Middle Earth: Poems

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In his fifth collection of verse, Henri Cole's melodious lines are written in an open style that is both erotic and visionary. Few poets so thrillingly portray the physical world, or man's creaturely self, or the cycling strain of desire and self-reproach. Few poets so movingly evoke the human quest of "a man alone," trying "to say something true that has body, / because it is proof of his existence." Middle Earth is a revelatory collection, the finest work yet from an author of poems that are ...
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Overview

In his fifth collection of verse, Henri Cole's melodious lines are written in an open style that is both erotic and visionary. Few poets so thrillingly portray the physical world, or man's creaturely self, or the cycling strain of desire and self-reproach. Few poets so movingly evoke the human quest of "a man alone," trying "to say something true that has body, / because it is proof of his existence." Middle Earth is a revelatory collection, the finest work yet from an author of poems that are "marvels--unbuttoned, riveting, dramatic--burned into being" (Tina Barr, Boston Review).

Finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Readers will find in Cole's latest book, Middle Earth, a lyric reconsecration. — Maureen N. McLane
Publishers Weekly
Making good on his biography's pointed reference to his Japanese birthplace, Cole spent 2001-2 living in Kyoto on a fellowship from the US-Japan Friendship Commission, an experience that tinges this careful book of formal verse with neo-Orientalism. The patterns and tensions of desire and love are figured here as a series of intimate encounters with animals-a koi "defining itself, like a large white/ flower, by separation from me"-and with a feminine other embodied in Japanese cultural reference: "I tied a paper mask onto my face/ my lips almost inside its small red mouth." Cole, whose last book was 1998's acclaimed The Visible Man, follows circuitous mythic paths into barely remembered childhood years spent in Japan, in search of an Ur-moment that will explain or mitigate the death of the poet's father. In poems like "Olympia," "Medusa" and "Self-Portrait as the Red Princess," restrained lines build tightly to unforeseen lyric bursts, in which desire, guilt, and longing bind child and adult, or "open[] the soft meat of our throats." But too often here that feverish, ecstatic moment is deadened by a discursive comment on how to read a poem or why to write one, as in the prefatory remark where self-portrait as body-"almost naked in the heat/ trying to support a little universe/ of blackening pinks"-slides into a glib mission statement: "as a man alone fills a void with words,/ not to be consoling or point to what is good,/ but to say something true that has body,/ because it is proof of his existence." Yet this fifth collection, taking Cole from Knopf to FSG, should reach both established fans and new readers. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his fifth collection, Cole, who has won an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, examines the dichotomies between life and death, animal and human, and the lover and the beloved. Many of the poems, including, "My Tea Ceremony" and "Self-Portrait at the Red Princess," show a marked Japanese influence; others record a grown son's grief over the death of his father. In "Radiant Ivory," the poet attempts to catalog that loss: "I Iocked/ myself in my room, bored and animal-like./ The travel clock, the Johnnie Walker bottle,/ the parrot tulips-everything possessed his face." Cole also reminisces about his childhood with his father. In "Powdered Milk," he captures a garden memory where "big ordinary goldfish/ chewed through the pond;/ and the speech of bees encircled us,/ filling a void." Occasionally, Cole falters with a confusing simile, as in "Presepio," where he says a "farmer's wife hurries-like a moving target/ or a mind thinking-to unpin her laundry." But on the whole, Cole writes with clarity and an emotive resonance. These poems succeed as the best poems do: they transport the reader to other worlds, no less beautiful or complicated than our own. Highly recommended.-Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Middle Earth is Henri Cole's epiphany, his Whitmanesque sunrise. The modulation of these poems is extraordinary: they have a continuous undersong. 'It must give pleasure,' Wallace Stevens said. So oxymoronic is pleasure-pain, in Henri Cole, that we need to modify Stevens. But for now, poems like 'Icarus Breathing,' 'Original Face,' and 'Olympia' are the poems of our climate. Henri Cole has become a master poet, with few peers . . . A central poet of his generation."—Harold Bloom

"These are the poems of a conjurer, ceremonial and hypnotic . . . 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."—Dana Goodyear, Los Angeles Times

"Cole is fated to be a deeply stylish poet, whatever technical tools he picks up or sets down . . . Readers will find in Cole's latest book, Middle Earth, a lyric reconsecration."

—Maureen N. McLane, The New York Times Book Review

"In his fifth collection, Cole, who has won an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, examines the dichotomies between life and death, animal and human, and the lover and the beloved. Many of the poems, including 'My Tea Ceremony' and 'Self-Portrait at the Red Princess,' show a marked Japanese influence; others record a grown son's grief over the death of his father. In 'Radiant Ivory,' the poet attempts to catalog that loss: 'I Iocked / myself in my room, bored and animal-like. / The travel clock, the Johnnie Walker bottle, / the parrot tulips-everything possessed his face.' Cole also reminisces about his childhood with his father. In 'Powdered Milk,' he captures a garden memory where 'big ordinary goldfish / chewed through the pond; / and the speech of bees encircled us, / filling a void' . . . Cole writes with clarity and an emotive resonance. These poems succeed as the best poems do: they transport the reader to other worlds, no less beautiful or complicated than our own. Highly recommended."

Library Journal

"This is a book about loneliness and consolation. Cole now sees a 'young gray head in the mirror,' and the poems of his fifth collection report the familiar circumstances of midlife. The decrepitude and death of parents predominate in the book's first section, solitary exchanges with himself and the nonhuman world occur in the second, and personal rituals of self-renewal preoccupy the third . . . This poet [writes with] delicately but with unflinching honesty."

Booklist

"Making good on his biography's pointed reference to his Japanese birthplace, Cole spent 2001-2 living in Kyoto on a fellowship from the US-Japan Friendship Commission, an experience that tinges this careful book of formal verse with neo-Orientalism. The patterns and tensions of desire and love are figured here as a series of intimate encounters with animals-a koi 'defining itself, like a large white / flower, by separation from me"-and with a feminine other embodied in Japanese cultural reference: 'I tied a paper mask onto my face / my lips almost inside its small red mouth.' Cole, whose last book was 1998's acclaimed The Visible Man, follows circuitous mythic paths into barely remembered childhood years spent in Japan, in search of an Ur-moment that will explain or mitigate the death of the poet's father. In poems like 'Olympia,' 'Medusa,' and 'Self-Portrait as the Red Princess,' restrained lines build tightly to unforeseen lyric bursts, in which desire, guilt, and longing bind child and adult, or 'open the soft meat of our throats' . . . this fifth collection, taking Cole from Knopf to FSG, should reach both established fans and new readers."

Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374208813
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 80
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.62 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was raised in Virginia. The recipient of many awards, he is the author of four previous books of poems, most recently The Look of Things (1995) and The Visible Man (1998). He is poet-in-residence at Smith College.

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Read an Excerpt

Middle Earth

Poems
By HENRI COLE

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Copyright © 2003 Henri Cole
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374208816


Chapter One

Born, I was born. shivering and steaming like a horse in rain. my name a Parisian bandleader's, Father is holding me and blowing in my ear, Stars on his blue serge uniform flaunt a feeling Growing, I am growing now, Please don't leave, Grandmother Pearl. watching the President's caisson. Shining, the sun is shining on my time line. spatter the house The essence of self emerges

Noel, the wet nimbus of Noel's tongue I drop acid with Rita. I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue. the war lost. Mother: "I have memories, too. Father: "I'm glad the journey is set. Crows, the voices of crows as I sit in a gold kimono, the sultry air, the hand holding a pen, Thank you, Mother and Father, for creating me.

Indestructible seabirds, black and white, leading and following; semivisible mist, undulating, worming about the head; rain starring the sea, tearing all over me; our little boat, as in a Hokusai print, nudging closer to Icarus (a humpback whale, not a foolish dead boy) heaving against rough water; a voluminous inward grinding- like a self breathing, but not a self-revivifying, oxygenating the blood, making the blowhole move, like a mouth silent against the decrees of fate: joy, grief, desperation, triumph. Only God can obstruct them. A big wave makes my feet slither. I feel like a baby, bodiless and strange: a man is nothing if he is not changing. Father, is that you breathing? Forgiveness is anathema to me. I apologize. Knock me to the floor. Take me with you.

The hare does not belong to the rodents; he is a species apart. Holding him firmly against my chest, kissing his long white ears, tasting earth on his fur and breath, I am plunged into that white sustenance again, where a long, fathomless calm emerges- like a love that is futureless but binding for a body on a gurney submerged in bright light, as an orchard is submerged in lava- while the hand of my brother, my companion in nothingness, strokes our father, but no power in the air touches us, as one touches those one loves, as I stroke a hare trembling in a box of straw.

Come to the garden, you said, and I went, hearing my voice inside your throat. It was a way of self-forgetting. Or it was a way of facing self, I did not know. and mixed me powdered milk, as if I were still your boy. Dogs tussled on the lawn around Michelangelo's David, kept like a shrine; big ordinary goldfish chewed through the pond; and the speech of bees encircled us, filling a void.

A hundred blooming reminded me to be and not to seem. When a squalid sky pulled down the sun, we grew accustomed to it. Darkness was no nemesis. Come play checkers on the terrace, you sighed. Like me, you felt neglected, you were in a mood of mental acuteness. Like you, I was a with a taciturn spirit, I was a man who would never belong to anything. Solitude had made us her illegitimate sons.

Beyond the soggy garden, two kayaks float across mild clear water. A red sun stains the lake like colored glass. Day is stopping. Everything I am feels distant or blank as the opulent rays pass through me, distant as action is from thought, or language is from all things desirable in the world, when it does not deliver what it promises and pathos comes instead- the same pathos I feel when I tell myself, within or without valid structures of love: I have been deceived, he is not what he seemed- though the failure is not in the other, but in me because I am tired, hurt or bitter.

This is the world God didn't create, but an artist copyingthe original, or some nostalgic idea of the original, with Mary and Joseph, or statues of Mary and Joseph, bowing their lamp-lit faces to the baby Jesus. Language is not the human medium here, where every eight minutes the seasons repeat themselves, a rainbow appears, bleeding like an iris, and the illusion of unity is achieved, before blowing snow buries everything again. Looked at from above, the farmer's sheep are as big as conifers. Something is wrong with his sons, whose pale bony necks make them look feral. And the rooster cries more like a miserable donkey. A light goes off. Another comes on. In a little window, with a lamp to be read by, nobody is reading. If God is around, he seems ineffectual. In the alps, a little trolley grinds its gears, floating into the valley, where heavy droplets fall, as the farmer's wife hurries-like a moving target or a mind thinking-to unpin her laundry from the wet white clothesline, and the farmer, in the granary, stifles the little cries of the neighbor girl parting her lips. If the meaning of life is love, no one seems to be aware, not even Mary and Joseph, exhausted with puffy eyes, fleeing their dim golden crib.

It has the odor of Mother leaving when I was a boy. I watch the back of her neck, wanting to cry, Come back. Come back! So it is the smell of not saying what I feel, of irrationality intruding upon the orderly, of experience seeking me out, though I do not want it to.

Unnaturally white with auburn anthers, climbing the invisible ladder from birth to death, it reveals the whole poignant superstructure of itself without piety, like Mother pushing a basket down the grocery aisle, her pungent vital body caught in the stranglehold of her mind.

The soup boils over. The gas man demands payment for the last bill. Mother interrupts meekly. I drink wine to forget things. I go to the zoo. desire and disgust get mixed up. stability is the fruit of both war and human insight. more humans die as a result of prophets I scramble onto the ferry with Mother. Let me in, let me in! peering through the dirty portal window. I say like Frankenstein to his bride, I repeat things in order to feel them, The past dims like a great, tiered chandelier. and rough: some days the visual field is abstract or empty- in a windy sky, birds appear young and unwise; expressive figures move around and uncertainty, into the aura where grit blows in my face like love and hate as red mist burns off the surface of the river.

We were in your kitchen eating sherbet to calm the fever of a summer day. A bee scribbled its essence between us, like a minimalist. A boy hoed manure in the distance. The surgical cold of ice made my head ache, then a veil was lifted. Midday sprayed the little room with gold, and I thought, Now I am awake. Now freedom is lifting me out of the abyss of coming and going in life without thinking, which is the absence of freedom. Now I see the still, black eyes saying, Someone wants you, not me. Now nothing is hidden. Now, water and soil are striving to be flesh.

From above we must have looked like ordinary tourists feeding winter swans, though it was the grit of our father we flung hard into the green water slapping against the pier, where we stood soberly watching the ash float or acquiesce and the swans, mooring themselves against the little scrolls churned up out of the grave by a motorboat throbbing in the distance. What we had in common had been severed from us. Like an umbrella in sand, I stood rigidly apart-the wind flashing its needles in air, the surf heavy, nebulous-remembering a sunburned boy napping between hairy legs, yellow jackets hovering over an empty basket.

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-with hard ivory arms reaching out into a dark and crowded space, illuminated like a perforated silver box or a little room in which glowing cigarettes came and went, like souls losing magnitude, but none with the battered hand I knew.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Middle Earth by HENRI COLE Copyright © 2003 by Henri Cole
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Self-portrait in a Gold Kimond 3
Icarus Breathing 5
The Hare 6
Powdered Milk 7
Kayaks 9
Presepio 10
Casablanca Lily 12
Middle Earth 13
Veil 15
Swans 16
Radiant Ivory 17
Ape House, Berlin Zoo 18
Black Camellia 23
Landscape with Deer and Figure 24
Green Shade 25
Kyushu Hydrangea 26
Crows in Evening Glow 27
Necessary and Impossible 28
Cleaning the Elephant 29
Morning Glory 30
Myself with Cats 31
Pillowcase with Praying Mantis 32
Melon and Insects 33
Insomnia 34
Original Face 35
Mask 36
My Tea Ceremony 39
Self-portrait as the Red Princess 40
Fish and Watergrass 42
At the Grave of Elizabeth Bishop 43
Olympia 46
Medusa 47
Snow Moon Flower 48
Blur 50
Acknowledgments 57
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