If the lyrical mode of the poems in Henri Cole’s Blizzard is something “elegant, libidinous, austere”—as one poem characterizes Cole’s own personality—the great subject to which Cole returns is desire itself, the desire that directs our actions and libidos, that guides all of life, separating those who act and are actionable, the truly alive, from those who exist in the futile compulsions that end in decay and death. He may think that desire becomes “coffin liquor,” as “To the Oversoul” puts it, but he persists in creating an art disabused of illusions and made astringent by the losses of experience. In Blizzard, his tenth collection, the frustrated idealist’s need to write about this living desire is inseparable from the erotic impulse that guides a poet to perfect the work. “I rewrite to be read,” he says in “At the Grave of Robert Lowell,” “though I feel shame acknowledging it.”
The shame arises, in part, from a sense of the tastelessness of worldly ambition, of seeking fame and human connection from an art form that Lowell himself, in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop, said, “hardly seems to exist.” A straightforward seriousness about one’s desire for posterity would probably garner laughter from the socially distanced audiences seeking solace and meaning at a Zoom poetry reading today. And if the larger desire of which this ambition is a part—the open-hearted, Whitmanian affirmation of the life force—is no longer poetically plausible, what then? Blizzard can be read as a series of answers to such a question, a contrarious flame of artistic strategies that burns with the old desire for veracity and sense—“If I want the truth, I must seek it out”—but does so only indirectly, when the abashed poet looks at the fire askant.
“I need everything within / to be livelier,” he writes in the poem “Blizzard,” making clear that the book’s title refers not to any particular snowstorm but to what these poems embody, the desire for a weather of livelier emotions, often about aspects of the human spirit—“infatuation, sadism, lust”—that intensify in the memory against our will. Some of the poems, like a lighthearted paean to a friend’s lingonberry jam, are necessary respites from darker concerns. Others are persuasively empathetic responses to global issues, interior impersonations and omniscient storytelling about prisoners and victims and refugees from the endless wars in the Middle East and central Asia, and about historical events, like the brutality that Goya’s art documented or the Armenian genocide that exiled Cole’s maternal grandparents. Others are howls of execration at the vileness of a certain American president. Still others return to the direct, autobiographical mode, employing not fictionalized characters from history or the news but people whom the poet appears to have known, such as friends from his youth who died during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic. Each type of poem is a method of variousness—of renewed liveliness—on a poem-by-poem level, just as each line and word enact the desire for variousness on a microcosmic level, for the sake of our and the poet’s edification and pleasure.
In his versions of Rilke’s “thing poems” (Dinggedichte), Cole uses nature as a proxy for voicing the kind of perceptions that would be too bald or contrived if human characters talked about them with each other. We hear remarks addressed to a graveyard cat and a wayward bat, we follow jellyfish in a sewage-tainted ocean, we meet a child’s horse named Jelly, but we also encounter the thereness of a potato and the “desire creating desire” that delicious mushrooms engender. In his 2018 work of autobiographical prose about the art of poetry, Orphic Paris, which radiantly discloses the materials of his inspiration and provides a template of aesthetic knowledge and living wisdom with which to approach art itself, Cole writes, “As a poet, I am a worker bee beside other workers who are metabolizing language, like nectar, into poetry. . . . Like a worker bee, I take something raw and try to make something gold from it.” The bee and the nectar and the gold reappear in the first poem of Blizzard, “Face of the Bee,” with some important changes. “With your fuzzy black face, do you see me— / a cisgender male, metabolizing life into language,” he asks. Life itself is turned into language, a larger endeavor than language being turned into mere poetry, and the specificity of the term “cisgender male,” which identifies the source (and limits) of the desire, makes the art of poetry an act of Eros inseparable from the fundamental identities by which we name ourselves. By addressing a disinterested bystander, a bee metabolizing honey for its hive, Cole places identity not in a contentious human realm but in an idealized setting where it is closer to simple disclosure—of his cisgender, male privilege and his oneness as a poet with the creative forces in nature.
A cursory glance at his allusions, including Beowulf’s hoariness, Song-dynasty sagacity, Dante’s shades, George Herbert’s “meat,” Stevens’s pigeons, Elizabeth Bishop’s moose, a smidgen of Auden’s Brueghel and 1939, may show a proclivity for timeless culture, but the effect of the book as a whole is a state-of-the-art expression of despair and moral force that marks a step away from the more baleful ironies of his previous collection. Through decades of meditation on his poetic practice, Cole has remained open to the relentless changes in our culture, distilling his work to an unnerving (and deceptive) plainness that is a world away from his early poems, which were indebted to older contemporaries like James Merrill and Richard Howard. (Of his youthful work, Cole self-effacingly writes, “My words were farting on stone.”) Rereading the formally elaborate and baroquely detailed poems of those first books, we can see how the 1980s might have viewed the culture now: as syntactically and intellectually challenged, literal-minded when not mindlessly hedonic, full of deficits in attention and taste and probity. The present would see it in a different light, of course, our moral and aesthetic clarities befitting a time more alert to the ugliness of artifice and inequality. Through the stylistic changes chronicled in his ten collections, Cole has arrived in Blizzard at a colloquial plainness that matches the directness of the current moment without sacrificing what readers seek from poetry. After a dozen readings or so, these “plain” poems can seem endless in their internal changeability and prismatic quality.
“Human Highway,” “(Re)creation,” “Ginger and Sorrow,” “On Friendship,” “Goya,” and “At the Grave of Robert Lowell,” in particular, possess a masterly command of strategies for poetic estrangement that ensure continued liveliness while retaining clarity and gravitas. Such strategies—omission of key pieces of context, shifts of perspective, as from the first-person plural to singular, a kind of in medias res storytelling, startling voltas and juxtapositions, a mutating, oneiric sense of reality, sudden aphoristic summations whose confident finality Cole’s dry and ironic tone immediately undercuts—are themselves a way of creating verisimilitude from the mystery and surprise of daily existence. They may be trade-offs with randomness, but they are far more difficult than the merely arbitrary. In the end they unfold a kind of fractal scaffolding to support the moments of hard wisdom: that “memory of feeling is not feeling,” that life is “trance, illumination, spectacle,” that the “true spirit / of living isn’t eating greedily, or reflection, or / even love, but dissidence, like an ax of stone.” The poems show wisdom not in forcing present-day culture into a mold it no longer fits but in recognizing its immanence in our lives while standing at an ironic distance from it, as a good poetic dissident does. The fact that the same culture can be said to produce poetry of such ax-like power and acuity is cause for hope in a particularly dark season of the republic. Blizzard is contemporary American poetry at its most accomplished and telling.
The most resonant poem in the collection, “Human Highway,” is exemplary of Cole’s current methods. He begins with what should be a set phrase familiar to airline passengers, “We were encountering turbulence,” but here unmoored from context and, like the title of the collection, indicating the emotional valence to which the poem aspires rather than something literal, like a snowstorm. But before we can figure out who “we” are and why things are turbulent, the “we” is compacted to the autobiographical “I,” who is situated elsewhere: “I stood on a gilded balcony.” The phrase conjures an inherent privilege, such as the privilege of being a cisgender, American male in a world where people are poorer and more diverse or the privilege of writing poetry in a time of hunger, pestilence, and disaster.
Below him he sees an infernal parade not of the usual misérables but a strange mix of victims and self-victimizers: “vagrants, self-haters, hermits, junkies, / chumps, the defeated, the paranoid, / the penniless, and those led astray by desire.” The last group reminds the reader the extent to which Cole’s poetry resides in a world where love has failed—“post-pas de deux,” he calls it elsewhere—and how frankly and sorrowfully he has contemplated the ways in which impulse and longing have led him astray (“Blur” in Middle Earth, “Gravity and Center” in Blackbird and Wolf, and “Self-Portrait with Addict” in Touch come to mind). He doesn’t salute the human highway like a leader at a military parade but observes that they are striding backwards, as if a hellish projector were running in reverse an endless shot of Béla Tarr’s marching peasants. Why backwards? Simply because “this is how life can be understood,” an inverted, goose-step repetition of human contingency. Silent suffering prevails, except for “the gnashing teeth” of Earth’s tormentors, an image reminiscent of another artist that Cole writes about, the Goya of Saturn Devouring His Son.
The “we” and the airplane image return—“we were in some kind / of holding pattern”—and the parade turns out to be a dream from which the poet awakens. For a moment there is a respite that could be a scene from Elizabeth Bishop’s equally deceptive “A Miracle for Breakfast”: coffee percolating in the kitchen, a pussycat purring at the poet’s feet. But the solace of awakening from a nightmare is also taken away, even if the images remain grounded in the domestic and the real. The poet doesn’t merely slice a piece of fruit: he cuts “open the throat of a grapefruit.” A usually sinister creature, a bat, appears “groggy” in the poet’s backyard, and we know it must be the same hapless beast that he addressed despairingly in “To a Bat”: “the world is crammed, / corrupt, infuriating, / shallow, sanctimonious, / and insincere.”
Now the human highway continues in the light of day, as seen from the invisible gilded balcony of middle American life. There are good things: summer rain, bread, and “education.” And yet the happiness these good things generate possesses an undertone of unreality and mayhem, “like a strange psychedelic moth,” or—stranger still—one of those relics of unimaginable, ritual bloodshed, a “bone flute” made from a warrior’s skull. With this image the scene connects with the history of human violence. That the bone flute is “unplayable” is the final irony that the poet leaves us with, an image not only of violence but its futility. That it is also a cultural artifact, an object on which one would desire to play music, suggests that art itself, including the beautiful and audacious collection in which the poem resides, is of a piece with all human desire, helplessly implicated in the ceaseless, blood-soaked traffic on the highway.