Prac Crit

Sphere

by Henri Cole

Essay

by Seán Hewitt

Once, for a school history project, we were asked to research our surnames – where did they come from, how had they evolved, what might they say (however distantly) about our family? I was happy to find that ‘Hewitt’, which had arrived from France (there is a town called Huet near Evreux), had three owls set against the red background of the coat of arms. I was less happy, however, when I found a translation for the family’s Latin motto, ne te quaesiveris extra: ‘Seek nothing beyond your sphere’.

Henri Cole’s poem invokes the word of the title in both the senses of that less-than-inspiring ideal. The sphere is both a limiting, protective space, keeping one social set in power and another out, and also a place above us, the ‘starry sphere’ of Spenser, in which we might read our fate from the movements of celestial bodies, just as a name might once have provided clues for the future (and history) of the family to which it was attached. The sphere in which we live, either socially or imaginatively, might create, limit or predict the course of our lives, the formation of our identities. In this way, the sphere we imagine for ourselves, or have imagined for us, becomes part of our code, defining both our interior and exterior worlds. In Henri Cole’s poem, the speaker ‘clear[s] a way forward’ from one limiting sphere ‘into the murky light’ of another (perhaps utopian) space, exploring in the process how the feeling of belonging to a world can produce its own fate, can predict the sphere of a poem, an identity, a life.

‘Sphere’ opens with one of the many voices Cole uses during the poem: ‘“Sir, I don’t have no black tea,” the waitress replied, / so I ordered Black Label instead’. In these first lines, we see the beginning of the speaker’s quest to create his own space, his own ironic reality. In wryly ordering the ‘Black label’ in place of ‘black tea’, he asserts a sardonic upper-hand over the waitress, inventing for himself a protected world in which he is in control of the humour, sitting securely on the inside of a (black) joke about his own readiness to switch to alcohol. Throughout the poem, this word ‘black’ is repeated, its meaning reassigned, questioned, becoming ubiquitous. The subtle control over the colour keeps the poem within its own sphere, slowly building up the walls, adding varieties of meaning and attribution, as if the poet were a bird padding out its nest.

Everything in the poem is imagined in a sumptuous black and white (even ‘gold’ becomes ‘black gold’), but the luxurious darkness belies a more sinister undertone of disease, of judgement. Outside, there are ‘black locusts’, and the ‘hungry blackcaps were a vision’. We recall Exodus (the eighth plague of Egypt was locusts), and the language of Revelation (‘vision’, ‘horseman’), but also perhaps the ‘black spot’ of Treasure Island. The shadow of AIDS seems to be felt throughout, and it is primarily the stigma surrounding HIV in the gay community that drives not only the identity of the speaker, but the poem itself. Cole writes, ‘Billy died of the Black Death (I shouldn’t call it that)’. The speaker uses the language of the oppressor but also shows an awareness of its prejudice; he tacitly accepts the stigma, showing that he already inhabits the sphere imagined for him. The dead figure of Billy, who ‘hovered like a winged horseman’, stands in contrast to the narrowed, confined space of the speaker.

The speaker moves in search of a protective space, provided in the poem by a vivid natural world. He drives with another man, whose ‘face was like a smiling black spider’s’, to find a safe place for outdoor sex, a place where they can live more freely within their allotted sphere:

he cleared a way forward into the murky light. Beside the roadside blacktop,
a deer, with black diamonds in its eyes, lay in a bed of black pansies.
Around us, black ash and black walnuts made a velvety curtain.

The blackness follows them, and is still linked with death in the image of the deer. At the end of the poem, recalling this encounter, the speaker asks: ‘Did I love him back, I wonder? If I loved him with all my heart / and all my liver, why did I spit him into the river?’ The remembrance of fear, of one’s actions being defined by stigma, haunts ‘Sphere’. Something drives the poem, and the whole identity of the speaker, unconsciously towards this conclusion, which is to look back and question the processes of enclosure, of identity-formation. The action of ‘spit[ting] him into the river’ is examined as an unconscious reaction to the ‘sphere’ that the men were living in: it is the root of their actions, and the start of a trajectory of response.

There is an ambiguity in the second half of the poem through which what I have read as a recollection of an ex-lover can also be seen as continuous with the ‘Daddy’ figure. Cole’s pronouns are slippery, and just as Billy’s death is related to the speaker’s bike accident, so the ‘Mayo Clinic’ (which, by virtue of the enjambment, initially seems to refer to the speaker) comes to relate to ‘Daddy’ and the surgeon who has ‘fine black hands’. Furthermore, the ‘black’ of the surgeon’s hands could link to the ‘black book’; on the other hand, the ‘black book’ could belong to ‘Daddy’ or a different ‘he’ entirely. There are certainly paternal moments in the second half of the poem (“Son, you got mixed blood”), but this ‘son’ could just as easily be colloquial. Either way, the ambiguity of pronouns brings a new resonance to the repetition of ‘black’, through the ‘mixed blood’, which extends the theme of pathology to race.

Cole’s father’s family were classified as mulatto by the American census, and his mother was of French-Armenian descent. The infamous ‘Jim Crow’ laws, which applied a ‘one-drop’ rule of racial classification, were applied throughout North Carolina, where Cole’s father was raised, so that his father (and perhaps Cole too) might have been legally classed as black, despite having no overt appearance of black ancestry. The idea of blood – central in different and complicated ways to both HIV and the pathologisation of blackness in the American historical imagination – might be another way in which we can read the poem’s exploration of socially-defined ‘spheres’ of identity.

‘Sphere’ is heavily concerned with its aesthetic, with layering voices and images, and is only what we might call ‘confessional’ in an oblique way. In fact, it is only really at the tail-end of the poem that the personal aspect is given to us, and here it is still wrapped up in transformative imagery:

Dead ten years, he visits me often, like a head behind bars, with that black temper
and black bile still coming out of his mouth, but tenderness, too, like black gold.

There is an impulse to hide the confession, to take it from centre stage. In an interview with The Paris Review, Cole sheds some light on this. He says, ‘A confessional poem is more diary-like and confined to the here and now and without much aesthetic dignity. When I am writing, there is no pleasure in revealing the facts of my life. Pleasure comes from the art-making impulse, from assembling language into art.’ When I was younger, my grandma used to give us sweets, and I would hide some in a hollow of an apple tree in her garden that the washing line was strung around, saving them for later. This cropped up in a failed poem I wrote last month, where I had the lines ‘I take my secrets / and bury them in trees’. With a confessional poet, it is the honesty that counts. With Cole, it seems, the confession is a seed that can and must be buried before it can bear fruit.

The lines about the dead man’s visits reminded me of Thom Gunn’s poem, ‘The Reassurance’, in which a dead friend comes back to the speaker in a dream to say ‘I’m alright now’. The poem ends, ‘How like you to be so kind, / Seeking to reassure. / And, yes, how like my mind / To make itself secure.’ Just as Gunn’s mind ‘make[s] itself secure’ by a dreamt encounter with a dead friend, so in Cole’s poem the dead man visits ‘like a head behind bars’, peering in to the world of the speaker, of the living, in order to reconfirm the boundaries of the sphere in which he lives. However, unlike Gunn’s dead friend, who reassures the personal insecurities of the speaker, Cole’s dead man returns almost metaphorically, a reminder of the fear of loving. Cole’s speaker remains, we imagine, in a cell or cage, and his dead friend is still tainted by the speaker’s idea of him. He has a ‘black temper’, ‘black bile still coming out of his mouth’ (which is, perhaps, as much the colloquial ‘bile’ of foul speech as the ‘black bile’ of a diseased body), and even his tenderness is tarred, given to us with the image of ‘black gold’. Love, here, is both valuable and frightening; the speaker’s ability to imagine it is marred by a cage of remembered stigma.

In Touch (2011), one of the epigraphs, attributed to Cole’s mother, is ‘don’t be an open book’. In another poem in Nothing to Declare (2015), entitled ‘Enlightenment Means Living’, he dramatizes the poetic process as a way of becoming a book, of being subsumed into the written word:

Writing this absorbed,
I realize that the words
are spilling all over
my legs…

The transfigurative ability of Cole’s language, his ardent focus on ‘aesthetic dignity’, is always alive to the point at which the personal might become the poetical, the places where language can transform experience into art. ‘Sphere’ is a highly constructed poem, by which I mean its piling of tenses and interlocutions are in some ways circular (or spherical), moving between states of experience in order to build a lyric narrative which exists, like imagined fate, in past, present and future. ‘And that drew him back – he cleared a way forward…’ The to-and-fro movement, whereby the past dictates the push towards the future, build a completeness into the poem, as though it were a fully imagined whole. The poem, in this sense, is an emblem of the interior life of the speaker, who attempts to identify the spheres that have limited his ability to love. In a way, each line is like a mime artist, putting its hands up against an invisible wall, attempting to define the parameters of an imagined room.

‘Enlightenment Means Living’ closes with a complete transformation. Cole writes,

It is as if my whole body
ceased to exist,
and I experience
the end of Henri
in an infinitude of words.

In ‘Sphere’, the infinitude is built-in, created by a constant circular quest in which the speaker attempts to define the limits of his life. The question of at which point ‘Henri’ becomes ‘poem’ is unanswerable, but Cole’s work asks it repeatedly. ‘Sphere’, like all good poetry, is both penetrative and creative: it imagines a world parallel to our own, then dives into it, looking for treasure. It sets up a series of ‘spheres’ (personal, social, utopian) like a Venn diagram, mapping the overlaps and the circumferences. Most importantly, it attempts to isolate and to discover, to create in the sphere of the poem a place where things might be accessed which are inaccessible to ‘Henri’. Reading it, I heard in the back of my mind Ted Hughes’s brilliant attempt to define poetry, where he calls for words that will express ‘something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river’.

Sphere

by Henri Cole

  
  
  
        For Harold Bloom
  
  

‘Sir, I don’t have no black tea,’ the waitress replied,
so I ordered Black Label instead. It was summer and the fragrant
white flowers of the black locusts had awakened, like faeries or obscure matter.
A black bear clothed in thorns made a mess of the bird feeder where hungry
blackcaps were a vision. And the black flies were biting energetically.
Billy died of the Black Death (I shouldn’t call it that) and hovered like a winged horseman.
There’s nothing so wrong as when young folks die. I smashed my bike,
blacked out, and got two black eyes. At the Mayo Clinic,
Daddy had his arteries cleared, praising the surgeon’s fine black hands.
After he died, we called everyone in his black book and found
a black space that couldn’t be lifted by impotent wings. Like me,
he was the black sheep. There were struggles. Once, driving near Black Mountain,
he blurted, ‘There ain’t nothing so good as stolen corn or watermelon.’
His face was like a smiling black spider’s. Questioning the earth
from which he came (‘Son, you got mixed blood’) – and that drew him back –
he cleared a way forward into the murky light. Beside the roadside blacktop,
a deer, with black diamonds in its eyes, lay in a bed of black pansies.
Around us, black ash and black walnuts made a velvety curtain.
Dead ten years, he visits me often, like a head behind bars, with that black temper
and black bile still coming out of his mouth, but tenderness, too, like black gold.
Did I love him back, I wonder? If I loved him with all my heart
and all my liver, why did I spit him into the river?

  

From Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Reproduced with permission.

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