Henri Cole’s Gravity and Center

Henri Cole’s newest book of poems, Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2023), collects nearly thirty years’ worth of poetic work, but also gives readers an excellent overview of how Cole has evolved as a poet through the sonnet form. The poems mainly focus on the self and are passionate, meditative, and witty, but the poems also delve into love, queerness, politics, spirituality, contemporary society, and Cole’s relationship with his parents. At the end of the book, there is a brief afterword where the poet talks about how he came to write the sonnets that appear in this collection. Twenty years prior to Gravity and Center, Cole was in Kyoto, Japan, living simply, and studying the tea ceremony, and that was when he became inspired to write sonnets, but in a particular way. As he explains, “I chose to write free verse sonnets in plain speech and to bring to them some of the characteristics of Japanese poetry: the Buddhist notion of dealing less with conceptualized thought than with states of mind and feeling, a sense of social responsibility, a valuing of sincerity over artifice, the use of images as emblems for inner states, and a preoccupation with themes of love.” The sonnets in this book do all of what Cole mentioned above, but they also push the sonnet form into more complex, interesting, and compelling territory. According to Cole, “I believe a poem is a sonnet if it behaves like one, and this doesn’t mean rhyming iambic pentameter lines. More important is the psychological dimension, the little fractures and leaps and resolutions the poem enacts.” Readers should come to this book expecting to engage with sonnets that take the form in new directions, but are also very grounded and accessible. One of the strengths of the collection is that through the sonnet form, a particular consciousness is tracked, and it is the consciousness of a poet who has seen and felt so much in the world. This review will look at a few of the standout sonnets in the collection, where form and lived experience converge in profound and interesting ways.

The poem “White Spine,” originally published in The Visible Man, is a perfect example of the observational, plainspoken style that Cole has mastered as a poet. It also takes up the theme of spirituality, but from a place of queerness and skepticism. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Liar, I thought, kneeling with the others,
how can He love me and hate what I am?
The dome of St. Peter’s shone yellowish
gold, like butter and eggs. “My God,” I prayed
anyhow, as if made in the image
and likeness of Him. Nearby, a handsome
priest looked at me like a stone; I looked back,
not desiring to go it alone.
The college of cardinals wore punitive red.
The white spine waved to me from his white throne.
Being in a place not my own, much less myself,
I climbed out, a beast in a crib.
Somewhere a terrorist rolled a cigarette.
Reason, not faith, would change him.

What is so interesting about this poem is that it contains three major shifts that help to solidify the complexity of thought within the poem. At the beginning, there is religious skepticism “how can He love me and hate what I am?” paired with the heaviness of “The dome of St. Peter,” which is a very strong catholic symbol, and gives the poem not only its setting, but its context: the speaker, who is queer, critically engaging with the hypocrisy of Catholicism. The queerness becomes more apparent in the second shift of the sonnet, when the speaker says, “Nearby, a handsome / priest looked at me like a stone; I looked back, / not desiring to go it alone.” The speaker is seeking a deeper recognition from the priest, but does not get it. Here, his queerness is filled with vulnerability and loneliness. The third shift comes at the end as the sonnet concludes with a very compelling couplet that takes the poem in an entirely unexpected direction:

Somewhere a terrorist rolled a cigarette.
Reason, not faith, would change him.

This could be seen as a radical conclusion to any poem, whether it’s a sonnet or not, but because it is a sonnet, there is a certain kind of dangerous allure that comes from the couplet. The speaker is flirting with militarism, wherein he feels like after experiencing the Dome of St. Peter, he now understands why terrorists become terrorists—not because of religion, but because of what religion inspires in those who see through its oppressiveness. The speaker becomes more empathetic toward the terrorist because he inherently knows what the terrorist knows: it doesn’t make sense to be religious. It’s inhuman to be religious. In this particular poem, the sonnet form becomes a space where queerness and radicalism is explored through the meditative and lived experience of the speaker.

In the poem “Necessary and Impossible,” originally from Middle Earth, the speaker takes the reader on a meditative journey that begins with one word: nation. Here is the poem in its entirety:

It is a nation born in the quiet part of the mind,
that has no fantasy of omnipotence,
no God but nature, no net of one vow,
no dark corner of the poor, no fugue-work of hate,
no hierarchies of strength, knowledge, or love,
no impure water spasming from rock, no swarm of polluted flies,
no ash-heap of concrete, gypsum, and glass,
no fake mercy or truths buried in excrement;
and in this nation of men and women,
no face in the mirror reflecting more darkness
than light, more strife than love, no more strife
than in my hands now, as I sit on a rock,
tearing up bread for red and white carp
pushing out of their element into mine.

The main engine of the poem is the lyrical repetition of “no” as the speaker describes the nation he visualizes, helping to fuel the rhythmic nature of the sonnet. It is precisely the free verse, plainspoken style of the poem that enhances the meditative intensity the speaker embodies: “no fantasy of omnipotence, “no God but nature,” “no dark corner of the poor,” “no fugue-work of hate,” “no hierarchies of strength, knowledge, or love,” “no fake mercy or truths buried in excrement.” Although what the speaker is describing is really the basic principles of compassion, what he describes also comes from the intangibles of lived experience. The speaker seems to intuitively know what a nation should be, that it is “born in the quiet part of the mind,” which is a place of meditation—where thought and understanding merge to form a higher perspective. However, the true magic of the poem comes with the unexpected turn: “…no more strife / than in my hands now, as I sit on a rock, / tearing up bread for red and white carp / pushing out of their element into mine.” What readers discover is that the speaker is literally just sitting by a pond feeding fish. This is what grounds the meditation, not just aesthetically, but narrative-wise. It brings the poem back down to earth in a very humble and human way. The poem shifts from an ideological meditation about the nature of a nation and into a poem about a man sitting alone thinking while feeding fish. It’s a masterful turn that takes the meditative lyric and the sonnet form to a whole new level.

In the poem “Homosexuality,” originally from Blackbird and Wolf, image, queerness, and romanticism all fuse together within the sonnet form. Here it is in its entirety:

First I saw the round bill, like a bud;
then the sooty-crested head, with avernal eyes
flickering, distressed, then the peculiar
long neck wrapping and unwrapping itself,
like pity or love, when I removed the stovepipe
cover of the bedroom chimney to free
what was there and a duck crashed into the room
(I am here in this fallen state), hitting her face,
bending her throat back (my love, my inborn
turbid wanting, at large all night), backing away,
gnawing at her own wing linings (the poison of my life,
the beast, the wolf), leaping out the window,
which I held open (now clear, sane, serene)
before climbing back naked into bed with you.

The title of the poem does a lot of work for the sonnet, signaling to readers how the content of the poem should be framed, but on the most basic level, the poem is a recounting of a specific event: while the speaker and his beloved were in bed together, a duck somehow made its way into the chimney, fell down, and was let out through an open window. This could be classified as a deep-image sonnet, since the bulk of the poem is focused on the duck, however, it becomes more complex than a deep-image poem as the duck transforms into a metaphor for the speaker’s complicated primal nature. As the duck crashes into the room, the speaker’s dark, passionate feelings intermingle with the duck’s experience of falling and finding herself in a strange space: “…a duck crashed into the room / (I am here in this fallen state),” “hitting her face, / bending her throat back (my love, my inborn / turbid wanting, at large all night),” “backing away, / gnawing at her own wing linings (the poison of my life, / the beast, the wolf),” “leaping out the window, / which I held open (now clear, sane, serene).” These descriptions and lyrical insertions not only build poetic tension, they set up the sonnet for the brilliant climax: “before climbing back naked into bed with you.” This is where the poem truly becomes intimate and romantic, in that simple concluding line that draws the reader’s attention back to the title: “Homosexuality.” It is a love sonnet, but it is a love sonnet that enriches the lived experience of being queer and being in love, and how it can be a transformative and healing experience for someone who has experienced too much darkness, too much primal intensity. It is also a sonnet that romantically recounts a nuanced moment between two lovers: here, the sonnet becomes a shared memory that serves as a specific symbol of intimate love.

In the afterword, Cole talks about how the sonnet gives him permission to be both “dignified and bold” and that is exactly the right way to describe the poems in Gravity and Center: dignified and bold. To go further, he also explains how the sonnet form helps him “…to appear somewhat socialized though what I have to say may be eccentric or unethical….” The poems in this book are radical in nature precisely because the sonnet form helps Cole to be entirely open and expressive so that a wider range of creative and emotional expression can manifest. Gravity and Center is an excellent book for readers who are curious about what the essence of a sonnet is. For Cole, sonnet writing consists of opening up the consciousness, pulling out the most intensified and distilled moments of lived experience, and using the form as a way to help contain and ground them. In a general sense, Gravity and Center will give readers a good understanding of what kind of poet Henri Cole is, but more importantly, they will get a better understanding of what a sonnet is at its core. A sonnet is less about its structure and more about what it expresses: passion, intensity, controversy, darkness and light. The desire of the poet is at the center of the sonnet; and in Gravity and Center, Henri Cole is at the center, doing the challenging work of “writing about the tragic [and passionate] situation of the individual in the world.”

May 22, 2023