on pierce the skin

In Pierce the Skin, American poet Henri Cole explores the ways in which poetry might capture the interior life of the gay male subject, all the while reflecting upon the loneliness endemic to queer life and the restorative power of nature.

Bringing together sixty-six poems written across twenty-five years, Pierce the Skin features poet Henri Cole’s most memorable work from his first six volumes of verse. The poems selected from his first three collections—The Marble Queen (1986), The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), and The Look of Things (1995)—take up a little more than a third of the entire book. Those from Cole’s more recent collections—The Visible Man (1998), Middle Earth (2003), Blackbird and Wolf (2007)—comprise the rest of it. Some of Cole’s work long has been out of print, so the 140-page book, published by FSG, is especially valuable for those interested in the trajectory of American gay male poetry as well as those drawn to Cole’s poems after having read his recently published memoir Orphic Paris.

In his earlier poetry Cole tends toward the close observation of nature and his childhood, whereas he later expands his focus to include themes of selfhood, isolation, language, and pain. Early pieces like “The Marble Queen” (1986) or “Harvard Classics” (1995) consider his mother’s despair and her embattled relationship with his father, while those like “Heart of the Monarch” (1986) take on a natural subject. In these poems, Cole typically abstains from considering his own experience as an adult; instead, he treks across his past or approaches the sublime found in nature. His later poetry, by contrast, delves into the messiness of failed romances, the aging body, and great loss. The opening of a poem from his fifth collection, “Original Face” (2003), takes on all at once:

Some mornings I wake up kicking like a frog,

My thighs ache from going nowhere all night.

I get up—tailless, smooth skinned, eyes protruding—

and scrub around for my original face.

The real characters and events would hurt me. (91)

As in this poem, Cole often prefers the accessible to the abstract. His language, though a bit affected in his first collections, is for the most part naturalistic. Cole relies on narrative and clear images as well, making his work read as direct and lucid. At his best Cole is eloquent in his simplicity. The unassuming phrasing of the sestet of  “Oil & Steel,” a late sonnet about the death of the poet’s father, makes clear Cole’s gift for concision:

I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet

and some more motor oil—my inheritance.

Once I saw him weep in a courtroom—

neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed

me much affection but gave me a knack

for solitude, which has been mostly useful. (113)

The poem’s sonnet form is not uncommon: Cole adheres to conventional or self-imposed forms across all his work. Many of his late poems employ the sonnet form, which Cole describes in his memoir Orphic Paris as a “mixture of passion and thought” (51). The sonnet’s tension between structure and expression, love and longing, the self and other, makes it an apt form for a gay poet fascinated in equal measure with the idea of desire as a way of life and that of the distance between language and experience. Early poems, though, tend to follow a form that Cole makes up as he goes along, one that isn’t conventional but is carefully observed within the poem. “The Marble Queen” uses tercets to recreate a memory from the poet’s early childhood about noticing his mother’s depression for the first time at a parade:

there so long, so simple,

she has misunderstood it:

the terrible monotonous despair.


And now she sits alone with it,

finds expression for it like a child

dreaming of shadows, waiting (10)

While all the poems were finely crafted, many of them read as too tranquil and detached from sensation for the collection to have left a lasting impact upon me. Both Pierce the Skin and Orphic Paris were on sale at the bookstore I frequent while living at home, so I picked up copies of both this weekend. The memoir’s back cover blurbs from Harold Bloom, Joyce Carol Oates, and Edmund White, had I read them at the bookstore, would have alerted me to Cole’s order-oriented aesthetic and his taste for the crystalline. I prefer the contemporary poetry I read to be full of movement and energy, but those who enjoy this kind of work likely would not share my reservations about the collection.

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