Reading the beautiful, longing, inspired poems in Blizzard, Henri Cole’s new book, I marvel that, no matter the subject — from peeling potatoes, to living with a new kitten, to expressing disgust at politicians — the collection seems to search for that moment that’s both eternal and everyday. This is the music of what happens, a playful theater inside still-life:
“When I peel potatoes, I put my head down,
as if I am still following orders and being loyal
to my commander. I feel a connection across
time to others putting their heads down
in fatigued thought, as if this most natural
act signified living”
Whether the poems in Blizzard are about looking at a bee, or addressing a bat, or drinking vodka at Robert Lowell’s grave, or about Cole’s mother or his troubled country, these poems are most interested in exploring the moment, in asking: who are we — our emotions, our histories — in this moment? It is a perfect question for a lyric poet to ask. One thinks of Goethe’s Moment, pause, you are beautiful — Cole takes this question into now, into the kitchens of 2020. In Blizzard, Cole’s now shows that simple can be abundant, that every day is full of bright elegance, that ecstatic lives even (perhaps, especially) in the tiniest and most unsuspecting instants. The book is filled with the details of an intensely private life, yes, and yet the work doesn’t seem confessional at all. The word “soul” appears and reappears, but isn’t redundant: soul-animal, Cole writes on one page, and on another: “The obscure human soul – it is sad and happy at once.” Blizzard is a riveting, gorgeous, soul-making book.
ILYA KAMINSKY: “Where is my America? / Agnostic and uninsured, I eat celery, onions / and garlic […] You said you would always / tell the truth, Mr. President, but that was a lie,” you write. Any long-time reader of your work will note how the questions change. “Where is my America?” wasn’t exactly the question you were interested in your earlier books. But current history is everywhere present in your recent works, even if the solitary speaker’s voice remains steadfast. I wonder if you might speak a bit here about the lyric poet’s perspective in a time of crisis?
HENRI COLE: This is an important question. We must defend our freedom. We must not be afraid.
My poems from the past forty years are a record of the person I have become. In the beginning, I was working out how to be a man in the world. The question of masculinity was important. Along the way, I have not avoided politics and history. In certain situations, I have felt I could not escape. But I think it is possible to be very angry about things and respond with a poem about the surf at dawn.
I think my poems represent moments of being and seeing. When I am writing, I am like a frozen river broken open. I don’t know in advance what I believe. I am not a prophet. I am more like a picked flower in hot sunlight with a bee collecting pollen inside. I am a dreamer. My struggle with anxiety is so much less frightening when I am writing. During the two minutes it takes me to read a sonnet, I want to live a whole human existence.
But, always, it is the soul I want to come back to. The soul is the foundation of all things. The perceiver and revealer of truth, as Emerson said. Our times of trouble and confinement seem to me a perfect time for one soul to connect with another, which is the function of poetry. When I am reading and writing, I feel so much less helpless about the conditions of life.
For me, there is no good poetry without emotion. Also music and original language. I often start with a phrase or line and write toward feeling. When I am writing, I can be whoever I want to be. I am not just cabbage-head Henri. I am flow. I am a bowed tree. My arms are thrown around the neck of a horse. I feel like I am about to scream from the things men do, but my handwriting stabilizes everything.