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Force of attraction
reading Henri Cole's sonnets
Hi, thanks for being here. This post contains poems by Henri Cole from his collection Gravity and Center — Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 (FSG)—it’s sort of a review of the collection and it’s sort of an essay. Whatever you call it, I hope you enjoy it & are inspired to read the book. If you want to support this project financially, you can upgrade your subscription below. xoxo.
The problem is I don’t know where to begin. I take the collection of Henri Cole poems with me to Grand Street when I part ways with a friend for a few hours. We plan to meet back up after he runs an errand. I’m going off about three hours of sleep at this point. It’s not the time to write but in terms of deadlines—real or imaginary—it’s time to write. My tote bag is heavy with my computer and other things I thought I would need but I don’t. I don’t know what to do with myself for three hours, other than feeling like the lost boy Cole’s speaker finds in “Beach Walk.” Like me, he was alone. Something tumbled between us—/not quite emotion [...] / “I got lost. Where am I?” Nothing else to do, so I go to my semi-regular coffee shop and sit by the window with the book. Loneliness, being lost, color many of the sonnets in the book. Yet I can’t articulate this in a review beyond how lonely I feel right now.
As I read the collection in the coffee shop, I feel lost and lonely because I am totally by myself for the first time in days. I’m becoming insufferable in my inability to be alone. Lately I’ve wondered if this impulse is not as bad as people make it out to be. Everyone harps about how you should learn to be alone, how it’s the first step to knowing yourself. But I’m not sure how I am supposed to make art from my life if I’m not around others. (Cole again: I looked back, not desiring to go it alone; and again: I’m so afraid to find myself alone). Wanting to not be alone in the world is also a wish to not be lost in one’s own life, but in other people’s.
Sonnets are rooms I’ve often found myself alone in. (Henri Cole confirms this more or less in “Black Camellia,” which begins with the invocation "Little room.” A poem addressed to a poem.) I took a sonnet course during lockdown, calling into the evening class from my partially subterranean room in Iowa. As the semester went on, the light stayed longer and class went on even longer. We were all so desperate for some connection beyond the four walls of our ad hoc classrooms that were more commonly known as our bedrooms. Longing to be with people other than ourselves.
At its heart and in my mind, a sonnet is the kind of room where you yearn. And that kind of room, of course, is a bedroom. Sure, I can yearn in my kitchen or on the floor of my living room, but really there’s no place like my room. I don’t think I have anything else new to say about the sonnet beyond this. Like Cole, what appeals to me about the sonnet is its alchemic mixture of passion and thought. And there’s hardly anything I prefer to do other than think about love.
The turn that comes twelve or so lines in isn’t a release from that longing. We don’t leave the room. No, the volta has always been evidence that desire just changes form. (I make Aiden’s meme my phone background: Desire keeps me humble. I don’t want to be free.) This is what I love so much about the sonnet: its architecture of desire that can never be satisfied. The beloved is always out of reach. It’s a cyclical trap— the original it’s so over / we’re so back meme. Mourning and melancholia, ecstasy and devastation. Loss, but never satisfaction. A crush that can never be. Charlotte calls this the imperfect perfect situation. The sonnet the imperfect perfect poem.
It was a Christian idea, sacrificing / oneself to attain the object of one’s desire, Cole writes in “Blur.” Earlier this week, Marissa sends me a piece of writing by Yumi Sakugawa that reminds me of this line. Desire is the forward movement that alchemizes every molecule of your being into a more alive version of yourself [...] Even in heartbreak, your desires never lead you wrong, they always lead you to a more you version of you.
Cole writes in the same poem: I believed I saw myself / through him, and in another: I experience / desire creating desire. I saw myself more clearly through my desire. I saw myself more clearly through that which can never be satisfied.
It is five a.m. on the sixteenth day of the fourth month. Morning is still glorious as lousy with alcohol and tired as we are. The four of us briefly try to sleep in my bed. Someone pulls the lamp’s chord and light flickers angrily. I love how alternately big and small a bed can feel. It doesn’t matter what size it is. (as when a soul, / finding its peculiar other, pushes out / the staple of life, which is suffering, / and a red sun wraps everything in gold.) These peculiar others I recognize through their breathing in the dark. The rustle of the sheets and the eventual rearrangement of bodies, one leaves, even when I say, I wish you would stay.
Dancing in the grass at McCarren—and I run across the grass into the fizzy air / insane, undignified—and talking shit. Girls versus boys standing on opposite sides of the picnic blanket. Fizzy ourselves, full of nice wine and cold pizza. Two beautiful girls barefoot and bare shoulders. It’s not enough to get our feet dirty and go home to sleep. More, more, more. Are you tired yet? Not really. Not at all.
Singing through the streets. We pick flowers as we go. Place them behind each other’s ears. Scheming our way into the secret bar. Beside the dance floor as the Talking Heads play, we kiss each other all over. First on the hands, then on both cheeks. Can’t remember. It may be on the lips. Lavender and orange light pours over us. But even there, / falling through the lavender haze, I extend / my arms to you, my secret comrade, / who made me love you. I’m jealous and then I’m not. I don’t see why you shouldn’t kiss your friends.
I guess I just have to say it instead of continuing to circle around it—the sonnet is the horniest type of poem. Not overtly or embarrassingly so, but deeply, deeply horny. Like, Henri Cole isn’t afraid to use the word squirt in a sonnet. No shame! But this is about as lewd as Cole really gets. Anyways, I don’t think sonnets that are explicitly about sex are the hottest. The hottest sonnets to read are the ones that are like accidentally seeing a beautiful person naked in their room through a window. Secret moments that have will we or won’t we tension within them. Many of Cole’s sonnets feel this way. I mean, the allusion of riding a horse then getting into a literal bed could probably do it for a lot of people. Did it for me.
With or without entendre, sonnets are the best at capturing that same frenzy of wanting someone when there is unaddressed tension. Or as Cole writes: All I am is impulse and longing. The impulse of longing can only be expressed through the unspeakable. Let’s talk about sex without talking about sex.
One afternoon I’m reading the collection while I wait for a pineapple upside down cake—that has bubbled over the too-small pan multiple times–to finally finish baking. I’m bubbling over, achy with all I want. Most of the poems fill me with such intense yearning at one point I feel like I could throw up. I’m even more sleepless than usual this week. (I remember when Tory first fell in love with his partner. He couldn’t sleep, was up at five am walking through Iowan fields. He felt sick all the time. He called me one morning, he didn’t know what to do. I started laughing, or maybe I was brought close to tears, because I had never witnessed something so romantic.) Earlier in the week, I text Charlotte that listening to “Strawberry Blonde'' by Mitski produces a similar effect: longing and nausea. I’m touch-free. Leaning against the counter I read the poem “Carwash” and find what could now be my favorite lines in any poem: how can I / defend myself against what I want? / Lay your head in my lap. Touch me.
The other nausea: not wanting what you once desired. (A Hinge match on a Monday night tries to pressure me into meeting up after I ask for a raincheck. I know what he wants. It’s late enough to guess. What did he say that makes you think he just wants to sleep with you, Annie asks. I just know, even not knowing someone. This desire is not ambiguous—what happens at a certain hour and communicated over a screen rather than with a body. Right now, my desire isn’t ambiguous either because there is none here. So I politely decline the invitation I thought I already declined. I don’t have the time to invest in what / I purport to desire.) Everything and nothing, what I claim to desire.
We stand in the overly warm kitchen blending pineapple with coconut milk and rum before the fruit party. It’s not sweet enough. Quickly, with arms reaching around each other, I pull a tub of Domino Sugar from the cabinet to make simple syrup. We’re nimbler now. I’m nervous, full of pre-party jitters. You know exactly what to do. And does it really matter? Who knows when people show up, if they will bring their friends, what fruit they’ll come bearing for the fruit-themed housewarming party. Calmer now, I’m coming and going between you, without thinking, I am freer this way. You dip your finger into the pot, the nectar of domestic ingredients, and then say pour it all in, it doesn’t matter. You’re right. So little matters. Everything is better now. The sweetness we taste hides nothing.
At the Guggenheim’s Sarah Sze exhibit, I play eye spy. I’m looking for something within the sculptures to write about. The multimedia structures make the case that the poetic is often this pedestrian. I read this on one of the structures’ placards. My head is full of Cole poems. The sonnets I’ve been reading all day pair well with the fragments strewn in Sze’s art. Cole is a disciple of the monosyllable, the tiniest language to make the whole. Sze is a peer in curation of the miniature to construct her pieces. On the train to the museum, I read Daisy Fried’s NYT review of Gravity and Center, which essentially calls Cole a minimalist and a maximalist. Sze could be described as the same. I’m no art critic. I have the fantasy that I will always have something interesting to say, but have come to realize how often I don’t.
The exhibit is no exception. I try to let myself be ok with my lack of descriptive language as we walk through. I do what I always used to do when I was reading much more poetry than I do now. To let go of the hope that I’d understand the poem or art itself, and to just focus on understanding how it moved through me. My Sontagian impulse to be against interpretation, and even further, against criticism generally. I find poems to be wholly indescribable. What they are trying to do has never been interesting to me. The most useful poems are the ones that of course make me feel. All I can say is this makes me feel. (I want nothing to reveal feeling but feeling.) Simple verbs. States of being. I’m not sure what the art is doing, but I know what I feel and I know it deeply. Once my thesis advisor told me that “is” is the most powerfully descriptive verb. You don’t need another verb when is describes the thing itself. Now you can make the world.
We’re eating in a cafeteria in K-town when John tells us how he got the scar on his hand. He was trying to save a bee. I’ve been reading Cole’s bee sonnets all afternoon, the bee a figure for the soul, which I don’t know yet what to make of. John is careful to describe the scene. Helpless, on its back, he gathered it in his hand, then tried to open a window. The hive outside my window. Cheerful and careful. It was a new studio, he’d never opened that window before. So his hand went right through it. Glass everywhere, on the floor and into his flesh. A lost bee, blood-sticky almsman. What’s left behind is a scar that looks like the incredible marks left from lightning strikes. Right between his knuckles. I’m sure if I touched it, it would be white hot. On the way to the hospital, even in pain, he didn’t forget to call his coworker and make sure the bee was saved. Environmentalists for years tried to save the bees and little did they know all they needed was John.
Henri Cole writes in the afterword: the lean, muscular body of the sonnet frees me to be simultaneously dignified and bold, to appear somewhat socialized though what I have to say may be eccentric or unethical, and most important of all, to have aesthetic power while writing about the tragic situation of the individual in the world.
I wonder what the tragic situation of the individual may be when I walk through Central Park at dusk with two new friends and an old one. When the wind scatters crab apple blossoms around us, I say, isn’t it really nice to be alive. Mostly I believe what I say, even though I have spent the last month being sure death is closer than ever.
Partly because I lost a friend a month ago. If I have learned anything, this is the tragic situation of the individual in the world. To lose someone and have no words for it—at least to not be able to make sense of it. I’ve been trying and failing. I have felt that writing about it at all might be unethical. What right do I have? He’s gone. It’s a plain fact, neither dignified or bold. While I won’t write about it here, many of the poems in Gravity and Center are sonnets of mourning. I wish I had read them sooner, the day I heard the news when I left my office nauseated to walk around in confusion, in the only real snow New York saw all year. He was no longer in the city. I couldn’t find him. This morning I find him in one of the mourning poems—“Ulro.” I draw a vertical line to enclose the final three lines. Jesus, / I miss him. Why did his eyes have no veils? / Why was the salt of wisdom no good to him?
I tell Benjamin a week later how I'll write about a recent night we had with some strangers. That night I had been in a mood so I said something along the lines of how I could wrap my head around death, but I don’t understand why we have to suffer. One of the women, who was lovely and generally sweet, began to talk about suicide rates among teenagers. Hardly any old people kill themselves, she said, which is funny because like—what else do they have to live for anymore?
We talk about this conversation a week later while we walk around St. Marks Place and take pictures. We’re chasing the fading sunlight, which is a losing game as shadows descend quickly, but everything is losing game. The conversation with the strangers bothered me because I didn’t get the reaction I wanted. I pushed the discussion further than it needed to go when I could have just eaten my egg drop soup and shut up. He says if he were going to write about it, he would have needed to be a less active participant in the conversation. But that’s not my project, I argue. I have to be an active participant—that’s the whole point. I ask him if he knows what my project is. Yes, eighty percent is true, the other twenty what sounds good.
He’s not wrong, though sometimes I believe I am doing my best to make it all true. But I think of Cole, It didn’t matter anymore what was true / and what was not. Experience was not facts, / but uncertainty. Experience was not events / but feelings, which I would overcome. If anything, I have come to believe writing is a way of creating the reality we most want to be true, but often it is only a deferral of actual reality. These feelings, which eventually I will also overcome, but have not yet.
You ask me again if I’ve found any more poems I like. I flip through the book to find them. It makes me look like I haven’t read it. One I showed you a few days ago mentions two women by name. The names take you out of the poem, lacking the universality of the other poems I showed you. I feel a little wounded, only because I often mention people by name in my own writing. And I wonder how this affects your opinion of what I write. I want to ask you, but I don’t. A few days later you ask me if the comment you made was a fair critique. I don’t answer, would rather point to another line—I rewrite / to be read, though I feel shame acknowledging it—but you probably know this already.
We’re supposed to not have any wine, so I’m convinced to go to where we always go because the tea is good and we can read quietly in the glowing half-dark of the restaurant. I’m too tired to be doing this, or anything for that matter, but when you asked me to stay, I did. This is beautiful to me, this extension of a day that could have ended hours ago. We don’t have to break the spell. Not for now at least. Together we read this line of Cole’s: I want a feeling of beauty to surround the plainest facts of my life as we butter bread and drink wine anyways.
That feeling of beauty I don’t need to always describe. All I know is I can walk hours long in the park with you or anyone and not have to think about what’s beautiful. It just is. I can recognize it without contextualizing it. It’s not a subtraction or an addition. It’s not art from a gallery. (I’m being unfair—you are the one to say all of this. I guess I’m stealing from you.) After spending an entire day reading Cole’s poems, the ones about nature are the ones I can recognize as beautiful without thinking too hard about them. It’s the poems about love that leave me tongue-tied when you ask what I’ll write about. These ones speak to me the most, but I can’t easily explain why. It’s not because they perfectly describe all my imperfect perfect situations. No. All I can say is these ones touch me and I’m unraveled. They’re soaked with so much longing like sheets on a hot summer night, no AC. Of course, nature touches me with its beauty, but the truth is it can simply exist with or without me. I don’t have to witness it for it to continue. But touch, the physical presence of someone else, requires me to be touched to know it’s beautiful. Half-cerebral, half-sensual, this gulf between my mind and the world I’m trying to make with others in it, by name or not.
A plain fact that I still find beautiful—I feel I only know you at the edges.
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