Pierce the Skin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
When Robert Lowell accepted a National Book Award in 1960, he conflated contemporary American poetry into an arbitrary division: the cooked and the raw. Pinning the dry academic formalism against the hopheaded, overheated eruptions of the Beats, he was doing more than cartooning actual tendencies and aesthetic divides. He was positing himself implicitly—in his emerging “Confessionalist” mode—as a middle term, a new hybrid to be reckoned with. Though this battle has been well-rehearsed and outmoded, Lowell and his compatriots Berryman and Jarrell are currently in critical eclipse, a fate ironically befalling the Beats as well. Even as both “camps” see new editions and related academic publications each year, a dividing line (one of many) remains in contemporary poetry.
Henri Cole’s Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, released earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, chronicles not only the development of a single poet’s style, but illuminates a larger context of the changing tensions in American poetries. Including 10 poems from his first two books, The Marble Queen (1986) and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), Cole’s early poems pick up where mid-career Lowell—and his poetic siblings and children—left off. It is a poetry rooted in the subjectivity of the poet, with the ghost of formal attention everywhere felt, but nowhere brazenly jeweled. It is subject matter rather than form that calls—cries out—for readerly attention, even as couplets and quatrains, near-rhymes and sonnet-like diversions attempt to subdue the poet’s emotions. Some flashy and quite accomplished rhetoric, music and figurative language encase the ordeals of childhood, adolescence, family history, and sexual politics. Unlike late Lowell, early Cole began by painting with a thick brush. Traditional poetic language handles the topics of the confessional poet, echoing Plath and Merrill. While the selections from these first several books are never without skill, feeling, and a coherent and gripping voice, Cole—like Plath and Merrill—sometimes favored a style too ornate, precious, and even sentimental for the sobriety of tone and wisdom the early poems aspired after. It is a problem the work knows and seeks to work through:
She lay there like a mummy,
like the wreckage of an ancient queen,
mild, yet locked within herself.
(“The Mare,” 7)
Even in the poet’s third and more accomplished book, The Look of Things (1995), the angstiness of Plath doesn’t exactly pay off. A melodramatic and indulgent ending reads:
Dirty Baby loves the taste of flesh.
Dirty Baby needs you to cut his meat.
Dirty Baby needs you to teach him how to chew.
But in The Look of Things, and especially in the following book, The Visible Man (1998), other ancestors help Cole come home to what has made him one of the master poets writing today. In both books, the bejeweled or hysterical plangencies of Merrill or Plath are overtaken by the influences of Stevens and Bishop. Though both of these latter poets knew more than a taste of the baroque, their obliquity and reticence also taught them to deal coolly with emotion; what they lose in immediacy they gain—and so too the mature work of Cole’s—in subtlety and control. In “Adam Dying,” a Rilke-like meditation, the poet confronts art, nakedly, without ever getting lost in artifice. Its brutal and riveting close declares, “Mothers hunt among the decomposing dead.” The Stevensian “as if” becomes a favorite construction of Cole, who is no longer contented to replay experience, but must interrogate it, unearth it. Throughout The Look of Things, one can hear such an overt homage to the Hartford master as “in rendezvous this first light of evening / as if a pageant or crazy fantasia / of the unconscious where we collect / eventually.” But compare that gorgeous verbalism with the directness and exactness that Cole offers in “Adam Dying”: “Though the most we can say is that it is / as if there were a world before Adam, / even that seems narrow and parochial.” An increasing chasteness in rhetoric and superfluous description tightens and frees Cole’s project to interrogate and “write what is human, not escapist” (itself a Stevensian ars poetica self-dictation).
Those familiar with Cole’s work may notice, thanks to this selected edition, this starkening development; those new to his work should thrill to see a poet who began surely talented, but arrived mid-career dazzlingly assured. “Apollo,” nearly all of Middle Earth (2003), the poet’s best book and one of the best in contemporary poetry, as well as large portions of Blackbird and Wolf (2007), demonstrate the authority and precision with which a poet can look fiercely at himself, in the beautiful composure of poetry, and reveal something about us all, whether cooked, raw, divided, in love, or sublimely alone. Like a geisha who has long trained and profited by the rigor of her masters (the decadent Pater and Stevens still intoned below), Henri Cole has mastered the art of talking about the fleshy body, and what, besides bone, lies beneath.
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.