Henri Coulette published only two books of poetry during his lifetime:The War of the Secret Agents (1966) and The Family Goldschmitt (1971). At the time of his death a third volume was more or less ready for press—a collection of some fifty poems he himself had entitled And Come to Closure. Although the last title was meant to refer to his conviction that he would never publish another book, it also describes to perfection the thrust of his poetic effort in everything he had ever written. He wouldcome to closure; he never left any loose ends if he could help it. As a result, his tightly worked poems sometimes strike the unobservant or unsympathetic reader as constipated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The brevity and epigrammatic intensity of his diction and stanzas often resonate with so many delicious ironies that the reader shudders with pleasure at the surprises Coulette can pull off In a jibe at the self-importance (and impotence) of feeling in the 1960’s, Coulette begins a short poem entitled “The New Left” with “She can’t come, and hel Can’t make her.” Henri Coulette invariably came to closure with fructifying power in every poem he wrote.
This is apparent in his first collection. “The War of the Secret Agents” is the defining poem of a wide variety of early poems that show Coulette experimenting with syllabic patterns. Bemused at the cross purposes of lovers and dreamers, he ranges from the ancients (translations of Catullus; ruminations on Antony and Cleopatra) to the moderns (clever imitations of W. B. Yeats and Charles Baudelaire). In “The War of the Secret Agents” Coulette imaginatively re-creates a historical scenario, spinning a sad and sordid tale of betrayed spies and members of the Resistance in France during World War II. The influence of T. S. Eliot’sThe Waste Land (1922) is apparent; the poem begins with an inscription that seems to acknowledge Eliot’s despairing view of modern life as binding both on the way Coulette sees reality and, as a poet, is fated to imagine: “they were passports without photos; they were dust,/ and I took that dust in hand.” The “dust” reminds us of Eliot’s legacy to the modern poet:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images…
Coulette’s spies and their victimizers, despite their absurdity, cruelty, and venality, achieve dramatic and moral credibility. Somehow they earn our compassion, something that Eliot’s phantasms—the party in the pub, the “carbuncular young man”—never do. Coulette’s characters are immolated to the indecipherability of modern life (the codes by which the spies communicate), but they themselves are not merely “stony rubbish” or a “heap of broken images”:
Reader (you will be known henceforth by that name),
there is no meaning
or purpose; only the codes.
So think of us, of Prosper, silly
Prosper, of Archambault of the marvelous eyes,
of Denise combing her hair
Coulette’s second published work, The Family Goldschmitt, is a tragic phenomenon in every sense of the word. Through what his editors describe as “an inexcusable error,” the book was shredded in the publisher’s warehouse before it could be properly distributed and was not reprinted. The poet’s reputation never recovered from this blow. Although many distinguished poets and perceptive readers continued to hold his work in high regard, Coulette grew increasingly silent as the taste for his kind of precise, witty, and crafted poetry receded. So much for the “tragedy” of his reputation. There is, however, another idea of tragedy in The Family Goldschmitt which may, ironically, contribute not only to the rediscovery of Coulette’s poetry but also vindicate his reluctance to burst easily into print in his later years.
Literally stumbling into the darkest experience of the century, Henri Coulette became a poet of the Holocaust. On a...
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