A Poet Whose Swerves Capture the World in 14 Lines

GRAVITY AND CENTER: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022, by Henri Cole

Each of Henri Cole’s sonnets is a little workshop of language. “Gravity and Center” compiles almost 130 of them selected from five books over nearly 30 years, plus a handful of new ones — and what a hive of feeling, thinking activity this book is.

Sonneteers, like other poets, write plenty about love and loss. Cole is no exception, but he achieves startling variety inside the form’s constraints. His free verse 14-liners are little interested in the counting games and fixed rhyme and rhythm patterns your teacher described in the sonnet unit you half paid attention to in high school English. Instead, in poems that take on nature and art, bathrooms, hospitals, twilight and more, Cole experiments with what has always been the most important magic of the form: its ability to represent the shape and progress of thought and feeling in language, and to do it quick.

Cole calls this, in his afterword, an “infrastructure of highs and lows” created by means of asymmetrical units jostling inside the sonnet, or propagating one from another, “like the foliage of a tree growing above a trunk.” You can think octave and sestet, if you were paying attention in English class that day, or of Shakespeare’s three quatrains and a couplet, but better, at least with Cole, to think of a wave gathering for a long beat before it crashes. Or of liquid sloshing in a bowl: its dangers and potentialities, the spatter when you set it down. Instability is change, change is transformation. Cole’s sonnets are always ending up somewhere other than where they began, and Cole appears to perceive this as a moral responsibility, not simply an aesthetic or formal one.

Keen for seasons, weather and the natural world, especially flowers, Cole seldom stages his speaker sitting still to describe a static thing. The titular bloom in “Morning Glory” is, early in the poem, “climbing toward me.” By the final lines, in an explosion of color and metaphor, “its pallid blue/trumpets” are “piercing a brocade of red leaves.” In between, the flower disappears. Instead, the poet, still but not static, lies “on my soft mats, like a long white rabbit,” and feels

…the purifying flames of summer
denuding the landscape, not of birds and animals,
but of blame and illusion.

That’s dramatic, nearly melodramatic — and arises from a droll and creepy image of a rabbit. The poet’s impatience with any single register is palpable, one reason this is one of the least boring books of poems I’ve read in a long time. In “Morning Glory,” physical sensation morphs into moral reckoning, setting a psychological thrill ride into what may be a yoga practice — but we’re only halfway through the poem. Soon, “rivers of forgetfulness and oblivion” (rivers that register as both literal and symbolic) get compared to “loving a man/without wanting him,” as well as to “a baby emerging/under white light out of its mother.” One minute you’re looking with the poet out a window. The next you’re deep inside human experience, fundamental and complex.

Robert Frost, complaining of too much grandeur and sweetness in poetry, observed that the great variety of tones we use in speech are “cave things” of the mouth, already in existence, which he wanted to “catch” for poems. Cole works very much in that region of linguistic spelunking. He’s sincere, wry, macabre, sweet, annoyed, frightened, bereft, desiring, emptied out. (I wrote down those words as I read.) He’s a poet of personal rather than public experience — mostly. “Super Bloom,” first published during Trump’s presidency, begins, “America, like a monstrous sow/vomiting cars and appliances into a green ooze/of dollar bills…”

I’ve long read Cole as a poet who deploys cool deliberation as a means of handling hot topics, but then, in “Gravity and Center,” I read “Broom.” This poem spends its first half describing a corpse being embalmed (“its mouth sewn shut, with posed lips,/its limbs massaged, its arteries drained…”). This bloodless (sorry), surgically precise (sorry again) description breaks, in Line 8 of 14, into a torrent of characterization of a dead mother’s hands “that once opened, closed, rolled, unrolled, rerolled, folded, unfolded/… rended, ripped,/ served, sewed, and stroked (very loving) …/hands that once chased me gruesomely with a broom, then brushed my hair.” This is an urgently complicated dialectic of grief.

“Corpse Pose” also deals with corpses, in a very different sort of performance. The poet, now plain-speaking, has taken in a dead friend’s cat.

… “This is where you live now,”
I explain. “Please stop crying.” But he is like a widower
in some kind of holding pattern around a difficult truth.

Later, the poet lies in yogic “corpse pose” (on your back, doing nothing) while the cat “ponders me, with his corpse face,/licking his coat.” Corpse, corpse, corpse. This is more interesting than tragic. Cole will, finally, show you your wound. Where another poet might have flexed a facile metaphor to end the poem, or declared how he feels outright, Cole pursues the quizzical enormity and curious economies of loss. The cat licks himself, then Cole writes as if free-associating:

… The Egyptians first tamed his kind.
Their dead were buried in galleries closed up with stone slabs.
When my friend and I were young,
we tramped through woods of black oaks.

That’s it. The poem stops short. No emoting or elegiac ritual, just cat, yoga pose, intel about an ancient civilization and 14 monosyllables of memory flash. All at once, the poem’s first 12 lines come to feel like methods of evasion. But now, at the last minute, Cole constructs a mausoleum inside the poem, after which those stone slabs seem to stand upright and turn into trees, through which a youthful version of the poet and his dead friend venture. I felt stranded in a leak of real pain and pleasure at that moment — did you? Cole’s sonnet is a form both economical and maximal, which, through both artifice and resistance to artifice, feels and makes you feel, thinks and makes you think.

Daisy Fried’s most recent book of poetry is “The Year the City Emptied.”

GRAVITY AND CENTER: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 | By Henri Cole | 164 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30

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