Henri Cole’s Touch by Julia Guez

Julia Guez on the pleasure and pain in Henri Cole’s new book of poetry.


In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud elaborates on “the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive.” To this end, he observes a child at play. When left alone, the child entertains himself with the invention of a game involving the forced disappearance and return of various toys (a wooden reel on a string, for example).

The game soon reveals itself to be a way for the child to enact and, in a way, master the distress of being left alone. Given the child’s strong attachment to his own mother, it seems strange that he would choose to re-enact the clearly unpleasant experience of being left alone with a game (requiring him to rehearse the loss and recovery, and re-activate the distress of the departure before re-activating any delight in the return).

Unpacking the significance of the fort-da game—so-called because these are the specific words the child will use to signify the disappearance and return of objects within his reach—Freud was able to postulate the existence of impulses, tendencies or compulsions that seem to operate independently of the pleasure principle.

After the discussion of children at play, Freud includes the following as a kind of addendum, “A reminder may be added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children’s, are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable.”

There may be no better way to frame my analysis of Henri Cole’s newest collection, Touch. Cole is fearless in treating the loss of a mother. He is fearless in treating other losses, as well—the hens, for example, victims of capital punishment. At points, the only constraints seem to be formal.

The collection is comprised of several framing-devices (beginning with the white-framed photograph on the cover, courtesy of the author). There are three sections. Each is headed or framed with an epigraph—one from Mother, one from Bishop, one from Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.”

Parentheses serve as another way of framing, another way of enclosing something that may or may not be spoken outright but cannot be left unspoken entirely. Or they represent a self in conversation with itself, a mind making note of a stray detail, memory, text, etymology or admonition, as in “(Spanish mulatto, small mule)” or “(they look like / mountains).”

In some cases, the parentheses represent unconscious, peripheral or, at this particular moment, inconvenient or unsettling questions that insist themselves in the plane of poetry, as in “(couldn’t you go a little easy?), (Let go of the spirit departed),” or “(Continue your life)?”

The first set of parentheses appear in the dedication to John Mazzullo “(who looked, listened, felt).” There are twenty five more in the rest of the collection. Some of the most devastating appear in “Mosquito Mother” and “Broom.”

“Resistance” is one of the most powerful pieces in the collection, featuring some of the finest lines and line-breaks. End-stopped lines—for example, “I didn’t go to him for virtue”—alternate with “I wanted to know what it felt like, eating honey / like a wasp” to create a quickening, a dilation and uncertainty at the beginning and end of every line, heightening the reader’s attention to the brilliant and gorgeous enjambment, “I intended to make / a poem about the superiority of language over / brute force, but this came instead: ‘Sleep sleep sleep.’”

Simultaneously recalling one of the epigraphs taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sandpiper”—“He is preoccupied, / looking for something, something, something”—the line also articulates one of the main questions or concerns of the collection as a whole.

Wallace Stevens said, “It must give pleasure.” According to Harold Bloom, “So oxymoronic is pleasure-pain, in Henri Cole, that we need to modify Stevens.” The pleasure-pain balance, carefully calibrated and maintained throughout the collection, reaches a kind of apogee in “Immortal.” The balance is somewhat off-set, however, in “Taxidermied Fawn.”

Recapitulating the loss of mother and fawn, the last two lines are so matter of fact, plainspoken, syntactically so simple and straightforward, they are simultaneously masterful and off-putting, channeling a pathos that is almost overmuch, refusing to cut or compromise the raw and the bleak and the real with some kind of salve, some kind of gentleness, insight, humor, or, at the very least, a line whose musicality, a line whose meter and sound approximate the meter and sound of the sibilant and satisfying last line of “Seaweed” (“the salt of tears, and the salt of the sea.”)

The final two lines of “Taxidermied Fawn” are “I’m not scared. I think, Well, what a pretty body, / and then I remember you are dead.” There is no hint of the uptick, tonally, characteristic of the last line in “Solitude: A Tower”—“I feel happiness, I feel I am not alone.” There is no refusal to subject the self to any more knowledge of death, the fact of it, the face of what is taken away. In other words, there is no reprieve, as in the ever so slight reprieve at the end of “Immortal”:

“She doth not sleep,”

I thought, years later,

kneeling with my

eyes closed beside

Mother’s coffin.

“Look, Henri, isn’t she beautiful!”

my aunt exclaimed,

but I couldn’t.

I don’t need to know

what I already know.

This is one of the most compelling moments of the entire collection, in part, because of what it withholds. In “Taxidermied Fawn,” there isn’t the same withholding. There is no attempt to withhold, refuse or complicate the black and white “evidence of a violent passage from bridal innocence / to the whiteness of death, which is the absence / of everything, and, in the end, all there really is.”

Even the death itself is rendered mechanistically, “When a soft projectile hits a fixed obstacle, / soft comes out if it badly.” As a result, there isn’t the same admixture of pleasure and pain in this piece that exemplify the finest pieces of the collection (in turn, some of the finest pieces of contemporary American poetry to appear since Middle Earth or Blackbird and Wolf).

To be sure, there are many tendernesses in Touch. “(Massaging / the arms, sponging the lips)” Mother’s “mouth twisting / as I plucked whiskers from around it,” for example, “spooning mechanically soft pears— / like light vanishing—into the body whose tissue / once dissolved to create breast milk for me.”

There is no lack of brutality either, “The world is nothing but the scraping of a donkey, / so he took three Percocet and put a gun to his head,” or “‘Loser old man u r a cheap cunt,’ / he wrote, ‘I need coke. Unless ur buying, / answer is no.’”

And, of course, there is both at the very same time. There are moments like the parenthetical (“Yes, no, please”) that recall the genius of Ulysses, recalling the moment Joyce is able to collapse so much in the phrase “Nes. Yo.”

We, as spectators, are not spared the most painful experiences in Touch. Form, lineation, the lexicon, phrasing, rhythm and sound-structures consistently yield the kind of music that makes even the most painful experiences not only bearable, but sonorous, beautiful, pleasing to the ear (as with the assonance present in the “old”, “wrote”, “coke” and “no” of the two lines from “Resistance” above).

To return, briefly, to Freud, and the aim of enacting, mastering or revenging certain losses by way of play, by way of a game, by way of language, it is obvious to both children and artists that no absence can be truly recuperated by recuperating a mere substitute, a toy, image, figure or word.

Language, even language at its very best, cannot recover Mother, fawn, or the effects of addiction, the effects of war, the effects of brute force. It can create something else instead, though, something else entirely, a soundscape, a singing, a sense of mastery, a sense of consolation, a sense anything is possible to recover and, perhaps, re-frame in literature (if not, in the world). In Touch, the list is long.

Julia Guez is a Fulbright Fellow with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. Poetry and prose have previously appeared or will soon be forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, DIAGRAM and Washington Square.

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