- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

On the fourth page of Blackbird and Wolf (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23, 80 pages), the latest collection of poetry by Henri Cole, the celebrated author nearly gives away the entire game. In “Mimosa Sensitiva,” like many of the intimate poems of this book, Mr. Cole is watching himself watching one of his parents. His sick mother, her “skin like the seamless emulsion on a strip of film,” causes him to observe that “sensuality is confirming beauty.”But these unsatisfying abstractions don’t last long: “Then the banal shatters everything.” He sees his mother “pawing through leaf mulch for pain medicine / you can’t function without. The thrash of your hands / smolders like wet black ash.” Poetry is still the only literary form that can be so cruel and compact. Though not all his poems are so terrifying as this, the strength of Mr. Cole’s imagery and the careful attention to tone remain consistent throughout.

There is a despair that runs through the work. “When I was a boy, we called it punishment / to be locked up in a room. God’s apparent / abdication from the affairs of the world / seemed unforgivable” These poems are drenched in death and decay, and even the omnipresence of Mr. Cole’s parents gives way to alienation and loneliness. A poem may begin with a simple haircut for a middle aged man and end with an unanswerable longing.

In Mr. Cole’s work, as in so many modern poets’, there is a strange distance. “Ordinary things are like symbols,” he says in “Self-Portrait with Hornets.” I always thought “ordinary things are symbols” for poets. Not like them. Mr. Cole suggests I’ve been confused; considering the achievements here, I’m inclined to submit to his judgment.

Many critics dote on the immediacy and biographical content of Mr. Cole’s poetry, but I find the most compelling feature to be its assuredness. Consider the opening of “Shaving”: “Outstretched in the tub, like a man in a tomb, / I pull the razor across my face and throat. / The bathroom is pristine, spare, without any clear / conflict; I like that. The cells in my skin / draw heat to themselves, like grape bunches.” Confessional poetry may require a certain type of courage, one that must be distinguished from the hateful narcissism that poets so often display in their “honest work.” Mr. Cole has the right type, for sure, but that’s not nearly as impressive as the mettle required to compose lines as “spare” as those above.

The poem closes with masterful flourishes of internal rhyme that sit behind a diaphanous curtain of simple narration: “Through our eyes, / pain comes in (my doctor told me this), / but how does it exit, if you’re looking forward / and I’m looking back, my big, unlovely head / (you called it that) feverish, then shivery?” Who else can draw out so many resonant sounds from a deck stacked with such simple words? Mr. Cole is peerless, and this collection proves it.

Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child (Random House, $19.95, 96 pages) bids me toward the cliche of music critics regarding sophomore efforts: This gathering of verse is a little bit of a letdown. To briefly illustrate the disappointment, it’s easy to choose the poem “How Many.” While it shows signs of being written by an experienced poet, it relies on a lazy construction. Beginning, “How tall is this house? / How many stories, / how many can I stack / and how high?” the reader starts to wonder, How many of these questions can this poem withstand? Not too many, I fear.

Turn that page, however, and you’ll find that the prodigious talent Ms. Garrison flashed in her first work, “A Working Girl Can’t Win,” brightens a few pages here as well. “A Short Skirt on Broadway” is a perfect match of Ms. Garrison’s wit to the subject of this work: Motherhood. Here we find the poet recalling “that quick / no-nonsense / joying in itself / walk” of her time in the city, before children. But the pleasure of having those “legs” under her skirt gives way to the pleasure of feeding her own child, “(how absurd, how bovine).” The frustration of going from a near-great poem to near duds makes a reader wish Ms. Garrison had given herself more time to develop her maternal insights.

But more exciting than the stumbles of a maturing poet or the masterstrokes of a transcendent figure is a promising debut. Eireann Lorsung’s Music for Landing Planes By (Milkweed Editions, $14, 96 pages) presents us with a beguiling voice that is light without being weightless. The poems are charming because the world Ms. Lorsung explores has charmed her. “Maybe this is why the city shines / in darkness and the light drops away from the sky / on winter evenings: so that we can walk.”

Ms. Lorsung is also a member of the long list of poets whose work is wonderfully pockmarked by a kind of bohemian Catholicism. “A letter is holy. A story / is holy hands reaching out into the world,” she informs us in the collection’s opening poem, “Being.” The collection is filled with references to a Catholic upbringing that, while not adhered to with Jesuitical precision, imbues her work with a mendicant’s freedom and wonder. It’s a joy that recalls the spirit, if not the complex rhythms, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

“Dressmaker,” which appears on the attractive cover flap, embodies all of Ms. Lorsung’s considerable talents. Christ’s saying about the rich man and the needle takes an entirely different cast when viewed by the man who works with needles and pins, making dresses with “fleece uncarded and unwashed,” charmeuse, Burano lace and “cinnabar strung on a cuff.” The lyrical nature of her composition and the surprises that hang at the end of her verses make this assortment of delights eminently re-readable. Ms. Lorsung’s young triumphs deserve much more attention than they’ve yet received.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is Assistant Editor at The American Conservative. He blogs at www.surfeited.net.

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