Touch: Poemsby Henri Cole
Henri Cole’s last three books have shown a continuously mounting talent. In his new book, Touch, written with an almost invisible but ever-present art, he continues to render his human topics—a mother’s death, a lover’s addiction, war—with a startling clarity. Cole’s new poems are impelled by a dark knowledge of the/i>
Henri Cole’s last three books have shown a continuously mounting talent. In his new book, Touch, written with an almost invisible but ever-present art, he continues to render his human topics—a mother’s death, a lover’s addiction, war—with a startling clarity. Cole’s new poems are impelled by a dark knowledge of the body—both its pleasures and its discontents—and they are written with an aesthetic asceticism in the service of truth. Alternating between innocence and violent self-condemnation, between the erotic and the elegiac, and between thought and emotion, these poems represent a kind of mid-life selving that chooses life. With his simultaneous impulses to privacy and to connection, Cole neutralizes pain with understatement, masterful cadences, precise descriptions of the external world, and a formal dexterity rarely found in contemporary American poetry.
“Cole's eighth book of poems may be his most sensitive (in the manner of a compass needle), pointing as precisely as possible to the various sources of a lifetime's fragility and emotional power. Written mostly in the pseudo-sonnets he's developed in his recent books, these poems take long, at times excruciating looks at memories that Cole's speakers must force themselves to learn from . . . It's as if Cole's extreme attention manages, somehow, to simultaneously magnify and sooth aloneness, a mystery like the one into which a pair of free canaries fly in the book's title poem: ‘Though they didn't know where they were going,/ they made their prettiest song of all.'” Publisher's Weekly
“In a cynical age, the Wordsworthian poetry of ‘powerful feelings' may be the hardest to write successfully, but Cole has mastered the genre convincingly enough in more than two decades to garner widespread critical praise, including a 2004 Pulitzer nomination. On the heels of last year's Pierce the Skin, this new collection of plain-spoken lyrics, many of them sonnets, continues the poet's quest to connect his own physicality and emotion (‘the salt of sweat,/ the salt of tears') to the larger world (‘the salt of the sea') by ‘seeing into love, seeing into suffering.' The external prompts for this connection may be as innocuous as hens, seaweed, and bats or as devastating as the death of the poet's mother and a relationship with a drug-addicted lover . . . VERDICT Moving through ‘fraught territories/ of self and family' in so heightened a state of awareness risks solipsism and sentimentality, but Cole's meticulous craft prevents his fragile-boned structures from tipping either way, revealing an aesthetic and tonal awareness of equally impressive magnitude.” Fred Muratori, Library Journal
“In his newest book, Henri Cole stretches the limits of his minimalist style, delves deeper into family memory, and widens the scope of the tensions he explores . . . As a minimalist, Cole comes by ingenuousness naturally . . . After a career of deftly conjuring evocative imagery, Cole has earned the right to utter plain speech . . . No mere ephemeral beauties, Cole's spare, masterfully controlled poems are a sustaining activity, a necessary function to help keep the poet, and the reader, safely positioned in the world.” James Cihlar, Coldfront
“Henri Cole's Touch is a book of reckonings . . . Cole engages the full spirit of reckoning; psychological and emotional accounts are settled and admonishments are meted out, but always with generosity and affection . . . James Baldwin warned that there is something cruel about sentimentality because it is a lie. So in order to really honor the people we love or grieve for, the whole messiness of desire or loss must be permitted to illuminate a poem. Henri Cole's Touch exposes us to both the harshness and comfort of such light.” Paul Otremba, The Houston Chronicle
“Touch, a new collection of poems by Henri Cole published this week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, offered ample aesthetic rewards. Cole, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003 for Middle Earth, writes in a spare, plain-spoken style, touching on such themes as his mother's death and his lover's drug addiction. Our favorite poems here are specific, precise and grounded in nature, human or otherwise. They're tender and compassionate but clear-eyed, and there's something, if we may presume to say, masculine in their stance.” Bay Area Reporter
“Like the messianic Walt Whitman . . . Henri Cole has spent his career tallying ecstatic and multifarious encounters with physical reality. Such encounters permeate this sumptuous new collection of poems, in which Cole is to be found addressing a pig, a strand of seaweed, and even a mosquito. A characteristic tone of awed ingenuousness ("You gave me a nice bite; I hope I didn't rip your wing off, / pushing you away") is one Cole has learned from Blake and Bishop, though he also keeps an ear to the ground of contemporary speech, describing a torrential downpour as "rain on steroids." Cole is known for his hair-raising erotic intimacy . . . but these poems are emphatically universal. "How can I / defend myself against what I want?" Cole asks with voluptuous candor, and leaves it to us to infer the answer. He can't, and neither can we.” The New Yorker
“Touch is Cole's definitive and deeply conflicted account of the death of his mother . . . Cole is unmatched in his willingness to confront and inhabit bereavement. What distinguishes Cole from his peers is not his vulnerability in the face of autobiographical detail, but his willingness to participate and collaborate in the writing of his own history . . . Touch stands as the culmination of a relationship to pain and loss that began for Cole with the publication of Middle Earth. With so many elements at work--his volta, his appropriation of speech, his occupation of bereavement and the deceased--Cole has situated himself as a poet whose evolution is as fascinating and exhilarating as the work itself, demonstrating the possibilities of poetry and revealing new directions in which to take pain and the pleasure of rendering it through language.” Daniel Schoonebeek, The Rumpus
“Touch is . . . quiet and powerful . . . and continues in the autobiographical vein that has distinguished Cole's last four books . . . [These poems] have, in the end (with the delicacy of a compass needle), stopped at somewhere between ecstasy and dread--where, as it happens, much of living is.” Michael Klein, Lambda Literary
“Touch [is] an intimate, new installment of Cole's biography-in-verse . . . [a] heart-rending book . . . the genius of Henri Cole's lines is in how casual they seem, even as he loads them with meaning . . . The closer one gets to Henri Cole's Touch, the more generous both poems and author seem.” Daniel Bosch, The Arts Fuse
“Henri Cole writes poised, elegant poems as a way of containing rattling pain . . . These are poems of inveterate gentleness . . . and Touch is a book one reads with dream-like urgency . . . Though the poems seem raw and plainspoken, and positively vibrate with feeling, they are, of course, cannily wrought, and demonstrate the thing that poetry, perhaps above all other art forms, does so well: giving form and dimension to disorderly thought, causing words--random, messy, and lifeless before the poet intervenes--to spring up and deliver meaning.” Sasha Weiss, The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog
“[Touch] is a book not of repetition but of refinement of thought. More than before, Cole displays self-awareness of his own poetic impulses . . . He shows similar awareness of his work's potent sensuality, although that aspect is more subdued here than in his previous work. ‘How can I / defend myself against what I want?' he asks a lover in ‘Carwash,' and the question's self-incrimination, bravado, and acceptance inflect the poems that follow it.” Adam Eaglin, The Kenyon Review
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Read an Excerpt
By Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2011 Henri Cole
All rights reserved.
Don't be an open book.
ASLEEP IN JESUS AT REST
Their names were Victoria, Ebbenezer, Noah,
Fannie, Travis, Alex, Pleasant,
William Christmas, and Jane.
Like father, they labored in exchange for small wooden houses.
Breaking even was a feat.
Things were settled when the crops were in.
They were my ancestors and lived along the Pee Dee River,
under tupelo, oak, and gum,
where wolves made dens
("You could smell dem wolves!").
According to the Census, they were mulatto
(Spanish mulato, small mule).
Women died of uremic poisoning.
Children were stillborn.
Those that lived were sprinkled on their foreheads
and went to Sunday school,
taught by Mrs. Lillian Ingram,
in Wolf Pit Township, North Carolina.
One of them wrote a poem:
"There in the boughs, in a tiny nest, are three baby birds
with mouths opened wide."
When I was born,
I weighed nine pounds of flesh.
Mother's hair fell down
the back of her long neck.
Tears ran out of her eyes like animals.
Fragrant convolutions from her insides
filled the room with the strife of love.
Daddy was on a tour of duty.
"Remember you got a father," he used to say.
"You weren't born by yourself."
SOLITUDE: THE TOWER
Long ago, I lived at the foot of the mountains,
where my parents lived when they were young.
Nearby, there was a daffodil farm, which I bicycled past
each day on my way to the supermarket.
Occasionally, there were earthquakes, but no one noticed.
At my desk, words and phrases grew only slowly,
like the embedded or basal portion of a hair,
tooth, nail, or nerve. As I looked at the empty page —
seeing into love, seeing into suffering,
seeing into madness — my head ached so,
dear reader, emotions toppling me in one
direction, then another, but writing this now,
sometimes in a rush, sometimes after drifting thought,
I feel happiness, I feel I am not alone.
How brightly you whistle, pushing the long, soft
feathers on your rump down across the branch,
like the apron of a butcher, as you impale a cricket
on a meat hook deep inside my rhododendron.
Poor cricket can hardly stand the whistling,
not to speak of the brownish-red pecking
(couldn't you go a little easy?), but holds up
pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.
Once, long ago, when they were quarrelling about money,
Father put Mother's head in the oven.
"Who are you?" it pleaded from the hell mouth.
Upstairs in the bathroom, I drank water right out of the tap,
my lips on the faucet. Everything was shaking and bumping.
Earth was drawing me into existence.
When Mother and I first had the do-not-
resuscitate conversation, she lifted her head,
like a drooped sunflower, and said,
"Those dying always want to stay."
Months later, on the kitchen table,
Mars red gladiolus sang Ode to Joy,
and we listened. House flies swooped and veered
around us, like the Holy Spirit. "Nature
is always expressing something human,"
Mother commented, her mouth twisting,
as I plucked whiskers from around it.
"Yes, no, please." Tenderness was not yet dust.
Mother sat up, rubbed her eyes drowsily, her breaths
like breakers, the living man the beach.
CHERRY BLOSSOM STORM
A mother is a mother still,
The holiest thing alive.
"The Three Graves"
"Draping my body in the usual sterile manner,
they placed me in a supine position and adequate
general anesthesia was obtained. Then a collar incision
was made at the base of my neck and the strap muscles
incised, the dissection continuing sharply over
both my lobes as inferior vessels and veins
were isolated, litigated, and divided, the cut surfaces
like a cherry blossom storm, except for a small amount
of beefy red identified at the pole. Awakening later,
I heard a voice muttering: Don't worry about adultery
(he sleeps in a different room). Don't go down after
midnight. Don't take tranquilizers. Don't love. Don't hate.
Sometimes, the paralysis of a soul awakens it. Sometimes,
awful things have their own kind of beauty."
Walking yesterday in the cold, bright air,
I encountered fifteen horses marching
in a phalanx down the avenue. Long before
they were visible, I heard their shoes striking
the pavement, as language is sometimes audible
before sense arrives. I loved how the wind played
with their long, brushed tails. Though in a faraway
place, I was not a stranger. Mother is dying,
you see, and proximity to this death makes me
nostalgic for the French language. I am not
a typical son, I suppose, valuing happiness,
even while spooning mechanically soft pears —
like light vanishing — into the body whose tissue
once dissolved to create breast milk for me.
Faraway sibling, speak for me from your leafy islet inside the forest
where water oozes up from the earth like gems.
I could have been you
sitting placidly day after day on your treasure,
scarcely turning your neck to observe your companion's steadfast silvery presence
as he alights and sits beside you in his vigil.
You, who are so sure of your life
in the bough-strangled world men cut back continually,
speak for me, horizon-gatherer, since I cannot see
further than my human eyes allow.
Nobody nearby is aware of your secrets —
not even the Sunday fisherman or the black drummer
with his tom-tom —
in this place of echoes, which was once a savannah.
The world isn't any more timeworn or significant than your egg.
Speak, for I cannot speak for you.
I have no feathers and cannot even distinguish
the blackness of the water from the green.
(translated from the French with the author)
The dolphins seem happy — lying on their spines,
showing us their gleaming underparts — as the trainer
rubs their cheeks and makes them chatter loudly.
When she floats on her back, they push her with their snouts,
as if through a Tiepolo sky, and the children shriek gaily,
deranging my senses.
Recently, among Mother's things, I found this:
"I am afraid of him. He need psychiatric care. He lead me
to believe strange things. He ignores me, threats me.
Very mean. He want to know about insurance."
Here, amid the screamers, loyalty and love have not
been supplanted by trouble and strife. What shields
the dolphins from implacable aloneness? Why do their souls
have no knowledge of their insignificance? How far off
the modern world seems. Beauty remains unshattered.
You gave me a nice bite; I hope I didn't rip your wing off,
pushing you away. We were sitting by the window;
outside, there was rain on steroids. Your voice was so funny —
up, down; soft, loud — but distant, I thought, reading
my magazine. Then I felt your subtle knife touching me,
as if I were just some part of the scenery, and we sat
like that a long time, your moist red crown all shiny,
as if from effusions: milk, blood, tears, urine, semen.
Tell me, was I happier there in my loneliness,
you feeding on my arm (Let go of the spirit departed),
emotion dripping liquid morphine through me (Nobody there),
as when — poem, rope, torture — I couldn't look at the corpse
in the coffin with eyes closed (Continue your life)?
It was a subtle knife, too, cutting lipid yellow, until I pushed it away.
Now the spell
the bleeding and
soft and hard,
cold and warm,
nurturing and distant,
as the cold rain
gives a ghostly aura,
moth, squirrel, bee,
fly, and bat providing
from the earth,
which soon will be
draped and piled
as each snowfall —
like linen unfolded,
conjuring the domestic —
forces us inward
into fraught territories
of self and family,
instead of out into waves
at the beach or furrows
in the bronzing garden.
Fold one thousand
paper cranes on the kitchen table
and the spirits will cure you,
a friend once advised,
a thousand crane constructions
to complement, sustain,
and nurture me
when the multi-breasted
"good mother" is gone,
and the art of life
the art of avoiding pain,
so the ceremonial
folding goes on,
each bird folded
and sewn to another,
beak to tail.
With the press of a button,
she appears out
of darkness, sitting
with one ankle
over the other,
in a woven dress
traces of coca leaf
still on her lips,
her hair braided finely,
with a wrinkle in one cheek
where her shawl
touched it. Sometime
after her sacrifice,
burned her body,
leaving the marks.
well nourished, with blood
still in her heart,
she sits in an
at a temperature of zero,
as she did for five
in an underground
niche, after drinking
and falling asleep,
A plaque states:
According to beliefs,
children do not die
but join ancestors
on the mountaintop.
"She doth not sleep,"
I thought, years later,
kneeling with my
eyes closed beside
"Look, Henri, isn't she beautiful!"
my aunt exclaimed,
but I couldn't.
I don't need to know
what I already know.
All of life was there — love, death, memory —
as the eyes rolled back into the wrinkled sleeve
of the head, and five or six tears — profound,
unflinching, humane — ran out of her skull,
breathtakingly heroic, and tenderness (massaging
the arms, sponging the lips) morphed into a dog
howling under the bed, the bruised body that
had carried us, splaying itself now, not abstract,
but symbolic, like the hot-water bottle,
the plastic rosaries, the shoes in the wheelchair
("I'm ready to stretch out"), as dents and punctures
of the flesh — those gruesome flowers — a macabre tumor,
and surreal pain, changed into hallowed marble,
a lens was cleared, a coffer penetrated.
A starkly lighted room with a tangy iron odor;
a subterranean dankness; a metal showerhead hanging from the ceiling;
a scalpel, a trocar, a pump; a white marble table; a naked, wrinkled
body faceup on a sheet, with scrubbed skin, clean nails,
and shampooed hair; its mouth sewn shut, with posed lips,
its limbs massaged, its arteries drained, its stomach and intestines emptied;
a pale blue sweater, artificial pearls, lipstick, and rouge;
hands that once opened, closed, rolled, unrolled, rerolled, folded, unfolded,
turned, and returned, as if breathing silver, unselfing themselves now
(very painful); hands that once tore open, rended, ripped,
served, sewed, and stroked (very loving), pushing and butting now
with all their strength as their physiognomy fills with firming fluid;
hands once raucous, sublime, quotidian — now strange, cruel, neat;
hands that once chased me gruesomely with a broom, then brushed my hair.
In a hospital morgue,
I lay in a pine box
propped up in a simple tiled room
with a curtain for privacy
that blew open when each guest
entered the chapel.
I wore an ivory silk shirt
and held a pink rose.
White satin covered me to the waist
and was crudely stapled
around the edges of the coffin.
Then some morgue-men nudged the lid into place,
tightened the screws with a ratchet brace
that made a shrieking sound,
melted wax over the screw-heads to seal them,
and nailed a crucifix to the place
over my mouth,
or what had been my mouth.
On a hillside,
they lowered me with ropes into rock,
and those who looked
glimpsed the buffed star on your coffin glinting in the black,
instead of a sea of skulls.
Then I lay down beside you,
and the white maggots wriggled.
As the preacher spoke,
no one seemed to hear him,
tamping their eyes, touching one another.
He wore a long, black hooded robe
and carried a staff,
at the top of which two snakes
hissed at one another.
He crumbled dry soil over us.
He seemed emotional.
Remember the canaries
in the utility room off the kitchen,
a mother and her offspring
with yellow bodies and tick marks?
Remember how they sang with their beaks closed
when we set them free each night,
listening and watching
as they circled overhead
in the bright lights that imitated daybreak?
Remember the notes that resembled bubbling water?
What a fine performance they gave!
Though they didn't know where they were going,
they made their prettiest song of all.
Excerpted from Touch by Henri Cole. Copyright © 2011 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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Meet the Author
Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was raised in Virginia. The recipient of many awards, he is the author, most recently, of Pierce the Skin (FSG, 2010); Blackbird and Wolf (FSG, 2007); Middle Earth (FSG, 2003), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and The Visible Man (FSG, 1998).
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