First glancing at Blackbird and Wolf, Henri Cole’s first book after he received the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 2004, a reader might be interested mainly in his formal structures and constraints. As in his previous collections, Cole demonstrates his affinity for the closed world of the fourteen-line poem. Of the thirty-eight poems in the collection, thirty-one are shapely, beautifully constructed unrhymed sonnetlike poems, and three are longer poems formed by joining together between two and six fourteen-line stanzas. The book, divided into three sections, has two sections made up of fourteen poems and a final section of ten poems, but a reader would quickly notice that this mathematical precision, this formal attention, is joined with an emotional, sensitive counterweight to the rigors of patterned numbers: These are poems that show the emotional response of a man to the world of love, loss, and the trap of reason.
The book opens with fourteen poems that cover some familiar territory for readers aware of Cole’s earlier work: poems about his parents, about solitude, about love and its distances. The moment of birth begins the book, with a less-than-sentimental opening: “I came from a place with a hole in it,/ my body once its body, behind a beard of hair.” This moment of bonding between mother and son is given a typical twist by Cole: The link between mother and child allows for touching, for intimacy, but it is described as “touching/ across some new barrier of touchability.” The link is also a barrier, and so love becomes inscribed, from the earliest moment, as a joining and a breaking, a bridge and an absence.
The poem “Oil and Steel” describes the bonds between father and son: The fatherwho lived in “a dirty-dish mausoleum” with schnauzers who died of liver disease, “except the one that guarded” the father’s corpse found “holding a tumbler of Bushmills”leaves three things to his son. The first two, described by Cole as his inheritance, are a plaid shirt and some motor oil; a less tangible gift from this man who “never showed/ me much affection” was a “knack/ for solitude, which has been mostly useful.” In an interview, Cole used this exact phrase to explain how being gay and “experiencing a special alienation from the mainstream” is a gift to writers; “it gives us a knack for solitude, which strengthens the self and makes us aware of our own authentic interests.” This solitude is really the focus of the book; the poems are beautifully rendered accounts of separation, distance, and selfhood. As he says in the title poem of this first section, “Birthday,” the “possibility of home remains illusory.”
While some writers, like Pablo Neruda or James Wright, might find an escape from this seclusion through identification with others, Cole is not one to offer many palliatives. When he sees workers in trees sawing limbs, they become interesting metaphors more than humans: They are like “bear cubs in the treetops working for man,” or their work with ropes and pulleys becomes the “clearest possible metaphor/ for bright feelings vs. dark feelings.” In this fourteen-line poem, “The Tree Cutters,” the poem divides at the halfway mark; unlike a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet that has its break at the twelfth or eighth line, Cole often breaks in the middle. For example, in this poem he moves from the world of the tree cutters in the first seven lines to a specific memory of a time in his life when the dark feelings of which the workers reminded him were paramount: “I saw a blood-stained toad,/ instead of my white kitten; I saw shadows and misprision/ instead of my milk and pancakes.” Cole courageously explores the “thick, dirty, bad-smelling sorrow” that covered him “like old meat.” He does not shy away from recollections of pain; like Philip Larkin, he could say that deprivation is for him what daffodils were for William Wordsworth.
In the title poem of the second section of the book, “Gravity and...
(The entire section is 1651 words.)