Henri Cole and Carl Phillips are almost exact contemporaries—Cole was born in 1956, Phillips in 1959—and each has developed, over the last two decades, a style at once individual, even eccentric, and rooted in the English lyric tradition. For Cole, this style has consisted of an almost Olympian asceticism of tone in the presentation of images and subjects volcanically hot, an alienation of perspective that defamiliarizes even the most casual gestures; for Phillips, it has consisted of a quivering, questing, lushly analytical syntax, with clauses of qualification and contradiction proliferating to the very edge of sense. Both are demanding poets, not least for an exactness they pursue in almost opposite ways: Cole through a stripping away of things to their essence, the arrangement of words like stones in a Zen garden, and Phillips through a kind of copiousness, an attempt to come at a dilemma from all sides at once, his constant, minute shivers of revision building in a way reminiscent of a fractal design. And yet for all their differences they share as a central subject desire, its sources and conflicts, the ways in which surrender or resistance to it is crucial in the formation of the self. For both, desire is not merely an experience but a lens through which to understand experience; in their different ways, each seeks in desire something like a metaphysics, however fruitless they may find the search.
Given this theme, it seems hardly surprising that both of these poets, however disparate their styles, have returned again and again in their recent work to forms resembling the sonnet, that structure so central to love poetry in English. Neither poet has taken the form entirely as given. They have eschewed rhyme and regular meter, but the sonnet was never simply a musical form, and generally more important for recent poets has been the rhetorical structure underpinning the form. The sonnet is crucially a dynamic form, its fourteen lines divided unevenly between opposing ideas, images, emotions; this has made it seem ideally suited to the extremes of erotic experience, with its fits and starts, its sudden heats and reversals, but also to other realms of experience. From its earliest appearance in English, in the poems of Thomas Wyatt, the erotic form of the sonnet served also to explore the vicissitudes of politics, as it would again for the Romantics; in John Donne and others, a poetics of secular love served sacred ends, and the turns of the sonnet form became the twistings of self-accounting conscience or the convolutions of theological dilemma. What is exciting about the sonnets of both Cole and Phillips, and what distinguishes them from many other contemporary sonneteers, is that their ambitions for the form are commensurate with its history; they approach it not as a museum piece or an exercise in craft, but instead as a living vehicle by which to wrestle with the central themes of their careers.
Through his ten collections of poems, Carl Phillips has fashioned himself as our great searching poet of ambivalence—ambivalence conceived not (as we sometimes use the word) as signifying vague or unformed feelings, but instead opposing desires held in suspension, exactingly measured and found to be of equal weight. His poems frequently spin on words familiar from the turns of Petrarchan sonnets—"or," "or not," "though," "but"—and they seldom conclude with any greater sense of certainty than they had at the start. But the oppositions in Phillips' poems have always been of a peculiarly subtle kind, insisting on, instead of the light and dark or heat and chill of the sonnet tradition, distinctions so fine as to be almost indiscernible. It is one of the accomplishments of these poems that from such fine distinctions he generates genuine emotional heat, opening up previously unglimpsed spaces of betweenness the poems want finally not to abandon, I think, by choosing one option over another, but instead to inhabit. "That moment / when an unwillingness to refuse can seem // no different from an inability to, / though they are not the same—inability, / unwillingness," Phillips writes in "Continuous Until We Stop," articulating one discernment crucial to the drama of his latest collection, Double Shadow (FSG, 2012). In "The Flesh Not Being Grass, Nor Grass the Flesh" he articulates another: "Rest, I said; and for many years, / between love and a way of loving—for they are not / the same—it is true, he did rest." Even the title of the new collection highlights doubleness, as well as the muted quality of that doubling: at issue is not a choice between darkness and light, say—as Shakespeare might have it with his dark lady and fair youth—but instead between a "Double Shadow," the nature of which is multiple and rich.
After experimenting with the sonnet form in his previous two books, in Double Shadow it emerges as a dominant structure. In this collection of thirty-four poems, by my count at least sixteen of them are sonnets, leaving out several poems of thirteen or fifteen lines. If this count seems tentative, it's because Phillips is free with the form, expanding and contracting it through a peculiar use of dropped line. In the poem "As if Lit From Beneath, and Tossing," eight left-justified lines are broken to make fourteen; in other poems, fourteen full lines are broken to make poems that seem much longer. In this way, Phillips uses the sonnet as a form accommodating of both spareness and sprawl, sometimes packed to bursting, at others almost dissolving on the page. More than this, Phillips's many alterations of the form, his use of expansion and contraction, serve to cast a kind of ambivalence over the form itself, as though he is often unsure how fully he wants to settle into it. Above all, these sonnets, with their broken lines and abundant white space, are forms of motion and—to use the term so central to this collection—restlessness, at once longing for the restraint of structure and everywhere hesitant to be so bound. In this way, Phillips has made the sonnet a powerful embodiment of perhaps the most persistent ambivalence in his work, that between freedom and constraint.
An early poem in the book, "Fascination," makes clear both the formal strategy and the governing thematic of much of Double Shadow. It is divided, as are many of the sonnets in this book, into two halves, each consisting of seven lines, preferring to the octave/sestet division of the traditional Petrarchan sonnet a form more perfectly balanced.
The two images—a guttering candle, a trapped fox—are juxtaposed without explication, leaving the reader to divine the poem's argument. As he frequently does, Phillips interprets the first image, immediately turning the candle's light into a symbol of "desire" and also of freedom, as it is "unclaimed" and "searching." Freedom and bondage in this book are frequently figured in terms of romantic commitment, the fracturing relationship between two men emerging slowly as a just-perceptible narrative in these decidedly non-narrative poems, with the speaker longing for a "recklessness" that will free him from a love that has become merely "a way of loving."
The oppositions between the two stanzas are—for once in this collection of fine shades—seemingly stark: the light of the candle against the dark of the brush, the movement of searching "desire" against the immobility of the fox, freedom against entrapment. If we interpret the images within what emerges as the narrative of the book, it's easy to think of the first image as presenting the promise of desire, the second as a nightmare image of commitment as requiring the most horrible self-mutilation to escape. It's tempting, then, to think of the poem as creating a further stark dichotomy, between positive and negative alternatives, a choice easy enough to make. But in fact the poem is more complicated than this, less sanguine about the promise the first half seems to present. From the beginning that promise is cast in doubt by the out-of-place urn, "from a century, by now, / too far away." More profoundly, the spaciousness explored in the poem's first seven lines is illusory, a "cavernousness" cast by the play of shadows; the "kind / of moon" is not a moon, the ceiling not the sky. There is a suggestion of the funereal in the urn, perhaps heightened by the finality of the desire, and it is telling that this "last round of desire" is described negatively and by means of a passive participle: its freedom lies not in any action of its own, but rather in that it remains "unclaimed." Neither stanza, then, presents a desirable state of affairs, and the sonnet's volta is not a turn from problem to solution, but instead from one unlivable alternative to another.
Beginning with his third book, From the Devotions, Phillips has largely shunned the contemporary world in his imagery, turning instead to the archetypal world of myth and folktale. The images in "Fascination"—urn, candle, moon, brush, fox—are typical, and other images familiar to readers of Phillips fill this collection: deer, lion, horse, birds of prey, meadow, forest, the sea. Even before Phillips's experiments with the sonnet, many of his images have seemed drawn from the repertoire of Petrarchanism, and typical too is the Petrarchan way in which a relatively small stock of images is recycled, particular animals, especially, returning again and again, accruing significance with each use. Phillips has sometimes been criticized for what can at times seem a retreat from the contemporary world. But these landscapes of legend and myth do not preclude a remarkable candor, especially about sex, and moments of intimacy and human drama, even of confession, movingly emerge. Repeatedly in these poems the speaker finds himself responding to, or retreating from, accusations from an injured party, as the poems cohere into their narrative of abandonment and betrayal. "Don't / you know it, don't you know // I love you, he said. He was / shaking. He said: / I love you," Phillips writes in "Civilization," exposing himself fairly ruthlessly before a grief he has caused. These poems meditate again and again on the "double shadow," as the longest poem in the collection, "Night," would have it, of "risk" and "faintheartedness." Here risk is conceived of as leaving behind the familiar shape of a life, casting off toward something new, finding "now / a kind of youth again, now pleasure as the effacement / entirely of what, inside us, we couldn't bear / looking long at, no, / not a moment longer...." The poems often seem to want to celebrate this risk and the poet who embraces it: "The tamer animals / would soon lie down again," Phillips writes in "Continuous Until We Stop," "and the wild go free." But they also return again and again to images of damage, and to a regret that, however they attempt to deny it, refuses to be denied. "What I've / done with this life, // what I'd meant not to do, / or would have meant, maybe, had I / understood, though I have / no regrets," Phillips writes in "Civilization," a claim belied throughout the collection in poems that give ample evidence of "the mind / circling, ring upon ring—I can't, I shouldn't, I shouldn't / have, I'll never again—no end, no apparent ending" ("After the Thunder, Before the Rain").
The central ambivalence of this collection, as I have already suggested, concerns hunger, the temptation it presents to throw off form, to seek out new and more satisfying food. The speaker of these poems wants both to embrace this hunger, with its admirable wildness, while also suspecting that the freedom it promises may become its own bondage. "Tell me, what is hunger, tell what it means / to have spent a life saying no to it, and emerged victorious," Phillips writes in "The Gristmill," the italics at once distancing the statement from the voice of the poem and raising it to the pitch of plea or lamentation. One of the most beautiful sonnets in the book, "Comes the Fall," powerfully expresses the collection's ambivalence about both freedom and commitment. It begins with a sense of how commitment can dull to "habit":
The first lines present a sense of the world as stripped not just of novelty but of agency, the form of a life reduced to patterns so calcified as to seem without history: "just how it's been always." This "bondage" occupies an interior space, but the "crack in the glass" allows for a bravura movement through image to a more expansive exterior:
There is a virtuosic fluidity of movement here, the leaves in the wind becoming sails carrying the poem to sea, the pursuit of hunger granting access to it—and not for the first time, but "again," the speaker following a trajectory he has followed before. The weight of that previous knowledge comes clear with the recognition that "freedom" comes at the cost of "loneliness." And here the poem turns, presenting in its final lines a very different image:
After the "loneliness" of "freedom," the poem ends with an image of companionship, of hunger resisted in discipline. The speaker calls this "the better life, the best way," but as always the image is one of ambivalence, the horses broken and "fitted with blinders," ignorance the only defense against hunger. That blindness is not this poet's choice is clear in the past tense of the final line, starkly different from the present indicative of the middle stanza. The "dream" of constancy, that blindered "better life," is already closed to him.
As presented by the book's jacket copy, the argument of Double Shadow is "for life as a wilderness through which there's only the questing forward—with no regrets and no looking back." Even for the frequently reductive purpose of selling books, this seems remarkably inadequate to the complexity of such poems. In fact, even as it celebrates the risk of questing desire, images of damage fill the book, in the torn flesh of men and animals, but also in more subtle images of disturbance: shimmering rings of water, the movement of grass in a field, the unquiet air after a bell has been struck. Such images return obsessively, and are variously interpreted. "The pattern / of thinking, which is radial—a wheel, the light in its scattering, / water around where the diver falls, vanishes," Phillips writes in "The Gristmill," providing an image for the circling discursive pattern of thought in his poems, intriguingly linked here ("falls, vanishes") with loss. In "Like a Lion," the interpretation is even more expansive: "the years / of my life, reducible to a shuddering / scant reflection in a body / of water nowhere visible, stir, / stir back." At times, as he considers these images of transience, Phillips seems troubled by his own "scant"-ness, and at others, comforted by the idea that even damage is passing. Most tellingly, perhaps, these images of resonance and reflection are images of motion, and therefore of the restlessness that is, finally, the quest for a satisfying object of desire—a quest that it may be in the nature of desire to frustrate:
Absent a finally adequate object of desire, the human condition is one of endless, and perhaps endlessly futile, movement, as Phillips at times bleakly recognizes. "Why not call restlessness / our crown, and our dominion, sang the sea," he writes in the sonnet "Almost Tenderly," and then immediately provides an answer: "But / the man was a brokenness like any other: moving, / until it fails to move."
In their search for an adequate object of desire, these poems at times take on a devotional cast, as Phillips's poems have throughout his career, and in their restlessness and intermittent longing for rest they can recall the opening lines of Augustine's Confessions, the text that lies behind almost all books that attempt, as Double Shadow does, an exhaustive reckoning of the self, however painful. "Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee," writes Augustine in the first, extraordinarily restless sentences of his book, "for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee." But in these new poems Phillips seems further away than ever from believing in a metaphysical object durable and capacious enough to provide an end to restlessness, an end he can no longer conceive of without ambivalence. In the last poem in the book (except for a four-line coda), "Heaven and Earth," the speaker performs the first act of metaphysics, staring at the stars as if to draw some meaning from them:
These are not Keats's or Dante's stars, repositories of meaning or images of cosmic harmony; instead they are "like cattle asleep," victims of some violence ("torn out"), "done." The speaker beneath them moves, but not—tellingly—along any path laid out, not in any single direction at all; instead, he "turn[s]." (Earlier in this poem Phillips presents the image of "a map / unfolding, getting folded back up again, seeming / sometimes—even as I held it—to be on fire.") In these moving, unsettled and unsettling poems, Phillips has found in the shape of the sonnet, which he inhabits and wrestles with at once, the shape of that turning.
From his first book, The Marble Queen, through the seven volumes that have followed, Henri Cole has been fascinated with origins, particularly with that intransigent knot of self-making, the family romance. He has repeatedly turned to childhood for the key to understanding the self he has become, training his estranging, incisive gaze on the relationship between his parents. "When I was a boy," Cole writes in "Apollo," a sonnet sequence from his 1998 collection, The Visible Man, "our father cooked / to seek forgiveness for making our house / a theatre of hysteria and despair," teaching his children of what the poem later calls "the endless dragging of chains that signifies love." From the start, then, the experience of the intimate and the erotic for these poems is one of conflict, ungovernable impulses, violence, even madness, and Cole's distinctive poetics has long seemed largely an effort at containing the very passions that give rise to it. His poems have a sometimes eerie quality of analytical calm, the coolness of an alien intelligence examining objects and gestures the meaning of which it discerns only at a slant. The realizations this defamiliarization leads to, the weird comparisons it allows, give a genuine intellectual charge to many of these poems. But the appeal of Cole's poems, though they are very smart indeed, has never been chiefly intellectual, and the title of his new collection, Touch (FSG, 2011), makes clear the poet's primal longing for touch, whatever the distance of his tone. This makes even more moving the fact that many of the poems are elegies for his mother—long the central figure in his drama of self—and that their calm belies a self ravaged by grief, "morphed into a dog / howling under the bed" ("Dead Mother") in longing for the touch he has lost.
It was in The Visible Man that the sonnet became Cole's distinctive form, and while he at times experiments, he has hewn to the Petrarchan model far more than Phillips. The sonnet seems part of his strategy of containment, its predictable shape serving as a kind of reassurance: however deeply one delves in any particular direction, the formal turn holds out a promise of escape; however chaotic one's material, there is the fourteenth line with its promise of limit. Often Cole uses (like Phillips in "Fascination") the juxtaposition of two images or scenes, allowing the expectations inherent in the Petrarchan octave / sestet structure to replace explicit, discursive argument. In the astonishing poem "Shrike," for instance, Cole explores the feeding habits of the titular bird—which impales its food on thorns, creating a larder to which it can return—before turning to a scene of gruesome domestic violence. Here is the opening:
Typical of Cole is the direct address, the wonderingly childlike opening ("How brightly"), the use of simile ("like the apron") and metaphor ("on a meat hook") serving to personify the bird, turning it for all its oddness into the familiar image of a neighborhood butcher. Typical too is the macabre shift of perspective in the poem's second set of four lines:
"Poor cricket," with its storybook adjective, partakes of the tone of "How bright," and the odd misdirection of complaint—the whistling before the pecking—serves to distance us from a scene of real gore. "But holds up / pretty good," with its low-diction solecism, rubs uncomfortably against the decidedly arcane word "oneiric," but this association of pain with the generative province of dreams is crucial to the poem's turn and final six lines:
It's difficult for me to read that last line without a shudder, with its unexpected transformation of a scene of violence into a scene of origin. The poem gives the reader no help in reading the relation between the octave and sestet, though of course some resonances are clear: in each we have an act of violence, in each one being torments another. I think the relation is more complicated, however, the shrike standing not so much for the father as for the son, who is drawn into existence in the bathroom above them. Like Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," the poem links emergence into a sense of self with images of horror (in Bishop's poem, images from National Geographic, among them a man's corpse strung up as food) and the knowledge of passivity (here the abused mother, and in Bishop's poem, far more benignly, Aunt Consuelo in the dentist's chair). As he hears his mother cry out, the son drinks "water right out of the tap," his lips to the source, and what he takes in, I think, is precisely the impulse to make poems, taking on the mother's question of the father ("Who are you?") as the question he will pursue in his work. Just as the shrike stores up its suffering prey, so the poet keeps his larder of horrors, to which he returns again and again for the nourishment of art.
Other poems in the collection support this reading, and throughout Touch poesis seems a suspect practice, at once inadequate and, like the feeding habits of the shrike, somehow objectionable. In the poem, "Hairy Spider," for instance, Cole again turns to an image of predation: "There's nothing like a big, long-legged spider to embody / the mind's life-giving power," the poem begins. Both spider and her many babies will drown when it rains, he knows, but:
The last two lines might serve as a gloss on a poem like "Shrike," in which distressing scenes act like a crucial weight on the joints of the world, the poet divining "the connections between everything" by how those connections are strained. The ideal state for the poet is to be like those changing webs, "absorbing the secret vibrations from the world," which awake in him, as in the spider, an impulse that is fundamentally predatory, or at least acquisitive: the desire to snatch something for later use, to fill one's "coffer." It is a demonic urge, the poem suggests, to make beauty out of suffering.
Cole's suspicion of poesis reaches its highest pitch in his elegies for his mother. In lines that recall the birth scene of the book's first poem, "Asleep in Jesus at Rest" ("Tears ran out of her eyes like animals. / Fragrant convolutions from her insides / filled the room with the strife of love"), Cole presents the moment of the mother's death in "Dead Mother":
Deeply moving in these poems about his mother are descriptions of casual, bodily care for the dying woman, the attempts to assuage her suffering or, in other poems, her sense of dignity ("her mouth twisting, / as I plucked whiskers from around it," Cole writes in "Sunflower"). The poem can't sustain Cole's customary coolness here, and presents an image of profound discomposure, his reduction to animal grief. Even so, the opening line suggests a surveyor's gaze, an accounting of the scene's potential for lyric epiphany ("love, death, memory"). Even in extremis the predatory eye still acquires, as is clear from the poem's final lines:
The experience of disfiguring grief is itself an access to vision—a cleared lens—and as his mother dies the poet acquires new riches, the "coffer" (the word is repeated in "Hairy Spider") where presumably "all of life" is stored, the "love, death, memory" of the first line. Even if he would choose to, the poet can't help but profit from loss. As he writes in "The Flagellation," a meditation on Piero della Francesca's painting, "the eyes drift back / to the deviant, the melancholic, the real, emotion / punching through the rational."
If the death of his mother provides many of the most striking poems in the first of this collection's three parts, the most powerful poems of the last engage with erotic grief. In a sequence of eight sonnets, Cole recounts a relationship with a much younger man, an addict whose involvement with the poet is clearly based on something other than reciprocal attraction. The speaker of these poems is at once obsessed, erotically prone, and clear-eyed about the humiliations of the drama he recounts. In "One Animal," a sonnet whose nine sentences are all framed as negative imperatives, the poet tries to warn himself against seeking in this erotic relationship something he knows is not to be found there: "And do not think—touching his hair, / licking, sucking, and being sucked in the same / instant, no longer lonely—that you / are two animals perfect as one." And, as if in self-punishment, Cole incorporates the voice of the loved object into the poems, copying text messages that—with their crude, dissolving speech—disrupt the composed surfaces of his verse. In allowing these two voices to speak in the poems, Cole presents a double portrait of need—the poet's for connection, love, touch, the beloved's for drugs—and sees them as attempts to answer a similar impulse, as in these lines from "Laughing Monster":
In desire, in drugs, the poem suggests that the poet and his beloved have made the same error, seeking a metaphysics in the earth-bound.
In the retrospective sonnet, "Resistance," the extent of both of these needs, and of the poet's humiliation, is clear:
The poem opens defiantly, responding to a challenge the poem leaves out. "I didn't go to him for virtue," the poet insists, claiming a kind of mastery over the experience, the dignity of recognizing his own motives, which he dignifies further with a striking simile, conveying sweetness, nourishment, and the alluring danger of a sting: "eating honey / like a wasp." But here the second voice enters the poem, stripping the poet of all his defense and dignity, abusing and even reviling him as it reveals the mercantile nature of their interaction. Here, the poem turns—not at the expected eighth line, but half-way through the seventh:
The poet acknowledges what seems to be the reality of the relationship here—"insane," "undignified," "horrible"—but with the shift to the present ("now") places it in the past, exorcising it and asserting a new mastery, free of need, the "sticky," penetrable body turned hard, sheer, impregnable: "mahogany in daylight." But again the poem denies this view of things, dragging the poet back down into previous humiliation:
Even at this distance, even in the private space of composition, the disruptive, demotic voice of the former love object intrudes, denying the poet's attempt at transcendence. But the final line of the poem turns it once again, echoing "Dead Mother" ("a lens was cleared") in suggesting that here too there is an access to vision.
Poetry is never a pure space for Cole; it never succeeds in sealing the poet off from the feelings that besiege him, but it nevertheless does hold out the hope of assuagement. Repeatedly the writing of poems is described as a palliative, if not a remedy, for loneliness: "but writing this now, / sometimes in a rush, sometimes after drifting thought, / I feel happiness, I feel I am not alone" ("Solitude: The Tower"). In "Quilt," the speaker even imagines, if only for a moment, the possibility of poetry as a solution to the primal fault, a chance to repair the family romance so damaged in his own childhood: "I could actually be normal if the imagination / (unstable, disquieting, fragile) is the Father penetrating / the Mother and this is my Child-poem." The grammar is telling here, conditional ("I could actually be") but not quite counter-factual ("if the imagination ... is"). All poets write to make the world habitable, perhaps, and Cole acknowledges how prone to failure is the attempt; in "Ulro," a moving poem addressed to a poet who has committed suicide (the title is borrowed from Blake's name for the fallen world), he suggests that the heightened vision of the poet may even put him at greater risk: "Cigarettes, love, work, liquor, brooding, despair—/ one thing not controlled can destroy a life. Jesus, / I miss him. Why did his eyes have no veils? / Why was the salt of wisdom no good to him?"
Consumed with his mother's death and with his own aging ("The pretty body I wanted no longer galloped over me / shouting, 'Open, open!" he writes in "Myself Departing), in Touch Henri Cole has written his most death-haunted book. And yet even among these ends, scenes of origin and renewal recur, as though any absence demands a new creation to fill it. In "Away," the last sonnet addressed to the lost beloved, the poem begins with the experience of loss:
Cole doesn't flee from what he calls "atonement," but instead gives himself over to it, experiencing it as a kind of emptying out, the loss of his "observations" and sense of self compounding his suffering. But instead, through the simile, Cole turns this experience of emptiness into a scene of new creation, one at once cosmic ("dust and hydrogen clouds") and modest ("to light / the backyard"). "How poignantly emptiness cries out / to be filled," he writes, and then the poem turns toward its sestet:
These lines represent the book's most hopeful scene of poetry as assuagement—as more than assuagement, as genuine renewal.
Repeatedly the poems of Touch find in the experience of loss the chance for new creation, and these repeated turns toward renewal have something to do, I think, with the form of the sonnet itself, which forces Cole to turn repeatedly back and forth, every state calling for its complement. The sonnet is thus a form of constant movement for Cole as for Phillips, and though their senses of that movement are radically different, their use of the form is for each at the heart of his poetics. The temperament of Double Shadow seems finally tragic, and for all the poems' equivocations they seem finally, movingly, unable to disavow a fundamental expectation of loss. In this sense, the turns of Phillips's sonnets—much of his virtuosity lies in his ability to make poems that seem almost nothing but turnings—seem torturous, attempts to escape a bind by which they already know themselves to be trapped. Cole's work, on the other hand, seems expectant of something more, and to be possessed of a capacity for wondering surprise undefeated by disappointment. There is something bracing in his book's refusal finally to despair, and in its repeated turns toward wonder. Pain is something to work with in these beautiful, redemptive poems, a coffer of nourishments. "Though my eyes / leaked," Cole writes in "Myself Departing," "my fingers, cracked from thirst, dried them."
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