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Of Middling Worth

Middle Earth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 55 pages)
by Henri Cole 

Reviewed by Adam L. Dressler

Madness frequents any barren heath, and in the fairly effete landscape of contemporary American poetry, it is no surprise (though it is nevertheless disappointing) that any pretty plant should be taken for a bumper crop. And Middle Earth, Henri Cole's fifth and latest collection, is nothing if not pretty. From the starkly beautiful cover to the glowing blurb by Harold Bloom, and through all the arranged white space in between (every poem, save four, is double-spaced), this book exudes a quiet ostentation. And the poems themselves, with their images of flowers, birds, precious substances, and exotic (or exoticized?) Eastern motifs, their themes of love and loss, also possess a certain aesthetic appeal. They are, moreover, decently executed, in that they display an understanding of prosody, an emotional center, a trajectory, and that quality so painfully absent from so much “poetry” of late—intelligibility.

But the poems are also riddled with a slew of problems that prevent them from rising above mediocrity. Perhaps the most striking of these is sentimentality. In a climate of letters such as ours, where poets are eager to build nearly impenetrable walls around themselves, heartfelt admissions are, on the surface, a welcome prospect. But sincerity alone does not suffice—there must be something worthwhile in the articulation of the honest confession, either through compelling music, interesting ideas, or both, and the absence of these is clear in many of Cole's direct admissions. Take, for example, “Self-Portrait In A Gold Kimono,” the first poem of section I:

           Born, I was born.

                            Tears represent how much my mother loves me,

shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.

                                        My heart as innocent as Buddha's,

my name a Parisian bandleader's,

                                  I am trying to stand.

Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,

                                 like a glassblower on a flame.

Stars on his blue serge uniform flaunt a feeling

                                             of formal precision and stoicism.

Growing, I am growing now,

                      as straight as red pines in the low mountains.

Please don't leave, Grandmother Pearl.

                                       I become distressed

watching the President's caisson.

                                  We, we together move to the big house.

Shining, the sun is shining on my time line.

                                       Tears, copper-hot tears,

spatter the house

                                  when Father is drunk, irate and boisterous.

The essence of self emerges

                                  shuttling between parents.

Noel, the wet nimbus of Noel's tongue

                                  draws me out of the pit.

I drop acid with Rita.

                      Chez Woo eros is released.

I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue.

                                  The draft-card torn up;

the war lost.

                      I cling like a cicada to the latticework of memory.

Mother: “I have memories, too.

                      Don't let me forget them.”

Father: “I'm glad the journey is set.

                      I'm glad I'm going.”

Crows, the voices of crows

                      leaving their nests at dawn, circle around,

as I sit in a gold kimono,

                      feeling the subterranean magma flows,

the sultry air, the hand holding a pen,

                      bending to write,

Thank you,

                      Mother and Father, for creating me.

Lines such as “Tears represent how much my mother loves me,” and “Thank you, / Mother and Father, for creating me.” are melodramatic to say the least. One cannot help but feel that all that white space has been put there to allow for the sap that almost visibly drips from each line. Furthermore, the lines are nearly devoid of music, and the language is not so much restrained as it is flat. In addition, the ideas are neither original nor interesting.

There is also a lazy logic to certain lines. For example, in “Tears represent how much my mother loves me, / shivering and steaming like a horse in rain,” it is not at first clear whether the tears are shivering and steaming, or whether it is the speaker, or his mother. The context of later lines implies that the second interpretation is the correct one, but that isn't all that much help. One still wonders why exactly the speaker compares himself to a horse in the rain. One could certainly understand the rain as a recasting of the mother's tears, but then “steaming” doesn't make much sense, and even if it did, rain as a metaphor for tears is one of the most hackneyed tropes known to middle-school poets everywhere. And why a horse? My best guess is, for the aesthetic self-posturing of it, just as is the case with the gold kimono. And the gestures of self-glorification throughout the poem, their egoism, utterly defeat the gesture of gratitude at the end. That Cole admits to this egoism—“drunk...on myself, I confess” (from “At the Grave of Elizabeth Bishop”), does not alleviate anything.

Another of the book's principal problems is its use of unnecessary repetitions, plain to see throughout “Self-Portrait In A Gold Kimono,” and in such lines as “Wearing the plaid shirt that was my father's plaid shirt” (from “Crows in Evening Glow”), “I was a man like a bronze man” (from “Blur”), etc. And if one but scratches the surface, one can see the lazy logic underlying many other passages of the book. For example, on reading “a cluster of koi groped forward...searching for something, as a man searches / after going a great distance,” (from “Fish and Watergrass”), one might ask, need a man who has traveled a great distance search? Could he not merely drink, eat, or rest? Or consider these lines, from the untitled poem printed in the frontispiece:

I cut the rotten blossoms from the living,
as a man alone fills a void with words,
not to be consoling or point to what is good,
but to say something true that has a body,
because it is proof of his existence.

This passage, like the last, is delivered in a tone of declarative authority. But underneath the confident patina, a host of illogical connections teem. How, exactly, is trimming flowers like filling a void, a.k.a., speaking or writing? Why is the man described as alone—does the void refer to the lack of companionship? If so, isn't it redundant to state that the man speaks/writes “not to be consoling or to point out what is good” since he is by himself? And wouldn't saying anything be proof of one's existence? Why does the man's statement have to be “true”? And lastly, what does it mean for a statement to have “body”? Is this an obscure reference to hair and or hair-loss? Similarly, what does Cole intend when he writes, describing a humpback whale in “Icarus Breathing,” “heaving against rough water; a voluminous inward grinding— / like a self breathing, but not a self...”? What, exactly, is “a self”? A pretentious term for “soul”? And what does it then mean to be “like a self, but not a self”? It's a mystery—an annoying and boring one. We are left with too many unanswerable and uninteresting questions.

If Harold Bloom's blurb is right, and Middle Earth has elevated its author to the status of “a master poet, with few peers,” the future of American poetry is bleak indeed. To praise mediocrity is to slight greatness, and perhaps the almost universal applause with which merely decent books, such as this one, have met, is itself a deterrent from striving for better. Still, let us hope that there are poets among us, perhaps as-yet unpublished and unblurbed, whose standards will rise above the plummeting expectations of those around them.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has received an MA from Boston University and is currently attending the MFA program in poetry at Columbia University.


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