Natural disasters, death, isolation: how many poems take these topics as their subjects? Poets from all over draw inspiration, however weary, from such grave events, yet these are difficult subjects to address well. The temptation is always present to slip into sentimentality or detached philosophy, which would do great disservice to these grave subject matters. What could trivialize heartbreak more than a Hallmark card?
At the same time, we expect poets to find deeper meanings within the events they relate; rarely are we satisfied with the written equivalents of still lifes. This is especially true when it comes to subjects worthy of elegies. Without the solace that poetry can provide us, we’d be left staring at despair — perhaps an emotionally powerful experience, but hardly a useful one. And so the tension poets face: how is one to avoid cloying sentiment on the one hand and callous objectivity on the other?
The poems in Henri Cole’s latest collection, Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) — which often describe scenes of devastation, physical and emotional — resolve this tension in a curious way: they temporarily indulge in sentimentality, only to change course abruptly and return to the facts at hand. Like a release valve, the sentimental interruptions relieve some of the pressure that these scenes entail, but not to the extent that their powers are completely emptied.
To demonstrate how this “release valve” technique works, let’s take a close look at two of Cole’s poems: “City Horse” (originally published in The Threepenny Review, text available here) and “Dandelions” (originally published in The Paris Review, audio available here). In both poems, the speaker momentarily departs from a gut-wrenching situation, only for the situation itself to drag the speaker back into the moment. Once that final transition is complete, the speaker (and so the reader) gains a fuller of understanding of the tragedy they face, one for which the earlier sentimentality would not be sufficient.
As a single sentence spanning fourteen lines, “City Horse” captures a moment of continuous agony: a boy seeing a dead horse in the aftermath of a storm. The opening line leaves little doubt as to the direction of the poem; it’s a journey to “the end of the road from concept to corpse” (line 1). What was once a living, moving beast has been tossed by wind and waves, dumped alongside piles of inanimate debris (“uprooted trees, crumpled cars, and collapsed houses” ). Although she is positioned “as if trying to raise herself still,” she is irretrievably dead (4). The only question is how to confront that fact.
At first, the speaker appears absorbed with the physical facts of the horse’s death: broken legs, face in the mud. Of particular interest is the horse’s appearance: “the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan, / a mix of red and white hairs) now powdery gray” (7-8). The declension narrative is clearest here. This beautiful horse, because of the capricious weather, has been reduced to a monochromatic object. One might expect, then, to read of further and further decay.
Instead, the speaker interrupts the description with a set of apostrophes: “O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse–dead, dead–” (9). The register is so elevated, the repetitions so sudden, that it sounds out of character for the speaker. Whereas the first eight lines were earthy and plainspoken, line 9 is more consciously poetic, if not bathetic — can readers feel this sort of emotion for a horse they hardly know?
But “O, wondrous horse” is not indicative of the poem’s progress; it’s a sudden pulling back, an unsustainable retreat. Just after the speaker’s interruption ends, we hear the boy who sees the horse with his vernacular speech: “‘She was more smarter than me, / she just wait'” (10-11). The two voices in succession shake the reader back and forth, from lofty sentiment back to the raw details. And once the poem returns to those details, the import of the interruption becomes more apparent.
The closing image sees the boy attempting to comfort the dead horse, “stroking the majestic rowing legs, / stiff now” (12-13). It’s a heartfelt gesture, but a futile one, much like the horse’s attempt to escape its fate. She simply “could not outrun / the heavy, black, frothing water” (13-14). But then, neither could the speaker “outrun” the tragedy of the horses death by invoking some sentimental muse — he must return to the situation, the heavy, black, frothing situation.
“Dandelions” follows a similar path as “City Horse”: the speaker is confronted with an uncomfortable situation, attempts to escape via a sentimental interruption, but gets drawn back to the reality of the scene. What makes “Dandelions” a little unusual is that the scene itself has no reality — it’s a dream, as the first stanza explains:
In the dream,
a priest said
it was time
to be entirely
The set-up suggests a confrontation between the speaker and the priest, but in fact the priest is addressing the speaker’s mother, who is “bedridden / because of diabetes” (6-7). The priest seems convinced that the speaker’s mother has little time left, repeatedly asking about her beliefs. His insistence frightens the speaker, who retreats into his own head (or further within his own head, as the case may be).
Specifically, he starts to think of the title flowers, of their simple beauty, which appears to provide him some comfort in the midst of the confrontation:
those silver gray
stems and lemony
any landscape (36-40)
That landscape, of course, is the speaker’s mental state. For the moment, his mother’s health and the priest’s insistence have faded into the background, subsumed by the soft colors of the dandelion imagery. If “City Horse” drifts into the language of sentimentality, “Dandelions” indulges in its visuals.
But, as with the sentimental interruption in “City Horse,” the speaker’s self-distraction cannot be sustained here. He’s brought back to the dream-proper when his mother’s ailment intervenes: “and then I heard / Mother lifting her stumps, / where the hands had been” (41-43). It’s an unnerving image in any context, but when contrasted with the dandelions, it’s a downright shock.
“Dandelions,” however, arrives at a different attitude than “City Horse.” The mother’s closing declaration (“‘I believe / in these living hands'” [44-45]) might provide the speaker with some consolation at the end of the dream. His mother is aware her hands have been amputated, but she does not try to ignore than fact. Instead, she finds a kind of strength within her condition, hence why she loudly lifts her stumps. She has embraced her situation and come out stronger for it. Perhaps the speaker, once he awakes, can learn from her example.
Cole returns to the structure used in “City Horse” and “Dandelions” throughout Nothing to Declare, and it proves surprisingly durable. It never loses its punch, seeing that moment where a sentimental interruption collapses and the speaker confronts reality again. It reenacts a thought process which all of us indulge in at various points in our lives, then shows the limits of that very process. Whether solace or mere devastation await at the end, Cole’s poems show us those difficult facts that our minds attempt to cloud.
(Disclosure: I received Cole’s collection as part of a Goodreads giveaway sponsored by the publisher. Neither the author, nor the publisher, nor Goodreads had any input regarding this post.)