"Ordinary things are like symbols," says Henri Cole in a poem called "Self Portrait With Hornets."
Cole's list of favorite ordinary things includes hornets, characters from the literary classics and most frequently, horses, in which he finds equivalencies for his inner life, which is tortured by the knowledge that inner and outer worlds remain separate, no matter the precision and sturdiness of the symbols used to bridge them.
"I don't want words to sever me from reality," he says, lamenting the insufficiency of the poet's best tool. Cole's poems are always tragic, always frustrated, but awake to the fleeting moments when something transcendent appears to happen.
Born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956, Cole grew up in Virginia and teaches at Ohio State University. His career has been closely watched -- the pre-eminent critic and scholar Harold Bloom has called Cole a major poet.
"Pierce the Skin" looks back at Cole's six previous books, beginning in 1986 with "The Marble Queen" and ending with his most recent book, "Blackbird and Wolf." His themes have been consistent: the wish for transcendence through nature; desire, mostly between men; and the weight of loneliness.
Cole's early poems are rife with lavish descriptions: A poem about butterflies observes "This puddle club of monarchs, weary and peaceful." But it's in his most recent books -- composed mostly of 14 line poems of riveting intensity -- that he truly becomes himself.
Take, for instance, early and late poems about horses. "The Mare" comes from Cole's debut, and "Horses" was first published in 1998's "The Visible Man," the book in which the mature Cole first emerges. Both poems feature speakers who powerfully identify with horses.
In "The Mare," Cole comes upon a dying horse "spent and bruised like the falling apples." "She lay there like a mummy," he writes, "like the wreckage of an ancient queen,/ mild, yet locked away within herself." In this creature, Cole finds a version of himself, "locked away," and, to mark his identification, he "walked among the goats . . . and fed them apples/ so mellow/ they burst like hearts before the queen and me."
A decade later, in "Horses," it's not merely an image of himself he wants. This poem aches with clear desperation to get out of his body and mind and into another, freer life. It begins: "I came upon the horses/ drenched in bright sunshine,/ yard after yard of blue-black ironed silk," Next to these animals, Cole finds himself hopelessly awkward: "I felt lazy and vicious watching them,/ with my large joints and big head."
Then something magical happens, the kind of magical thing that only happens in a poem: Cole wishes himself into a horse, while at the same time expressing a kind of unrestrained sexual desire he seems only able to get at this way: "If only the barbarous horsemen/ could lead us down the path, unestranged." The poem concludes "how I yearned for my neck to be brushed!"
Cole is, of course, not a horse, but he has inhabited his wish to transcend himself as fully as he can, which may be as close to escaping the self as one can get.
His most recent poems bring this intensity to a kind of muted fever pitch, in which tragedy is almost redeemed by beauty, as in "Dead Wren": "When I open your little gothic wings/ on my whitewashed chests of drawers,/ I almost fear you, as if today were my funeral."
This is not poetry for the faint of heart, or for anyone wishing for a merely inspiring read; it is heartbreaking and purifying as only great poetry can be.--Craig Morgan Teicher
"The more closely one listens to him and absorbs his sense of connection between all living things in their desires, including not only flora and fauna but his own poetic forebears, the more harmonious his sonatas of passion and pain sound."--Phoebe Pettigell, The New Leader