Henri Coulette Essay - Critical Essays


Henri Coulette also had a way of transforming contemporary events into poetry. The Family Goldschmitt touches on the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as linking the mythical family in that volume to the concentration camps.

Coulette created an alternative to the long poem by turning his sequence in The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems into a unified whole. The tale of the secret agents is taken from Jean Overton Fuller’s Double Webs (1958). Coulette is less interested in the individual poem than in the relationship of poem to poem. His last collection, And Come to Closure, is perhaps his finest work, with a broad range of beautifully crafted poems.

The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems

Coulette’s first book, The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems, is not a random assortment of poems but a whole in which each poem connects with the others. It is divided into five sections. The first section, “The Junk Shop,” portrays a world of objects that take on life when observed by the designing mind. In the first poem, “Intaglio,” a picture comes alive as the speaker assigns “roles” to the persons in the picture: the bitch, the actress, and the acrobat. The figures in the picture are his “family.” The speaker knows them “as an author knows a book”; it is a literary and not a personal relationship. The poem ends as the speaker is momentarily startled by the playing and calling of children outside, and he turns to “dust the frame and set the picture straight.” The real world had faded as the created world of the picture became his true reality.

In “The Junk Shop,” objects created by wrights, milliners, and smiths lie in disorder and disarray, but their “pride” still “abides.” The end of the poem extends the role and nature of objects; they “contain us” and are “the subjects of our thought.” This poem is central to the section, since it defines objects as things with power to provoke the imagination. They can tease people out of thought and lead them to important insights about the world and themselves.

“Life with Mother,” another poem on the imagination, is quite different. Mother says, “everything’s left to the imagination,” and that enables her to become Queen Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton. She is certain that she is being watched “by agents of the Kremlin” and is an agent herself. Actually, however, she is a “poor Irish daughter of the man/ who invented the Nabisco fig newton.” The boy, presumably her son, is not charmed but appalled by her wild imagination; however, he cannot speak. The poem ends with his imagined reply to his mother’s delusions: “There are ashes on all your sidewalks, Mother/ Where are ashes in my mouth.” The image of ashes succeeds in puncturing her imagined world, but his negative and disloyal revelation harms him.

The last poem in this section is “The Wandering Scholar.” The scholar is having a difficult time; he is pushed into the rain and on the road by his own restlessness. He proceeds to curse himself as “the libertine of verse/ Whose meters lurch where they should tread.” He prays to “St Golias,” a guide who can take him through the rain “into the grove no change can mar,” and begs to be brought “where the Muses are.” The poem is a rather conventional lyric evoking a historical situation and connecting the poet to an earlier counterpart.

The second section of the book is a group of translations of Latin poems. The first of these, three brief poems by Heredia, tell the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Initially seen as heroic and imaged as “Hawk” and “Eagle,” they are quickly reduced to “two parakeets upon a single perch.” In the second poem Cleopatra is defeated by Antony, and their defeat is anticipated and suggested in the third.

Coulette’s translation of Catullus’s famous poem on love is very fine; it is racy and contemporary without violating the spirit of the Latin original. The last poem in the sequence is an amusing translation of a poem by Philippe Jaccottet; Coulette’s witty style is very fitting here.

The third section, “Hermit,” consists of two poems. The first of these, “Evening in the Park,” is reminiscent of the poems in the first section. Sitting in his room, the speaker looks out on an empty park. He counts “tin cans and comic books” and awaits the night. The poetic description of night is immediately brought closer to earth and described by the factual “rush of stars.” It then becomes more active as a “rush of thought,” bringing images that take the speaker by surprise. The images bring back the day, which was filled with anger and danger. He sits thinking about the hermit of the park: “Does he name the trees?” “Does he conjure numbers?” In the last stanza, the speaker returns to observation of the park; the cans are now “jewelled with the stars,” and the comic book whispers. However, “to keep my mind/ Familiar and American,” he must leave, rejecting the call of the imagination, which can transform the familiar into something rich and strange, and settling for ordinary life.

“The War of the Secret Agents” has seventeen sections that tell the story of an amateurish yet heroic group of agents in World War II. In “Proem,” they are described as being “out of a teen-age novel”; they came “ready to die for England” and quickly revealed their situation. The Nazi Gestapo leader in Paris, Keiffer, learns of them through the betrayal of Gilbert, one of the members of the group. Keiffer describes those he will soon arrest as his flock of sheep. He makes a deal with the leader of the secret agents, Prosper: “No harm will come to his men,/ none at all, if he cooperates.” The exigencies of war, however, make his promise meaningless; in the end, fifteen hundred are sent to death, although a few survive. Keiffer is, perhaps, the most interesting character in the poem. He has an aesthetic sense and a personal style.

What happens after the death of the agents is the most intriguing aspect of the story. In the second poem of the sequence, Jane Alabaster (perhaps Jean Overton Fuller, author of Double Webs, 1958) writes a letter to T. S. Eliot, her editor at Faber and Faber, about her discovery that Gilbert is the traitor who sacrificed the others. Gilbert and the few who survived will give their version of the events. In the seventh poem, Cinema speaks about how he saw Prosper on the train that brought them to Germany. He speaks of how he traveled the Metro each day as a different person and how his own identity has been lost in his code...

(The entire section is 2762 words.)