Blackbird and Wolf
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $23 (cloth)
“I, upright on hind legs, alternately sexed / (even that seemed banal), didn’t want to go home.” So ends “Maple Leaves Forever,” one of the free sonnets that make up the bulk of Henri Cole’s new book. The banality with which the speaker greets his transformation is an appropriate stance for a speaker in this book to take, since the book’s pleasures appear in tones so casual as to make them seem obvious. Take “Chenin Blanc,” for instance, where, between sips of wine, Cole converses with a Rumi-quoting crow who “is sampling a limp rodent and seems / to want to say something, holding out / a clenched yellow foot, like a tiny man.” The understatement of the fantastical, the way the poem simply begins with a crow saying “my heart feels bad,” is what makes the strategy work. Occasionally, however, Cole’s ideas overtake his images, and things turn too abstract, as in the end of “Sycamores,” the book’s opening poem. Beginning at the speaker’s birth, and meditating on that instant of innocence, Cole gets some good lines in, both metaphorically beautiful (“I lay on it like a snail on a cup”) and philosophically true (“I did not know life cheats us”), before ending with “a hard, gemlike feeling burning through me, / like limbs of burning sycamores, touching / across some new barrier of touchability.” Too much pressure rests on that final, insufficient word, which seems a placeholder for a better word Cole hasn’t come up with. As it stands, there is nothing there that one can actually touch. Cole is so often masterful at rendering the abstract that one tends to grant him such leeway just to see what he can do with it, but this attempt falls short. A far better ending comes in “Birthday.” The poem begins, “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,” then ends with the speaker happily shut in, reading: “Though the door is locked, I am free. / Like an outdated map, my borders are changing.” Here the assertion is logical and well illustrated, the final image both concrete and transformative, and like so much of the book, it is an absolute delight to read.