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Middle Earth: Poems

Middle Earth: Poems

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by Henri Cole

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The fullest culmination to date of an original voice and "a central poet of his generation" (Harold Bloom)

Time was plunging forward,
like dolphins scissoring open water or like me,
following Jenny's flippers down to see the coral reef,
where the color of sand, sea and sky merged,
and it was as if that was all


The fullest culmination to date of an original voice and "a central poet of his generation" (Harold Bloom)

Time was plunging forward,
like dolphins scissoring open water or like me,
following Jenny's flippers down to see the coral reef,
where the color of sand, sea and sky merged,
and it was as if that was all God wanted:
not a wife, a house or a position,
but a self, like a needle, pushing in a vein.—from "Olympia"

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).

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.

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Read an Excerpt

Middle Earth

By Henri Cole

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2003 Henri Cole
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7776-4



    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 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.
    Stars on his blue serge uniform flaunt a feeling
    of formal precision and stoicism.
    Growing, I am growing now,
    as straight as red pines in the low mountains.
    Please don't leave, Grandmother Pearl.
    I become distressed
    watching the President's caisson.
    We, we together move to the big house.
    Shining, the sun is shining on my time line.
    Tears, copper-hot tears,
    spatter the house
    when Father is drunk, irate and boisterous.
    The essence of self emerges
    shuttling between parents.
    Noel, the wet nimbus of Noel's tongue
    draws me out of the pit.
    I drop acid with Rita.
    Chez Woo eros is released.
    I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue.
    The draft-card torn up;
    the war lost.
    I cling like a cicada to the latticework of memory.
    Mother: "I have memories, too.
    Don't let me forget them."
    Father: "I'm glad the journey is set.
    I'm glad I'm going."
    Crows, the voices of crows
    leaving their nests at dawn, circle around,
    as I sit in a gold kimono,
    feeling the subterranean magma flows,
    the sultry air, the hand holding a pen,
    bending to write,
    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.

    You drank scotch whiskey
    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 cacti
    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 man
    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 copying the 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 doorbell rings.
    The gas man demands payment for the last bill.
    Can you find my yellow pills?
    Mother interrupts meekly.
    Fruit flies follow me, circling my head.
    I drink wine to forget things.
    I ride the train backwards.
    I go to the zoo.
    I eat tiny marzipan men at the bakery;
    desire and disgust get mixed up.
    I read Kant:
    stability is the fruit of both war and human insight.
    True or false:
    more humans die as a result of prophets
    than statesmen?
    I scramble onto the ferry with Mother.
    Iridescent ducks swim away like phrases.
    Let me in, let me in!
    I shout when I discern her child's face
    peering through the dirty portal window.
    Look in my face,
    I say like Frankenstein to his bride,
    look in my face.
    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:
    some days the visual field is abstract or empty —
    in a windy sky, birds appear young and unwise;
    others it's eerily concrete —
    expressive figures move around
    with an endless capacity for tumult
    and uncertainty,
    taking us farther from ourselves,
    into the aura
    at the deepest point of the river,
    where grit blows in my face
    and my numb hands grip onto Mother's,
    like love and hate
    in the shuttered mansion on the hill,
    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.


    Are the lost like this,
    living not like a plant, an inch to drink each week,
    but like the grass snake under it,
    gorging itself before a famine?
    Gazing at me longer than any human has in a long time,
    you are my closest relative in thousands of miles.
    When your soul looks out through your eyes,
    looking at me looking at you, what does it see?
    Like you, I was born in the East;
    my arms are too long and my spine bowed;
    I eat leaves, fruits and roots; I curl up when I sleep; I live alone.
    As your mother once cradled you, mine cradled me,
    pushing her nipple between my gums.
    Here, where time crawls forward, too slow for human eyes,
    neither of us rushes into the future,
    since the future means living with a self
    that has fed on the squalor that is here.
    I cannot tell which of us absorbs the other more;
    I am free but you are not,
    if freedom means traveling long distances to avoid boredom.
    When a child shakes his dirty fist in your face,
    making a cry like a buck at rutting time,
    you are not impressed. Indolence has made you philosophical.
    From where I stand, you are beautiful and ugly at once, like a weed or a human.
    We are children meeting for the first time,
    each standing in the other's light.
    Instruments of darkness have not yet told us truths;
    love has not yet made us jealous or cruel,
    though it has made us look like one another.
    It is understood that part of me lives in you,
    or is it the reverse, as it was with my father,
    before all of him went into a pint of ash?
    Sitting in a miasma of excrement and straw,
    combing aside hair matted on your ass,
    picking an insect from your breast, chewing a plant bulb,
    why are you not appalled by my perfect teeth
    and scrupulous dress? How did you lose what God gave you?
    Bowing to his unappealable judgment, do you feel a lack?
    Nakedness, isolation, bare inanity: these are the soil
    and entanglement of actual living.
    There are no more elegant redemptive plots.
    Roaming about the ape house, I cannot tell which of us,
    with naked, painful eyes, is shielded behind Plexiglas.
    How can it be that we were not once a family
    and now we've come apart? How can it be that it was Adam
    who brought death into the world?
    Roaming about the ape house, I am sweat and contemplation and breath.
    I am active and passive, darkness and light, chaste and corrupt.
    I am martyr to nothing. I am rejected by nothing.
    All the bloated clottings of a life — family disputes, lost inheritances,
    vulgar lies, festering love, ungovernable passion, hope wrecked —
    bleed out of the mind. Pondering you,
    as you chew on a raw onion and ponder me,
    I am myself as a boy, showering with my father, learning not to be afraid,
    spitting mouthfuls of water into the face of the loved one,
    the only thing to suffer for.


Excerpted from Middle Earth by Henri Cole. Copyright © 2003 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956 and raised in Virginia. He has published eight collections of poetry, including Middle Earth (FSG, 2004) which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He has received many awards for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lenore Marshall Award. His most recent collection is Touch (Farrar, Straus&Giroux, 2011). He teaches at Ohio State University, is poetry editor of The New Republic, and lives in Boston.
Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956. He has published eight previous collections of poetry and received many awards for his work, including the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. His most recent collection is Touch. He lives in Boston, where he is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

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Middle Earth 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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