(Poets and Poetry in America)

Early in his career, Henri Cole was acknowledged as a poet of notable formal complexity and range. He has since come to disown certain of the ornamental elements of his early work: “My first poems were written with a descriptive flourish. You might say the gold bars of language hid the animal pacing in them.” This criticism carries an echo of Rainer Maria Rilke’s panther, with the tensed energy of the animal pacing in contained circles. However, Cole’s early lines remain muscular and articulate, qualities that deepened in later books. In the poems of The Look of Things and particularly The Visible Man, the language carries a great visceral impact. The often-tormented physicality of the image and the line has remained in the later books, though the poems of Middle Earth and Blackbird and Wolf have moved toward a simplified style that is no less masterful and controlled than the earlier collections.

Though the formal characteristics of his poems have changed, Cole has remained principally a poet of the self. In rejecting the poetry of aesthetic description, Cole reminds his readers that “a poem is not just a response to the external world. It should also present the reader with a mind in action, a self in dialogue with itself.” The poems enact the process of the creation of consciousness or being. Much of this exploration is played out through two of the great human metaphors of self-building: the identification and rejection children direct toward their parents and the vulnerability, ecstasy, and loss of the sexual encounter.

Though each motif carries elements of autobiography, in Cole’s work, the narrative is not primary but rather is the forge of identity and the passion—often presented with Christian undertones—of a self in the process of realization. This development is not always a triumphant epiphany of self-awareness; to the contrary, it can be conditional, transitory, a moment driven as much by disgust as delectation. The repulsion and the ecstasy are both partially grounded (as are, more generally, Cole’s spiritual and erotic aspirations) in his Catholic upbringing, a fact to which he points while explaining why “self-love and self-hate co-exist in my poems, as they did in life.”

Many of the poems throughout the collections are in one of two forms: the self-portrait, presented with a conscious note of artifice in which the speaker becomes the object that is being created; and the ars poetica, in which the writer investigates the way he deploys language to shape and present the moment consciousness is created. The poem, after all, is an object fashioned in the same manner, and in the same moment, as the emotions and...

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