this?"
MAPLE LEAVES FOREVER
I didn't know what to do with myself,
arriving through woods and fields at the lake.
The world of instinct, crying out at night
(its grief so human), frightened me,
so I scribbled vainly, contemplating the surface
of the water, frolicking in it until my long,
amphibious body, covered in fine hairs —
with whiskers, moles, and a blunt nose —
became terra cotta brown, and I — usually nocturnal —
slept all night and ate omnivorously
(eggs, fish, berries, and honey), and, after a few weeks,
the puny ingredients of my life vanished.
I, upright on hind legs, alternatively sexed
(even that seemed banal), didn't want to go home.
There's a black bear
in the apple tree
and he won't come down.
I can hear him panting,
like an athlete.
I can smell the stink
of his body.
Come down, black bear.
Can you hear me?
The mind is the most interesting thing to me;
like the sudden death of the sun,
it seems implausible that darkness will swallow it
or that anything is lost forever there,
like a black bear in a fruit tree,
gulping up sour apples
with dry sucking sounds,
or like us at the pier, somber and tired,
making food from sunlight,
you saying a word, me saying a word, trying hard,
though things were disintegrating.
Still, I wanted you,
your lips on my neck,
your postmodern sexuality.
Forlorn and anonymous:
I didn't want to be that. I could hear
the great barking monsters of the lower waters
calling me forward.
You see, my mind takes me far,
but my heart dreams of return.
with pale-pink tongue
at the center of his face,
is turning his head,
like the face of Christ from life.
Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion —
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.
Come down, black bear,
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.
As I light the oven to warm up dinner,
I watch a fly make an exploration
of the room, where I've hung wet clothes.
My human fingers, with their long, slender bones,
appear more like a reptile's. I don't know,
perhaps there's no meaning in all this,
like a slit in the grassy earth, from which rodents
come and go. Mud and life, water and hope —
I want them all, really. Instead, I listen
to a blood-dyed fist tap-tap inside my skull
and entertain a miserable fly.
In a short while, he'll run down,
like my wristwatch, but my warm human breath
will make him fly again.
Then out of the darkness leapt a bare hand
that stroked my brow, "Come along, child;
stretch out your feet under the blanket.
Darkness will give you back, unremembering.
Do not be afraid." So I put down my book
and pushed like a finger through sheer silk,
the autobiographical part of me, the am,
snatched up to a different place, where I was
no longer my body but something more —
the compulsive, disorderly parts of me
in a state of equalization, everything sliding off:
war, suicide, love, poverty — as the rebellious,
mortal I, I, I lay, like a beetle irrigating a rose,
my red thoughts in a red shade all I was.
I think I have been
my humorous glances
polished out of the mirror,
my young gray hairs vacuumed from the carpet,
where each night I undressed,
my worries beaten out of the pillows,
my oils daubed from the upholstery.
It's like removing a corpse from a sarcophagus,
I think, an intelligent man
who thinks too much,
and doesn't want to leave love behind.
I care nothing about respectability.
I can bear to think of the brisk and ruthless present
cropped short like a donkey's ears;
I can bear to think of Heaven and Hell,
where there is no tennis or jam;
but I can't bear to think of the trough in my mattress
filled up by another.
So when the erasers arrive,
smiling placidly, spraying everything with chemicals,
"Hey," I shout, touching my chest,
feeling a giant, tangible lust,
Peeling oranges, cracking walnuts at dawn,
I feel like I'm headed toward
some kind of new humanism.
I'm tired of just being a man.
Will I look back on my life as on a delicately reflective painting?
I don't know. My teeth need brushing,
the bed isn't made, I want work,
and Wednesday is flaring up,
like a cut lily no eraser can kill.
THE TREE CUTTERS
You can't see them and then you can,
like bear cubs in the treetops working for man,
hoisting one another with ropes and pulleys
that seem the clearest possible metaphor
for bright feelings vs. dark feelings,
as I lie in the grass below, hearing the big limbs fall,
like lightning exploding on the lake.
Once, a thick, dirty, bad-smelling sorrow
covered me like old meat: I saw a blood-stained toad,
instead of my white kitten; I saw shadows and misprision,
instead of my milk and pancakes. "Maybe God has gone away,"
my life moaned, hugging my knees, my teeth, my terrible pride,
though, after a time, like a warm chrysalis, it produced
a tough, lustrous thread the pale yellow of onions.
When I was a boy, we called it punishment
to be locked up in a room. God's apparent
abdication from the affairs of the world
seemed unforgivable. This morning,
climbing five stories to my apartment,
I remember my father's angry voice
mixed with anxiety and love. As always,
the possibility of home — at best an ideal —
remains illusory, so I read Plato, for whom love
has not been punctured. I sprawl on the carpet,
like a worm composting, understanding things
about which I have no empirical knowledge.
Though the door is locked, I am free.
Like an outdated map, my borders are changing.
SELF-PORTRAIT WITH HORNETS
Hornets, two hornets, buzz over my head;
I'm napping and cannot keep my eyes open.
"Do you come from far away?" I ask, dozing off.
My gums are dry when I wake. A morning breeze
rakes the treetops. I can smell the earth.
The two hornets are puzzling over
something sticky on my night table,
wiping their gold heads with their arms.
Ordinary things are like symbols. My eyes are watery
and blurred. Then I lose myself again.
I'm walking slowly in a heat haze,
my vision contracting to a tiny porthole,
drawing me to it, like flourishing palms.
I can feel blood draining out of my face.
I can feel my heart beating inside my heart,
the self receding from the center of the picture.
I can taste sugar under my tongue.
All the usual human plots of ascent
and triumph appear disrupted.
Crossing my ankles, I watch the day
vibrate around me, watch the geraniums
climb toward the distant mountains
where I was born, watch the black worm
wiggling out of the window box,
hiding its head from the pale sun
that lies down on everything,
purifying it. Lord, teach me to live.
Teach me to love. Lie down on me.
GRAVITY AND CENTER
GRAVITY AND CENTER
I'm sorry I cannot say I love you when you say
you love me. The words, like moist fingers,
appear before me full of promise but then run away
to a narrow black room that is always dark,
where they are silent, elegant, like antique gold,
devouring the thing I feel. I want the force
of attraction to crush the force of repulsion
and my inner and outer worlds to pierce
one another, like a horse whipped by a man.
I don't want words to sever me from reality.
I don't want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling — as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured in a bowl.
Excerpted from Blackbird and Wolf by Henri Cole. Copyright © 2007 Henri Cole. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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