Blizzard (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), Henri Cole’s eleventh book of poems, focuses on lyrical meditations about nature, masculinity, homosexuality, and political violence in ways that are rooted in observation and personal experience. Cole is an astute observer, but what makes his poems particularly interesting is how he transforms observation into poetic beauty. Many of the poems in this collection address the horrors of political violence—torture, war, oppression, starvation, misery—but Cole handles these subjects with great care. The main way he does this is through lyric poetry and the sonnet—poetic forms that lend themselves to flexibility and openness, giving Cole the ability to approach darker subjects alongside moments of beauty and love with great skill and gentleness. The poems in this collection are excellent because they are organic and developed; they are honest and earthy and meditative and captivating.
A definite strength of the collection is the sonnet form which Cole excels at. Here is an early poem in the collection, “On Peeling Potatoes,” in its entirety:
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 the way I wanted to,
with the bad spots cut out, and eluding
my maker. Instead of cobwebs, tumult,
and dragons, I experience an abundance
of good things, like sunlight leaking through
tall pines in the backyard. I say to myself:
This is certainly not a grunt’s knowledge—
perception of a potato as my own soul—
but a sturdy, middle-aged, free man’s.
This is one of the most impressive sonnets in the book particularly because of the perspective and subject matter. In this poem, the speaker sees himself as being a low-ranked soldier peeling potatoes. He imagines himself as if he were someone who’s only function is to perform a mundane task that serves the greater good—helping to provide sustenance for the military. However, as the speaker notes, “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought, as if this most natural / act signified living the way I wanted to….” Here, he sees himself as being connected to others who perform similar thankless tasks as a way to gain a deeper understanding about humility as a shared, empowering experience. The speaker continues: “Instead of cobwebs, tumult, / and dragons, I experience an abundance / of good things, like sunlight leaking through / tall pines in the backyard.” This simple act of peeling potatoes allows the speaker to inhabit the present moment where things are peaceful, where he is able to connect to nature in a profound way. At the end of the poem, he concludes that the experience of peeling potatoes provides an opportunity to transcend through the realization that he is much more mature and liberated than he initially believed. Peeling potatoes becomes an opportunity for the speaker to ground himself and achieve emotional balance.
In the title poem, “Blizzard,” Cole goes deeper into meditative experience that yields more understanding about how the speaker regards his emotional self. Here are the first four lines:
As soon as I am doing nothing,
I am not able to do anything,
existing quietly behind lock and key,
like a cobweb’s mesh.
Right after this, the speaker proclaims, “It’s 4 a.m.,” which further elaborates on the fact that he wants to venture into more vulnerable feelings. However, a series of statements follow:
The voices of birds do not multiply into a force.
The sun does not engross from the East.
A fly roams the fingers on my right hand
like worms. Somewhere, in an empty room, a phone rings.
On the street, a bare tree shadows a brownstone.
(Be precise about objects, but reticent about feelings,
the master urged.)
These statements include a variety of images: “birds,” “The sun,” “A fly,” “fingers,” “worms,” “an empty room,” “a phone,” “the street,” “bare tree,” and “a brownstone.” The images themselves are indicative of loneliness because of how the speaker perceives what they do or do not do: “The voices of birds do not multiply into a force,” “The sun does not engross from the East,” “Somewhere, in an empty room, a phone rings, “On the street, a bare tree shadows a brownstone.” There is a sense that things either are or are not happening in the speaker’s world which feels very flat and devoid of emotion. However, the last line of the section is a signal that the speaker has learned how to think and be in the world in a specific way: “Be precise about objects, but reticent about feelings, / the master urged.” The images in the poem are stand-ins for the speaker’s emotional self. There is an interesting turn that occurs right after this section where the speaker admits: “I need everything within / to be livelier. Infatuation, sadism, lust: I remember them….” The speaker actually names the emotions he has experienced and that he has distanced himself from those feelings. The sonnet ends on an especially gripping couplet:
but memory of feeling is not feeling,
a parasite is not the meat it lived on.
The speaker understands that simply recalling past experiences is not the same as inhabiting emotion in the present moment. What is even more interesting is the insertion of the parasite. It is not clear who the speaker is referring to—himself or someone he knew—what is important is the fact that whatever was felt is not perceived to be healthy or authentic. This poem is masterful in how it builds to the final couplet, which is the true core of the poem, where the speaker achieves that perfect blend of image and emotion, and it is incredibly profound.
What Henri Cole achieves with Blizzard is a sense of comprehensiveness: his poems encompass poetic meditative thought, carefully constructed images, poignant subjects, and ties them all together with a lyrical voice that is both honest and vulnerable. The use of the sonnet form in this collection is very effective because of the sense of possibility and depth that they embody. But the most impressive aspect of the collection is Cole’s perspective. In “Migrants Devouring the Flesh of a Dead Horse”—one of the most intense sonnets in the book—the speaker proclaims, “The tree of life / is greater than all the helicopters of death.” This sums up the book perfectly in the sense that Cole presents the world as it is: violent, oppressive, tragic, but also liberative and enchanting and nature-filled. The organic sensibilities of the poems suggest that nature, not humanity, is the true driving force of the world, and nature constantly regenerates itself, bringing in new life and making space for change to take place in a slow and consistent way. Cole places a lot of value on individual meditative thought and his poetry is a testament to the ways that observed and lived experience combined with empathy and desire can create poetry that has the ability to endure and grow more complex with time.
June 14, 2021