The literary critic Harold Bloom has called Henri Cole RI ’15 “the central poet of his generation.” Others have compared him to Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop. In addition to his nine books of poetry, Cole has won a raft of awards—including the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from the Claremont Graduate University, and a fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. He has taught at many universities, most recently as a tenured professor of English at Ohio State University. In the fall of 2015, he will begin teaching at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. The Boston Globe called Cole’s most recent book, Nothing to Declare, excerpted below, “stunning in its clarity, control, and bottomless depth of field.”
What is fellowship? my barber asks. I am sitting in his shop with a purple sheet around me. It’s the end of the snowiest winter in Boston’s history. There are dirty drifts on the street. When I was a boy, I sat on a kitchen stool out on the back porch, with a towel around my neck, as my father gave me a military crew cut. I had thick curly brown hair then and squeezed my eyes shut at the sound of the clippers, but now, in middle age, I look in the mirror with wide-open eyes at my changing face.
Fellowship is like pot roast, I say, with mashed potatoes and peas on the side. I have my own office and receive a wage to write there. There are other fellows with offices, too. It’s like a beehive, and we’re drones turning something raw into gold. For a year, I don’t have to teach. My barber is from Virginia, like me, and he calls me Henry, as if I were still a schoolboy. What do you write? he asks. I like his curiosity, though I’m embarrassed to tell him it’s poetry. Tapping his black comb against polished scissors to get the loose hairs out, he asks, Why do you write? How do you write?
Each day, I wake up and look at the travel clock next to the dusty lamp and the pile of books on my night table. I want to go to the toilet but stay in bed a little longer. I don’t hear tennis being played yet in the nearby park, but dogs are barking, happy to see one another. Without sleep, I find it impossible to concentrate, so when I sit down at my desk there are no little supernova explosions of the imagination resulting in poetry. Barefoot in the kitchen, I stare at the teapot. The little red bird on the spout has become a melted nub and doesn’t sing anymore. Did I forget to buy skim milk? Isn’t today Seamus Heaney’s birthday? I am reading his poems again, trying to write something intelligent, but feel sadness in the finality of this act. He was kind. He was not a follower. Now nature’s undertakers have carried him toward the sun.
I ride along the Charles River, and there are geese alighting on the bike trail, so I brake for them. The river is gunmetal gray with little white caps, and is very pretty. Bicycling helps me clear out the cobwebs of the long night. Did I forget to turn off the stove? Did I pay the bill for the new water heater? Today, an astrophysicist, or a stellar mortician, as he calls himself, is presenting a talk on gas clouds that form small stars, planetary nebulae, black holes, and, ultimately, gold. I love the language of science. Even when I don’t understand it, I am drawn out of my comfort zone. I wonder if writing poems is like gas clouds becoming small stars. I wonder if I can bring the language of science into my poems, refreshing them, like a spring feeding a lake. I wonder if I can be refreshed.
Look, a cormorant has caught a fish in the river. Long ago, in Japan, I took a boat to watch fishermen with cormorants. A snare was tied around the base of each bird’s throat, and when the cormorant’s throat was filled up with fish to its beak, a fisherman brought the bird back to the boat, where it spit them up. Isn’t this swallowing and spitting up like writing poetry, as bees must regurgitate nectar again and again to transform it into honey? Listen, a cardinal is singing. He has been silent all winter. This is my territory, he asserts to other nearby males. Soon he will mate. Again, a family of geese is blocking the bike trail, and I brake for them. A sign has been posted: DO NOT FEED THE GEESE. CREATES AN AGGRESSIVE FLOCK. CREATES HUMAN/BIRD CONFLICTS.
At Radcliffe, other fellows emerge from their offices to meet in the kitchen and converse, like bees trying to stay warm during the terrible winter. Since I am a solitary person, I feel most alive when I am alone, but I enjoy observing this togetherness. I think I am more like a flower awaiting cross-pollination. Though I am older than the others, I am open to change, and try to cultivate hope as a virtue. I like fellowship more than I expected. Fellowship is people yoked and working together. Fellowship is interaction. Fellowship is mutual trust, experiences, and activities, as we struggle alone in our separate offices, studios, and labs.
For me, poetry is both rebellious and the servant of order. I sense this is true for other disciplines, too, and that we are all pushing against something, if only conformity, in our different areas of interest: capital punishment in America, religious and sectarian intolerance in the Arab world, time banks and food swaps, the lives of men and women after they are released from prison, the denazification of Germany, environmental change in South India, chronic illness, the violent period for African Americans following the Civil War, the spirituality of bird watching, the text of the Hebrew Bible, the dark stars and black holes of the universe, and more.
Look, the sunken garden fountain is splashing again. The horse chestnut in the yard is dying, but the little blooming apple tree assuages my sadness. I’m sitting on a concrete bench beneath it and feel like a human plant awaiting growth. What? says one part of my brain to the other. You’re not a plant. You’re just Henri, and you have no idea which foot to put first. I write something down with the nice fountain pen I bought on Rue Saint-Dominique. I cross it out and write it again, changing only one word. I wish I could eat some waffles with syrup from Vermont and blueberries. A cell phone rings in the distance. Nobody answers it. Maybe caffeine will help. I walk to Burdick’s and buy an expensive mocha. What would I do if I had a great deal of money? A woman on the street drops a glove and I rush to pick it up. I want to write about myself, but not the self that is visible. I want to write about the self that’s closed up deep inside, like a colorful fan. Every morning at eight, in my neighborhood park, a dozen women gather on the tennis court and do Tai Chi with bright red fans. Their movements are accompanied by melancholy Chinese music played on a radio. I suppose this is a gentle way to fight stress. I like gentleness.
I’m writing a poem about a big party tent that appeared on the lawn one day last fall and then disappeared the next. I have only written two lines: “The tent men arrived bearing sledgehammers/ and were young enough to be my sons.” When the tent’s center pole went up, it made my heart accelerate. The following day, the lawn was damaged, but a crew restored it beautifully. I know the ending of this poem. It will describe the sod being aerated and new soil being spread out on top.
It’s time for lunch now in the pretty yellow dining room with round tables covered with pressed white linens. I eat too fast here, as if I were a boy again, sitting at the dinner table with my four siblings. But I am looking at other fellows instead of my young brothers and sisters. We present interesting versions of ourselves—humorous, morbid, brave, gleeful, bold, or silent. It’s my favorite hour of the week, because I almost forget the ups and downs at my desk. Even as I am eating fresh leaves from a salad, part of me is far away, in a lonely room with a table and lamp, thinking and writing. Part of me is laughing and saying semi-intelligent things at the lunch table, but another part is remembering my mother and father, dead now, and how I was shaped by them. Strangely, Henri, the poet, is always trying to say something true in an atmosphere of beauty. When I was young, I felt apologetic about this, but not anymore.
It’s late afternoon, and I’m riding my bike along the river again. I think that all of life is like a river. We yield to it or struggle against a current. It doesn’t matter which. Or maybe it does. Swiftly, I am home and turning on the news as the telephone rings. But instead of answering it, I sit at my library desk and write down a sentence, then another that occurs to me out of nowhere, like musical notes floating up from somewhere deep in the self.
Writing this absorbed,
I realize that the words
are spilling all over
my legs, and I ask,
“Hey, what’s this?”
When I go
to the window,
the words come too
and are just all
over the place.
It’s as if my whole body
ceased to exist,
and I experience
the end of Henri
in an infinitude of words.
Excerpted from Nothing to Declare by Henri Cole, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC, Copyright © 2015 by Henri Cole. All rights reserved.