Henri Cole—who in my limited but non-trivial prior encounters proved himself to be one our better contemporary poets—has written a bad book. Blizzard, his latest, elicits frequent groans and offers, in return, only intermittent pleasures.
It is difficult to forgive a poet the use of the wrong word. When Cole writes, in “Black Mushrooms”, that “Even the luxury-loving / Romans savored their palatal starlight”, that “palatal” rings false. It is the adjectival form of “palate” (in the roof of the mouth), and the best sense I can give it here is that the sky, which houses the stars, is a kind of roof. Generously, it is a metaphor to no purpose; more accurately, it is simply wrong.
Less wrong, but no less frustrating, is the reference, in “To a Snail”, of the animal’s “gelid body”. It is not wrong, as ‘gelid’ can mean merely “cold, chill, cool”, but it is a word better suited to its sense of “extremely cold, cold as ice, frosty” (both from the OED)—its use mean merely “cool” does not justify its strangeness.
Beyond such picky (which does not mean: unimportant) matters, the poems in this problem too frequently strive for a revelation they do not find. At the end of “Lingonberry Jam”, Cole’s narrator feels “autonomous, blissed-out, and real.” In the already-encountered “To a Snail”, we learn that “It’s a long game—the whole undignified, insane attempt at living…” “The Party Tent” assures us that, “Like musical notes or forms / of rock, everything will be forgotten.” I am twelve pages in with these examples; the whole volume thumps the reader over the head with these epiphanies, largely cliché and rarely earned by the preceding text.
Cole’s best work (e.g.) avoids what is easy. Blizzard seeks it. Its first poem ends:
With your fuzzy black face, do you see me—
a cisgender male—metabolizing
life into language, like nectar sipped
up and regurgitated into gold?
That “a cisgender male” arrives, so far as I can tell, from nowhere. Nothing in the rest of the poem indicates that it is a reflection on gender, nor is it retroactively deepened by being read as such. I can discern no poetic purpose in this self-identification, except a kind of crass writing for, rather than against, the times. (Lest I be misread: transphobic poetry would be be “against” the times, it would simply be transphobic.) But if the phrase is a mere signal, it is not an effective one: the acknowledgments show two of the poems in this volume appeared in The New Criterion, whose pages routinely contain virulent hatred directed against trans people.
The volume’s title poem ends with one of the familiar epiphanies:
I need everything within
to be livelier. Infatuation, sadism, lust: I remember them,
but a memory of feeling is not feeling,
a parasite is not the meat it lived on.
What Blizzard lacks is just this infatuation, sadism, and lust—the feelings themselves, and not their pale memories. One can only hope that these lines at least indicate Cole’s awareness of the problem. That would be the first step to a superior sequel.