Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dead Poem

There are some poems make you want to scratch an itch that isn't there.Henri Cole's Dead Mother reads like an attempt to garner a bit of that mausoleum erotica Edgar Allen Poe so masterfully spread across the pages of our national anthologies, the distinction being in Henri Cole's effusion is that he cannot resist inserting the surreal. It's not an unusual tact to assume, as gazing upon one's dead mother, laid out in an unusual pose that is unread precisely because an earnest mortician attempted to make her appear "natural", is not a daily practice; excluding the intervention of the bangs, clicks and rumbles of alive things to bring you back to a presence of mind, one's thinking will guide you through an odd narrative of what the eyes reveal.He sounds uncertain whether the dead mother is indeed a corpse, and projects, it reads to me, a wish that something tangible about her regrets be revealed,

five or six tears—profound,
unflinching, humane—ran out of her skull,

This quickly takes on a tone of an old EC Comics stories as the long dead citizens of a town, victims of foul deeds and anonymous murders, arise from their crypts , rotting flesh and bulging eyeballs dripping from their skeletal frames, march to the home of their betrayer to administer a delayed justice. It gets a little much , and Cole speeds up the narrative with crazier associations,


and tenderness (massaging
the arms, sponging the lips) morphed into a dog
howling under the bed, the bruised body that
had carried us, splaying
itself now, not abstract
but symbolic, like the hot water bottle,
plastic rosaries

I like associative leaps , the abrupt insertion of an image that although seeming unlike the conversation that preceded it will, on review, suggest a larger emotion, or a larger set of conditions a narrator has yet to realize. This would be the shadow poem, the text of what the writer hasn't said or referred to, the unspoken thing, names, that demands an airing. Cole's dog image is doubly hindered,though, first the near comic placement of the dog under the bed--these are the bits of country songs and stale jokes--the next being that it's a cliche. Anthropomorphising an animal to convey complex emotion is a trick that's been used up in contemporary literature--although the poems of Ted Hughes and some of John Hawk's novels are notable exceptions-- that has become an animator's tool. Unreality isn't a sin in poetry--we insist on it, generally--but a poet's lack of conviction is. The rhetoric swells, the sentences turn into an unemphatic stream :

like the hot water bottle,
the plastic rosaries, the shoes in the wheelchair
("I'm ready to stretch out"), as dents and punctures
of the flesh—those
gruesome flowers—a macabre tumor,
and surreal pain, changed into hallowed
a lens was cleared, a coffer penetrated.

It seems sometimes that a poet realizes he starts out with one idea and realizes the punched up ending they envisioned won't be plausible given the arrangement of items he's already written, and that they are too lazy, too much of a hurry to start over and make their conflicting ideas cohere. This last stretch is an effusion without a destination, a string of odd combinations of qualifier and noun --"macabre tumor:, "surreal pain", "hallowed marble"-- that, as such, is meant to give a sense of closure through implication, reinforced with reportage of acts that rely more on the whispered hush of that suggestion than on something more concrete. What lens had cleared? What coffer was penetrated? Cole closed the door and forgot to turn off the lights behind him.

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