Pierce the Skin
by Henri Cole

Reviewed by Amelia Klein


Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010   |   160 pages

Every biographical sketch of Henri Cole begins, inevitably, with the same spare facts. Born in 1956 in Fukuoka, Japan, to an American army man and a French mother, he was raised in Virginia and went on to study at the College of William and Mary, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Columbia University. A gay man brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, Cole understood only one of three languages (English, French, and Armenian) spoken in his childhood home—a home badly shaken, if not shattered, by what he has called “predictable patterns of violence.” It is not so surprising then that he had greater need than most to build himself a dwelling-place in words. Cole’s poetry precisely and paradoxically embodies a particularly modern and American version of exile. Where little or no part of oneself is a given—where one’s history, culture, and fate are all unclear—the meaning of things must be built from the ground up.

Bringing together poems from Cole’s six previously published books of poetry, Pierce the Skin charts this painstaking labor across several decades. Aparthood in all its forms is Cole’s constant theme, and this collection shows Cole working it with increasing honesty and depth, gradually finding the music that allows him to say the unsayable more fully and provocatively. Likewise, as Pierce the Skin unfolds, Cole’s prosody seems to discover its native rhythms, shedding the elaborate and sometimes strained arrangements of the earlier poems and moving toward a spareness in which the relations between sound and sense grow ever stranger and more luminous. For all this austerity, however, Cole remains an exceptionally playful poet, both in his exploration of the intersection of sound with sense and in his willingness to try out new forms, voices, and perspectives—whether asking questions of a praying mantis (“Pillowcase with Praying Mantis”) or picturing himself as a Japanese woman (“Self-portrait as the Red Princess”). In a world in which “there are no more elegant redemptive plots,” playfulness becomes a matter of survival and is perhaps all that stands between us and abject despair.

The earlier, less certain works are more sparsely showcased than the later ones, with Cole’s first two books, The Marble Queen (1986) and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), represented by just five poems apiece. The effect is crystallizing: each entry manifests another facet of the sensibility that is, by book’s end, intimately known. Like Robert Lowell, to whom one commentator on the dust jacket compares him, Cole uses poetry to formalize the personal, probing the life remembered for meaning incompletely grasped in the event. In fact, Cole is closer to Merrill’s urbane self-restraint than he is to Lowell’s tortured soul-baring; although, as his work matures, the increasing limpidity of his syntax and his steadfast eschewal of ornament distinguishes him from both poets. So often in these poems feeling is conveyed not discursively but by the sheer acuity of Cole’s renderings of sensory experience: in “Father’s Jewelry Box,” a scent is grief itself; in “Beach Walk,” from Cole’s most recent volume, a dead baby shark embodies the whole terror of existence (“Seagulls had eaten his eyes. His throat was bleeding.”), so that the poet may say, both with and without allegorizing, that “The dark embryo bares its teeth and we move on.”

“I want nothing / to reveal feeling but feeling,” Cole writes in “Gravity and Center,” and many of the later poems come astonishingly close to this ideal. Middle Earth (2003) and Blackbird and Wolf (2007) are, to my mind, unquestionably Cole’s best books, and it makes sense that almost half the space of Pierce the Skin is comprised of poems taken from them. In Middle Earth, Cole first discovers what has become his signature form, a modified sonnet of variably stressed lines (though with the classic pentameter as skeleton), each line separated from the others by a single space, almost as though each were its own delicately suspended strophe. The form, full of the air that is either breath or blankness, is in itself a meditation on singularity, on what Cole has called the self’s “aparthood,” and on the possibility that such aparthood might nonetheless permit, or even constitute, points of connection.

In “The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge,” Cole prays: “Oh, Lord, make us sure as the beasts / who drink from the pond.” Though the recent poems retain the sense of a distinctly human tragedy (“no one animal his own, / as I am my own,” he mourns in “Landscape with Deer and Figure”), age seems to have drawn Cole closer to the earth, toward what might be called an ecological vision of human suffering—and of poetry itself—as part of nature. Asked in an interview with Christopher Lydon to name the keynote of his poetic personality, Cole’s response was “empathy,” perhaps surprising from a poet so attuned to isolation. Yet, for Cole as for Wallace Stevens, the interior paramour of lyric draws us into proximity with the vulnerability of all living things: the self in exile becomes inclusive. The poems in Pierce the Skin make compelling claims for the power and depth of poetic understanding, claims of a kind rarely encountered in the contemporary landscape of American letters. Cole reminds us that the theory of poetry may yet be, as Stevens said it was, the theory of life. One looks ahead eagerly to the poems he has yet to write.

Amelia Klein recently completed a dissertation, “Makings of the Sun: Romantic Nature Lyric and its Legacies,” and received her PhD from Harvard University. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in the Boston Review, Twentieth Century Literature, and Colorado Review, among others. She lives in South Boston.

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