With Middle Earth, Henri Cole offers a collection of highly personal and introspective poems. They are all written from the perspective of a first-person narrator, who is called a persona in literary criticism of poetry, as he is not named and not necessarily the same as the live author. Thematically, Cole’s poems circle around this persona and the questions he faces regarding his relationships with his parents, a male lover, his self-identity, and the world around him.
In terms of style, Cole likes to begin a poem by having his persona observing a concrete object, such as a hare or a beautiful flower. Contemplation of this object, which often is an animal, a plant, or a human-made mask or costume, then leads the persona to associative reflections on his own being and life. This method gives Cole’s poems some grounding in realistic images and internal coherency. It also makes the musings of his complex persona more accessible. Indeed, Middle Earth often feels like entering one person’s well-ordered innermost thoughts. Cole’s poetry does not allude to the Middle Earth invented by J. R. R. Tolkien but to a world of the poet’s own making.
Perhaps a bit conventionally, “Self-Portrait in a Gold Kimono,” the first poem of Middle Earth, begins with the birth of the persona. He recollects the tears shed by his mother in childbirth and considers them a symbol of her maternal love. The father is present as well, dressed in the blue uniform of an American Air Force officer. The contrast in clothing to his son could not be greater, who describes himself a few lines later as clad in a kimono. Obviously, the two males differ, not just in their sense of fashion but also in their personalities and sexual orientation.
Cole links his persona to a common American experience of his age when the poet describes how his persona becomes “distressed/watching the President’s caisson,” or horse-drawn funeral cart. The allusion is to the televised funeral of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in November, 1963, traumatized the American public and left ineradicable memories in very young people like the persona, as well as in most other Americans.
Turning from the collective to the private, the persona recalls the drunken fury of his father that led to a family division. Again, the persona’s somewhat ascetic character is juxtaposed to that of his father.
Soon, the first poem of Middle Earth deliberately reveals the homosexual orientation of its persona. Recalling his teenage years, the persona talks of how his erotic feelings were “released” when he ate “sugar like a canary from a grown man’s tongue” in an Asian restaurant. Given the overall realism of the images throughout this and the other poems of Cole’s book, a reader is not mistaken in taking these lines literally.
In the poem, the persona reveals that his father is dying. The father is quoted as stating, with his typical bravado, that he is “glad I’m going.” The son is left behind. Sitting in his kimono years later, the persona reveals to the readers that they are reading his personal recollections as he is writing them down right now. With a self-conscious sleight-of-hand, the persona tells that he is writing “thank you” to his mother and father in filial gratitude for their creation of him. This concludes the poem that serves well to introduce the reader to Cole’s persona.
In this world, animals feature prominently. They abound in part 1 of Middle Earth and invite various analytical interpretations. For a classical Freudian psychoanalytical critic, “Icarus (a humpback whale, not a foolish dead boy)/ heaving against rough water” in the poem “Icarus Breathing” would relate to the persona’s tumultuous sexual awakening. This could be underlined by the fact that the persona is also thinking of another powerful male in this poem, his deceased father.
In “The Hare,” the persona tells that while caressing the animal he is thinking back on touching his father’s “body on a gurney” in a hospital. In Western medieval tradition, the hare stood as a symbol for promiscuity. There may be an allusion to the Father’s alcohol-induced wayward ways. The poem also serves as a reminder of the fragility of life. Illness can quickly render a strong Air Force officer like...
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