Henri Cole's latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf, has won him the prestigious Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, a purse of $25,000, from the Academy of American Poets.
I re-read the book last night instead of going to the bar. Imagine, in my black-hooved boots and dark jeans, touching the silver knuckle of my belt-buckle, having showered and slicked my hair, cologne on my bare neck, unshaven, satyr-rough, the spill of my hairy chest just before throwing on a shirt, and there it glanced at me from the table, there it appeared in the suddenly opened book:
When I open your little gothic wings
on my whitewashed chest of drawers,
I almost fear you, as if today were my funeral.
Moment by moment, enzymes digest
your life into a kind of coffin liqueur.
Two flies, like coroners, investigate your feathers.
My clock is your obelisk, though only this morning
you lunged into my room, extravagant as Nero,
then, not seeing yourself in the sunlit glass,
struck it. Night--what beams does it clear away?
The rain falls. The sky is pained. All that breathes suffers.
Yet the waters of affliction are purifying.
The wounded soldier heals. There is new wine and oil.
Here, take my handkerchief as your hearse.
. . . . .
You can't get much better than that for a poem at midnight, especially when you're dressed for the promise of sex, like you're getting ready for new love or your funeral.. .
. . . . .
I was thinking the title to this collection is why I stole it. I was thinking the first time I read it, I wasn't impressed as I was with his pulitzer nominated Middle Earth. It seemed to me the title felt more focused than the collection itself. But re-reading it last night, perhaps I'm changing my mind.
The title isn't a reference to any phrase or poem in the book. It therefore seems to speak to some idea of the collection itself. But as you begin to read, you're not really sure what this book's purpose is--don't books have these? Don't we expect a book to deliver us? Why else give it a title and not just: Poems.
The first poems seem to be autobiographical. Indeed, the title to the first section is "Birthday" and the poems themselves relay moments of reflection close to the speaker's animal birth and mother, and then his father, poems that relay moments from childhood or reflections of it:
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, love, suicide, 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 re-read this poem here, because I think it's secretly touching the title on the knee. Because it follows the speaker into some part of self that is not what he is, into the realm of sleep, that here in these lines is warm and corporal. Animal. A realm of instinct and not yet dream. Not yet narrative. No longer body, but being, blood in shade.
Blackbird and Wolf, two animals symbolic of two realms, wind and earth. Two predatory figures reflected in the water of the author's vision. As if the author were rapt in a caught wonderment between them, a beast between two reflected worlds.
I think part of this book's project--and I think to speak of a book's project is to speak about something found, and not necessarily intended, by the author--is a contemplation of human instinct in relation to human spirit, soul. In the poem "Ambulance", for example, Cole writes, "I felt like the personification of an abstraction". Many of the poems work as meditations that return us to an animalism that is as spiritual as it is un-thinking. Take these few lines from a poem in the third and final section of the book, "Dune" (as if this, finally, is a human realm, a place in flux, between earth, sky, and sea): "Eating the Peach"
Eating the peach, I feel like a murderer.
Time and darkness mean nothing to me,
moving forward and back with my white enameled teeth
. . . . . . . . . .
Eating the peach, I feel the long
wandering, my human hand--once fin and paw--
reaching through and across the allegory of Eden
. . . . .
I don't generally like the word "soul", because it is an assumption I find self-indulgent, like using the word "God". I want to know what these words mean, because I think they do mean something that I can feel and relate to, but their religious connotations are too large, and churches have already destroyed any version of them we can believe in. But in Cole's work these assumptions don't work in any didactic sensibility. His poems work backward, in an almost Whitmanesque, even gnostic, manner, as he contemplates cosmos by considering vulgarities of the flesh. But instead moving in a Calvinistic approach, one that finds the body disgusting first and then the "soul" a thing that can redeem or save humanity from itself, these poems discover transcendent aspirations by stripping us down to the animal. They wonder that we are creatures first, with hungers, but with an ability for metaphor. Cole wonders that a Human animal can be this strange and hybrid.
In the middle section of the book, "Gravity and Center", aptly titled, as if the forces of nature affect both animal and spiritual hungers, comes the poem that best speaks to the question of the collection's title, and therefore the book's purpose:
I see you sitting erect on my fire escape,
plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse,
like the red strings of a harp, choking a bit
on the venous blue flesh and hemorrhaging tail.
With your perfect black-and-white thief's mask,
you look like a stuffed bird in a glass case,
somewhere between the animal and human life.
The love word is far away. Can you see me?
I am a man. No one has what I have:
my long clean hands, my bored lips. This is my home:
Woof-woof, the dog utters, afraid of emptiness,
as I am, so my soul attaches itself to things,
trying to create something neither confessional
nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.
. . . . .
So I've stayed up late, but stayed in, to read alone these modern sonnets. Half-dressed as I am, and ready with my own hungers. In this poem the murderous hunger of the bird is answered by the dog's contemplative, but instinctual, fear. And the human? A figure caught between confession and abstraction, "somewhere between the animal and human life". Nature and godhood, whatever that might be, loveless and literal, but drenched with selfhood, the cold, far indifference of a newly breaking but ancient moonlight.
Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can.
. . . . . .