Review of Touch by Henri Cole

Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2011
Hardcover, $23

by James Crews

Henri Cole’s Touch is a dark but redemptive book. These poems—many of them sonnets—strike an elegiac, confessional tone as Cole reconstructs his personal history through memory, dreams and observations of the ordinary in the natural world. Touch builds upon the mastery already in full display in earlier collections that include the excellent Blackbird and Wolf (FSG, 2007) and Middle Earth (FSG, 2003) which received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Cole has always turned toward nature for clues to our sometimes inexplicable emotions and instincts, but one admires the straightforwardness and simplicity employed often with heartbreaking accuracy in this new book, much of which chronicles his mother’s death. The following passage from “Sunflower” gives us an intact moment of communion between son and mother:

. . . “Nature
is always expressing something human,”
mother commented, her mouth twisting,
as I plucked whiskers from around it.
“Yes. No. Please.” Tenderness was not yet dust.
Mother sat up, rubbed her eyes drowsily, her breaths
like breakers, the living man the beach.

Cole seems most at ease when speaking of the body and does not shy away from depicting its luridness, or the violence visited upon it as in “Mosquito Mother”:

. . . Then I felt your subtle knife touching me,
as if I were just some part of the scenery, and we sat
like that a long time, your moist red crown all shiny,
as if from effusions: milk, blood, tears, urine, semen.

In this poet’s hands, even a mosquito bite can become almost romantic—and unquestionably sexual—because he knows, as insignificant as we humans are to nature and time itself, our bodies still follow the laws of nature. In Touch, Cole employs his characteristically concise line to get at the brokenness and silences that fill our lives. Here, just after his mother’s passing, he describes a fresh snowfall:

like linen unfolded
conjuring the domestic—
forces us inward
into fraught territories
of self and family,

instead of out into waves
at the beach or furrows
in the bronzing garden.
Fold one thousand
paper cranes at the kitchen table,

and the spirits will cure you,
a friend once advised . . .

These “fraught territories”—the zones between moments of beauty and moments of loss, perhaps—are the borderlands these poems map out for us. And when the collection moves into recounting the loss of a lover to addiction, we sense Cole’s powerlessness even as he gives in to the passion few among us can control. In “One Animal,” we hear the speaker uselessly cautioning himself:

And do not think—touching his hair,
licking, sucking, and being sucked in the same
instant, no longer lonely—that you
are two animals perfect as one.

The temptation, of course, is to justify all of our wildest desires and claim that we are simply following instinct. But humans, Cole suggests, with our flawed and distractible minds and self-inflicted addictions, fail as true animals again and again. We think too much; we cause ourselves too much needless suffering. As he says in “Self-Portrait with Addict”:

You won’t come to bed because you’re
doing amphetamines again. There’s no animal
that sleep-deprives itself like the human.
Please, I say, repeating the monosyllable.

Some readers might wonder how a speaker so seemingly self-aware could surrender to such a clearly destructive love, but Cole’s defense rests with each poem (“a little mirror to mull over/the question ‘Who am I and why?’”) in which he is (as we all are) “hunting the elusive laughing monster of contentment.” Though his work must necessitate an intense solitude and ascetic nature, Cole nevertheless confesses: “I want to be real, to think, to live.” Indeed, his poems reflect a tightly controlled extravagance that does not seek to offer us solace or comfort; we sense instead that he hopes to unsettle readers—and himself most of all—in order to better understand his place in a confusing world. And he knows that “to be real” is to live a life of regret and error just like everybody else, so that “the art of life/becomes, mostly,/the art of avoiding pain.” His work thus attests to what our self-inflicted suffering can teach us.

The sheer pleasure Henri Cole seems to take in the act of writing—that is, giving voice and form to the forces of human emotion—mitigates much of the sadness that colors Touch. His honesty and awareness allow him to speak as if from a still point the truth we all seek:

. . . But writing this now, my hand is warm.
The character I call Myself isn’t lustful, heavy,
melancholic. It’s as if emotions are no longer bodied.
Eros isn’t ripping through darkness. It’s as if I’m
a boy again, observing the births of two baby lambs.
The world has just come into existence.

Cole is always reaching for a deeper understanding of the world through poems that begin with his immediate surroundings but soon enough move into one of those “fraught territories.” Many of these pieces have little to do with the autobiographical, yet they resonate all the more. Take, for instance, the closing lines of “Hens”:

. . . There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

As with much of Cole’s past work, these poems too shine with a welcome humility, which is that of the poet bowing down to the portion of the mystery he’s doing his best to bring to light. “Hairy Spider” reminds us of the insignificance of our daily joys and pains as the speaker muses:

. . . Can she see if I am climbing,
I wonder, or kneeling down here on the dock, day after day,
when it’s time for reading and writing again, and a hairy spider—
ingenious, bashful, insolent, laborious, patient—observes
a man no different than a lily, a worm, a clod of clay?

Touch brims with more than just observations, however; this collection fashions a language, much-needed in our tight-lipped culture, to speak of the useless divisions between love and grief, body and mind, animal and human. Yet again, Cole has unearthed the many fears and failings we all share, and as a result, this book is as intimate as “the sound of someone else breathing” just next to us.