Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982-2007 (Paperback)
A GENEROUS SELECTION FROM ONE OF OUR GREATEST LIVING POETS
Henri Cole has been described as a "fiercely somber, yet exuberant poet" by Harold Bloom, who identifies him as the central poet of his generation. Cole's most recent poems have a daring sensitivity and imagistic beauty unlike anything on the American scene today. Whether they are exploring pleasure or pain, humor or sorrow, triumph or fear, they reach for an almost shocking intensity. Cole's fourth book, Middle Earth, awakened his audience to him as a poet now writing the poems of his career.
Pierce the Skin brings together sixty-six poems from the past twenty-five years, including work from Cole's early, closely observed, virtuosic books, long out of print, as well as his important more recent books, The Visible Man (1998), Middle Earth (2003), and Blackbird and Wolf (2007). The result is a collection reconsecrating Cole's central themes: the desire for connection, the contingencies of selfhood and human love, the dissolution of the body, the sublime renewal found in nature, and the distance of language from experience. "I don't want words to sever me from reality," Cole says, striving in Pierce the Skin to break the barrier even between word and skin. Maureen N. McLane wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Cole is a poet of "self-overcoming, lusting, loathing and beautiful force." This book will have a permanent place with other essential poems of our moment.
“Cole has been called a 'major poet' by no less an authority than Harold Bloom, and his work has been consistently lauded throughout his closely watched career. This [...] selection from Cole's six previous books offers the first bird's-eye view of Cole's body of work, and it will most likely leave readers wanting more. Cole is nothing if not constantly intense on the page-his verse is always melancholy, but also carries a kind of religious weight, as if sadness itself were a ticket out of Hell. Cole is unafraid to embarrass himself ('After the death of my father,' begins one poem, 'I locked// myself in my room, bored and animallike') if it will lead him to his particular brand of skinned clarity, as when, at the end of the same poem, he seeks his father in 'a little room in which glowing cigarettes// came and went, like souls losing magnitude,// but none with the battered hand I knew.' In Cole's poems, the stakes are always impossibly high, and every insight is deeply costly. But perhaps that's the price for being able to say, 'I can feel my heart beating inside my heart.'” —Publishers Weekly, Stared Review
“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, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“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