Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Henri Cole: Birth, Death, Love, in Spare Elegance

[photo courtesy of Star Black]
If you missed Henri Cole's reading at the Vermont Studio Center last night, you still can catch up with his poems -- and his web site, henricole.com, will even let you listen to some of them. This is not the same as being at a reading, clearly; but you will be doing honor to his craft. He explained last night: "I've been striving in my poems to break out as much artifice from the language as possible," so he prefers "to frame the poems in silence."

Cole read from his two most recent books, MIDDLE EARTH and BLACKBIRD AND WOLF. He described MIDDLE EARTH as having been written largely in Japan, where he was born in Fukuoka. He returned for his 45th birthday and attempted to write a timeline of his life, particularly in the poem "Self-Portrait in a Gold Kimono." Also in this collection is the poem "Olympia" (found on Cole's page at poets.org) and "Original Face," which he describes as a poem that attempts tenderness.

BLACKBIRD AND WOLF embraces different ground, although the soft and sensuous lyrical lines echo the earlier work. But in this more recent volume, Cole presented the "self" as composed of air and earth, Ariel and Caliban -- blackbird and wolf. The mixed audience of poets and visual artists reacted especially strongly to "Twilight," a poem set in the Adirondacks that features both a black bear and "postmodern sexuality" -- well demonstrated within its body.

Most striking was Cole's movement into his newest (mostly unpublished) work. Much of what he presented seemed lush tropical blossoms unfolding on the roots and stems he established earlier, particularly in terms of his mother, his birth, and now her death; she died about six weeks ago (our condolences to the poet). He offered the poem "Sunflower," which probed the discussion he and his mother had about a "do not resuscitate" order; delighted listeners with "Myself Departing," in which "My hair went away at night, while I was sleeping"; and splashed deliciously through "Car Wash," with "I love the irridescent slime that squirts all over my Honda..."

The Atlantic just printed one of the new poems, "Quai aux Fleurs," in which Cole's nieces make a cameo appearance. Then, without question, he captured the evening in his finale, a poem in two voices -- loosely speaking, the voices of pain and love -- for which an audience member, Lynn Powell, assisted, making the poem dramatic in two very different voices indeed. The poems is "By the Name of God, the Most Merciful and Gracious" -- and now, indeed, you'll want to catch a live reading or at the very least a recorded one, because I can't capture the power of this piece on a flat screen. At one point, "love" speaks the words "I don't feel guilty. Guilt is a wicked ghost." At another point, "pain" says "after my duration at school, I worked as a carrier of pebbles and sand." The scene is ineradicably part of the Iraq war, and it ends with the stunning request: "Be so kind to review my case."

I've rarely heard the studio center applause last as long as what this final poem elicited. If I received word tomorrow that Cole would be offering the poem again within a few hours of here, I'd probably try to fill the gas tank again, to get there.

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