“Begin What You Are”: On Henri Cole’s Touch

Adam Eaglin

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 80 pages. $23.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Though Henri Cole’s recent work is haunted by nostalgia—and by the poet’s anxiety about nostalgia—his latest collection, Touch, concludes with the desire for new beginnings. Cole has always been a poet of tactile physicality; the central metaphor in “Swimming Hole, Buck Creek, Springfield, Ohio” brings a remembered landscape and an aging body together into a palpable present:

Like an echo,
it comes back,
the bend in the creek,
like a uterus’
bleeding flow,

tangible again,
as memory revisits,
with unusual
concreteness,
the territories of the past,

rebounding, circulating,
surging, vexing,
panning our naked
bodies

After leading “some of us” into these waters “under a depthless sky,” Cole’s recollections grow active. In one measured sentence, in which the clauses (“rebounding, circulating, / surging, vexing”) conflate as they compound, the poem’s associations build toward an oracular imperative:“bending under / the paw of some / hormonal energy / that lingers now // in memory’s tunnel, / like an air prowling / around us, vaguely / ornery, urging: / ‘Begin what you are.’”

In its immediacy, our sense of touch is perhaps the least of the five associated with memory; by its nature, touch offers a sense of physicality, anchored in the present. Cole’s poems fight and subvert this impulse, showing that “memory’s tunnel” is alive with touch. He treats memory like an excavation or autopsy, a bodily act of remembrance. In “Swimming Hole,” having begun with memory swirling around us like cold water in a creek, the poet ends with the cathartic sensation of sunlight on bare flesh: “piercing me / even deeper now, to say, / ‘Be kind to him, / stranger that he is.’” The poems seamlessly move through time, with touch as a link between the past and the present.

As in Blackbird and Wolf (2007) and Middle Earth (2003), many of the poems in Touch make the body feel present through variations on the sensual, familiar turns of the sonnet. They also continue Cole’s twin themes of grief and nostalgia, particularly through the book’s two central figures: the mother, presented in her slow, heart-breaking decline, and an angry, drug-addled lover. In “Dead Mother,” which also develops through a single winding sentence, as if inhaling a breath, Cole recounts the scene following his mother’s passing: “All of life was there—love, death, memory— / as the eyes rolled back into the wrinkled sleeve / of the head, and five or six tears—profound, / unflinching, humane—ran out of her skull, […] / and tenderness (massaging / the arms, sponging the lips) morphed into a dog / howling under the bed.” In their parentheses, Cole’s images of touch illustrate tenderness and then trigger a vision of unrestrained, unreachable grief.

The poems move between the trio of mother, son, and lover, with the poet struggling to reconcile memories of the people he has now outlived. “A plaque states: / According to beliefs, / children do not die / but join ancestors / on the mountaintop,” Cole writes in “Immortal.” “‘She doth not sleep,’ / I thought, years later, / kneeling with my / eyes closed beside / Mother’s coffin.” It’s not surprising that recalling his mother’s death reminds Cole of his own mortality, but he finds similar pathos in mosquitoes, bats, and rainstorms in the mountains—reminding us, too, that the world’s natural state is entropy and disorder: “‘Nature / is always expressing something human,’ / Mother commented, her mouth twisting […] / Tenderness was not yet dust. / Mother sat up, rubbed her eyes drowsily, her breaths / like breakers, the living man the beach” (“Sunflower”).

Despite the similarities between Touch and Cole’s previous two collections (Cole has referred to the three books as an “unintentional trilogy”), this latest collection is a book not of repetition but of refinement of thought. More than before, Cole displays self-awareness of his own poetic impulses. In “Hens,” for instance, he sidesteps the “universal theme” of beautiful suffering poets find in images of “wounded / light,” while also advancing that theme: “Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed; / too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this, / posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.” He shows similar awareness of his work’s potent sensuality, although that aspect is more subdued here than in his previous work. “How can I / defend myself against what I want?” he asks a lover in “Carwash,” and the question’s self-incrimination, bravado, and acceptance inflect the poems that follow it.

In referring to the sensuality of Cole’s work I don’t simply mean eroticism; “Touch” is an absorbing concept (and title) in large part because Cole’s own hand—as a writer, as a stylist, as an active participant in these poems—is painstakingly gentle, which makes his depictions of pain, violence, and suffering all the more powerful. In response to the rage and mistreatment of a younger lover, Cole is mindful of his own inability to resist and the consolations of giving in. “Lay your head on my lap. Touch me,” he requests with humility in “Carwash.” His acknowledgement of the physical limits of the body and aging weaves together with moral and emotional limits: “I didn’t go to him for virtue. / I liked the sound of someone else breathing” (“Resistance”). For Cole, touch ultimately isn’t just a mechanism of memory, isn’t just a way into the self and its anxieties and mythology—it can still lead us to the live, active presence of another.

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