In 1987, I came to the University of Florida to study fiction with Harry Crews, among others. The first class I took with him ended up a bust when Harry bailed out and William Logan took over. Logan is a poet, but, perhaps, most known as a critic. In fact, he’d just won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism and was later dubbed “the most hated man in American poetry.” Logan’s criticisms are cruel and hilarious. About C.K. Williams poetry, Logan wrote, it’s “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.” Adrienne Rich: “I could almost review Adrienne Rich in my sleep (sometimes, reading her, I feel I am asleep).” Mary Oliver: her “bland, consolatory poetry is a favorite of people who don’t like poetry.”
Knowing that nothing pleased him, I asked William what poet he did like. One name he mentioned was Henri Cole. Years later, I bought Cole’s Middle Earth, a book that Logan described as “the most intimate book of poetry since Plath’s Ariel . . . Henri Cole’s new poems, proud and knowing and wounded, archly suspicious, can be revealing because they guard their privacies so well. Middle Earth escapes all the praise I can heap upon it.”
The poems are strange and new and, at times, deeply moving. This poem is a perfect example:
After the death of my father, I locked
myself in my room, bored and animal-like.
The travel clock, the Johnnie Walker bottle,
the parrot tulips—everything possessed his face,
chaste and obscure. Snow and rain battered the air
white, insane, slatherly. Nothing poured
out of me except sensibility, dilated.
It was as if I were sub-born—preverbal,
truculent, pure—with hard ivory arms
reaching out into a dark and crowded space,
illuminated like a perforated silver box
or a little room in which glowing cigarettes
came and went, like souls losing magnitude,
but none with the battered hand I knew.
The father’s death sets the tone. We know the wound we’re dealing with. The quick details of the clock, the bottle, the tulips set the sad scene, and then the weather outside. The narrator is trying to be sensible, trying to keep the loss in its place, but something deep down—in a “Sub-born—preverbal” place is reaching its arms into a troubled place, a place where maybe he’s tried to find solace. “…but none with the battered hand I knew.”