Prac Crit

Extraordinary Geraniums

by Henri Cole

Interview

by Julian Gewirtz

I met Henri Cole at his apartment in Boston’s South End on a sweaty July day. After the hot, busy street, his rooms at the top of several flights of stairs were airy, cool, and elegant. The artworks of his friends and collaborators Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer adorn the walls; curiosities and objet d’art line the shelves; and books are everywhere. That day, Cole – who has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Ohio State University, among other schools – was preparing to move to California, where he was recently appointed Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College.

Cole is one of the United States’ most lauded poets, whom Harold Bloom has called ‘a master poet, with few peers.’ Born in Fukuoka, Japan, Cole was raised in Virginia and published his first book, The Marble Queen, in 1986. Each subsequent book has offered what the New York Times Book Review called his ‘rigorous, sensual testimony.’ His fifth book, Middle Earth won the 2004 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2012 Cole received the Jackson Poetry Prize, which honors ‘an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition.’

Henri Cole’s most recent book, Nothing to Declare, appeared earlier this year. Reviewing it in The New Criterion, William Logan wrote: ‘It has been apparent for some time that Cole is the most important American poet under sixty… His unsparing portraits are as scarifying as any poems we have.’ Cole and I decided to focus our conversation on his poem ‘Extraordinary Geraniums,’ which was originally published in The Paris Review and is the concluding poem of the first half of Nothing to Declare. It is a poem that, like so much of Cole’s best work, mixes innocence and performance. It is a poem of sustenance, and not what Emily Dickinson called (and Cole, in his poem ‘The Hare,’ has echoed) ‘that white sustenance – Despair.’ This is sustenance that you can eat, admire, and feel: the nourishment of ‘love-food,’ as Cole called it in our interview, and the sustaining power of the imagination.

JG

To start, I’m curious to hear when you started writing this book, Nothing to Declare – the circumstances in which, to the extent that it was conscious, you felt like you were working on a new book.

HC

The process wasn’t a self-conscious one. When I finish a book, I generally feel a sense of puzzlement and ask myself what I can do next that’s different. The book before Nothing to Declare, Touch, was the third in what I’ve come to see as a trilogy of mostly quasi-sonnets, so I definitely wanted to try something different. Eventually, I began writing terser, airier, vertical poems, with three or four stresses per line. But not in quatrains, because I had this irrational fear, from living in Japan, where there’s tetraphobia, that four is a number that might lead to death. So I wrote five-line, tanka-like stanzas (though not in syllabics). I don’t know why I’m drawn to asymmetry rather than the symmetrical ballad quatrain, but I am. To return to your question, I just felt my way intuitively toward a style that prevented me from writing sentences that were too mellifluous – something I feel should be avoided. Of course, there are poems in other forms, but I see the vertically skinny ones as different from those that came before. Then, after four or five years went by, I had a new collection.

JG

The tetraphobia comes from the superstition that the number four is like the sound for the word for ‘death’?

HC

Yes, it’s a homonym for the word for death. ‘Shi’ in Japanese is death, but also the number 4. So, for instance, you don’t buy four dinner plates, you don’t have four buttons on your shirt, and you don’t build an office, hospital or hotel with a 4th or 14th floor. Since I was born on the southern-most island of Japan, I thought I should honor this – even if it’s madness.

JG

In the book, there are poems that are in five-line stanzas with relatively short lines, and then there are others that are in single-stanza forms – I’m thinking of ‘City Horse’ and ‘Extraordinary Geraniums.’ Where did that form, which is somewhat more essayistic, come from?

HC

I think it came from Whitman – ‘City Horse’ does for sure, with its prolix syntax and lavish description. ‘Extraordinary Geraniums’ is essay-like, as you say. It’s a poem that takes stock of my life and my being, as I am sitting at the kitchen table eating a sugar sandwich; then at the finish it makes some declarations.

JG

I’d like to dwell on ‘Extraordinary Geraniums’ a bit. My first and most obvious question is: what is a ‘sugar sandwich’? It’s butter and sugar on bread, is that right?

HC

[Nodding] – Yes, classic white bread –

JG

Is that something you’ve been having your whole life?

HC

It’s something I had as a child. I suppose Mother, who was French, was simulating a tartine, or something like it, in our lower middle-class household. You take a piece of Wonder Bread and spread butter over it and sprinkle Domino sugar on top. It’s love-food. It’s dessert for people who don’t have a dessert, like in the Depression era. By eating it as an adult, I am recreating childhood and the purest pleasure of love-food.

JG

I love that phrase, ‘love-food.’ And the geraniums, were they also at your house growing up?

HC

Mother always had geraniums growing on either side of the front door. There is a popular, somewhat finicky, species called Martha Washington, and I’m playing with this fact by saying that their heads are as American as Martha Washington.

JG

I liked thinking about the geraniums as a counterpoint to the cherry tree of George Washington. I do think that this book deals pretty explicitly with right vs. wrong – American versions and other versions, too. So I loved thinking about Martha Washington as having her geraniums, while George has his cherry tree.

HC

They are symbols of gender, of course, so my geraniums are ‘frilly like genitalia.’ It’s a mischievous line [points to the line: ‘I grew them from seeds, and now the leaves are frilly like genitalia.’]. When William Logan reviewed the book, he spoke of the poem’s ‘cheerful luridness,’ and this pleased me.

JG

Can you say something about the birds in the poem?

HC

The bird passage is my favorite. I liked finding the right language to describe their movements. And I liked writing the poem’s journey of thought. It’s nice having a little more space than a sonnet permits to develop an idea, though I think the sonnet is an almost perfect form, with its octave (or three quatrains) to introduce an idea and develop it into a little meditation that leads to a fresh idea in the sestet or couplet.

JG

What kept occurring to me, as I read this poem and the others in this form, is that it does something I typically associate with Stevens: each line has the sense of having heard the previous line in the space between the lines. Maybe that’s related to the movement of thought that you describe, this sense that Martha Washington suggests the genitalia, or the frilliness – I almost then begin to see Martha Washington in a frilly outfit – and that’s what helps me work my way through that simile, which is quite arresting.

HC

Well, I think poems have a life of their own, and the poet must yield to this. This is a more exciting poem to write than one that drearily records the facts linearly. It occurs to me now that the title, ‘Extraordinary Geraniums,’ comes from Bishop. [In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘A Summer’s Dream,’ she writes: ‘Extraordinary geraniums / crowded the front windows’] I was visiting a friend, a composer, and she was looking for a title for a new composition, so we searched through Bishop to see if we could find something and [laughing] instead we found a title for me.

JG

Obviously the line that, at some level, seems most referential to the book and to the poetry is ‘mix glamour with the gutter, like Paris or Rome.’ There’s a real flair to being able to observe that a geranium, which is a flower that might be cut and put in a vase and look very glamorous, itself is also a flower that is soaking up the runoff and the soil, that has both ‘glamour’ and ‘gutter’ qualities. I was curious about the simile ‘like Paris or Rome.’

HC

It seems to me there’s plenty of poetry around that has only glamour, and there’s plenty around that has only gutter. Maybe a hybridization of the two is ideal – one reason to love Paris and Rome is because they vigorously mix glamour with the gutter. Recently, I visited Santa Monica, and it seemed too sanitized a place to live and write.

JG

Now that we’ve arrived at Paris, I want to talk about its presence in this book, from Apollinaire’s ‘Hotel’ to the translation of the Claire Malroux poem.

HC

Claire is a dear friend. At ninety, she astonishes me with her vitality and ardor. She has translated all of Stevens and Dickinson into French. And her translations are definitive. She’s also done books by Bishop, Derek Walcott, Anne Carson and others. Over the past ten years, she’s translated three of mine, and I’ve learned a lot from the process. Together we’re trying to do La Fontaine now and have finished nine or ten poems, though I don’t know how far we’ll go. I find it both exhausting and exhilarating.

JG

It seems that this book is filled with your friends. Even to the reader, who isn’t a part of your circle, the spirit of your friends permeates the book, from the dedications to the poems themselves. You begin the book with that wonderful Yeats line from his Memoirs, ‘Friendship is all the house I have.’ And that does connect back, I think, to ‘Extraordinary Geraniums.’ It connects back to where that poem goes at the end, the declaration that you find yourself able to make. One of the reasons I thought your term ‘love-food,’ in talking about the sugar sandwich, was so moving is that the poem moves from ‘love-food’ to much deeper declarations.

HC

At first, I felt self-conscious about the dedications. But as I turn sixty, and friends move through their eighties, I wanted to go on record expressing my thanks. Helen Vendler was my colleague at Harvard, and after twenty years remains a cherished friend. Mr. Bloom [Harold Bloom] was a stranger when he wrote to me long ago with encouragement. He’s an avid reader, and his kindness ratified me during years of peripatetic teaching and when I faced obstacles. Jamaica Kincaid was my colleague too. I love all her books. Kyoko [Mori, to whom the book is dedicated] is a friend of my youth, a nonfiction writer whom I met in graduate school. I have known her my entire adult life.

JG

As you say in ‘The Lonely Domain,’ this is part of ‘believing in words as the basis of people / being together.’ So to go ‘on record’ is very continuous with that ethic, and with that idea.

HC

Still, as a private person, I am self-conscious about this.

JG

To go back to the idea of home, house, place, which is such a focus in this book – ‘Free Dirt’ begins: ‘My house is mine’ –

HC

‘Free Dirt’ began while I was driving around with a friend, and we came upon a street sign that read ‘Free Dirt.’ It seemed like a gift, in part, because I love spondee titles. I have no idea why. ‘Dead Wren,’ ‘War Rug,’ ‘White Spine,’ and ‘Beach Walk’ are some that come immediately to mind.

JG

You said that the lines in your new five-line stanzas were generally three or four stresses. But there are poems where this gets pared down to one or two stresses. I’m thinking of ‘Stampeding Buffalo’ and ‘Anima.’ For me, that seemed very new in your writing – this very short line.

HC

There’s a poem or two by Seamus Heaney that were my models. One is the ‘Cassandra’ section of ‘Mycenae Lookout,’ though there is much more ‘linguistic violence,’ as Helen Vendler calls it, in this poem. Also, his poem ‘Punishment.’ I like the idea of writing a minimum poem and moving toward invisibility instead of splendor. I suppose this is also Japanese.

JG

What would that mean? Even more radically shortened, single-stressed lines?

HC

I don’t know. Perhaps it would require dramatic elision and juxtaposition. I can’t think of a model. But the sonnet, with its volta, does in fact encourage fracturing and leaping and uncommon resolution. Because I’m writing poems that are written in plain-speech, in a transparent vernacular, I must find other ways to rough them up. Giving the poems psychological complexity is one way to do this, as the poems record, with serpent-like twisting, the sound-track of my mind.

JG

Also, to go back to the phrase ‘mix glamour with the gutter,’ that’s also potentially a point about diction. In this vernacular form of speech, the way that an educated, literary person speaks is to mix elegant phrases with a more conventional vocabulary and slang –

HC

Yes, I want the poems to contain different registers of speech. I don’t want the reader to hear only a flat, American middle-voice. I suppose this comes, in part, from reading Ashbery, who pushes the contrast of high and low dictions to an extreme, fusing the comic with the grave.

JG

I also hear some Berryman, maybe, in a surprising way. This might feel completely wrong, but I noticed in ‘Anima,’ in the second section, ‘Nevertheless, / it happened: / I died’ – which recalled to me Berryman’s ‘I had the most marvelous piece of luck. / I died.’ I loved that.

HC

Yes, I was aware of this echo. In the Berryman poem, it’s the concluding line, but not in mine.

JG

Yes [laughs].

HC

I hoped I could get away with this.

JG

And you do.

HC

I like Berryman. He’s a sonnet model, a vernacular model, a divided-self model, an excellent American poet. He’s much more original and wild and scary than I am.

JG

That ‘divided-self model’ point is interesting. You’re so often pushing back against that. You say, at the end of ‘Extraordinary Geraniums’: ‘It’s the opposite of self-obliteration.’ I love that idea, because I think poets so often seem to conceive of their own work as blasting away at the self, fracturing the self in order to gain insight – and that’s how Berryman is conventionally talked about. But here, in these ‘Extraordinary Geraniums,’ you see something different.

HC

It’s a pleasant change to be positive and self-affirming occasionally. I haven’t done enough of this. I wanted the poem to be a ratification of my being in middle-age. I couldn’t write poem after poem like this, but it’s important to try now and then. It’s truer to life, too, since life has many shades of lightness and darkness. It’s right that poetry reflects this, rather than only zooming in on the blackest corners.

JG

You mentioned that the birds in this poem are your favorite part, and to me your idea of ‘all shades’ is so fully present there. I don’t mean the marvelous description of the birds having ‘shoulders,’ which is very cool, but the line from Keats’ swallows to Stevens’ pigeons is continued here. Those birds are making ‘ambiguous undulations,’ and that’s precisely what you have these birds doing here. These birds are hunting, but they’re also ‘pushing their shoulders forward and back, to rise and fall.’ So it’s nice to have a poem that is ‘forward’ and rising, as I think this one is, in addition to the many others that are less affirming.

HC

Thank you. I think it is the most uplifting poem in the book.

JG

– although ‘Stampeding Buffalo’ ends on a note of some affirmation or consolation, at least. ‘…the mantel clock’s / kind, minimalist, / Don’t be afraid.’

HC

Yes, it has a consoling finish.

JG

Though I suppose in that poem it first requires all the other buffalo to go over the cliff.

HC

I changed the last lines of the poem many times. I didn’t know what the clock should say, or even how to describe it. Before I settled on ‘kind, minimalist,’ there were a hundred other adjectives.

JG

One of the reasons that I was interested to hear you say that you’re thinking about an even more reduced style and even shorter line is that I see a connection between the kind of transparency that the shorter line has caused very organically and that sense of a ‘kind, minimalist’ poem. Some of that affirmation seems to creep in because of the greater space that you have allowed yourself in these poems after the many years of writing sonnets.

HC

I dislike exposition. I suppose this is a Japanese aesthetic, too. As a young man, I had a teacher who said, ‘End on an image and don’t explain it.’ I’ve never forgotten this. It seems to me that we do a lot of explaining in American poetry. But if the image is right, and the simile well conceived, it requires no exposition.

JG

In connection with this Japanese aesthetic, I think of some of the poems in Middle Earth, particularly ‘My Tea Ceremony’ –

HC

Yes, in fact, it is a poem that ends with a statement of exposition.

JG

You write, ‘I want a feeling of beauty / to surround the plainest facts of my life.’

HC

That’s right. I still feel this way today.

JG

That desire is evident in these poems, I think. It’s also evident in something else that I want to ask you about, something you have gotten into recently: Twitter. You joined in January and post regularly and have several thousand followers. Is this basically an online way of doing a collecting process that you’ve been doing all along, or do you think about it differently.

HC

A friend persuaded me to join. He/she is a novelist with many followers. There is so much garbage on the internet; I thought why not try to do something that makes people smile or feel better. I hope what I’m doing is a counterpoint to the ugliness and meanness on Twitter. I’m sure people read my feed and think I’m medicated, because I strive to be kind, optimistic, and truthful about beauty. There are lots of animals, too. Animals teach us how to be human. My father gave me a camera when I was nine or ten, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since, so Twitter is a place for me to display them. Maybe your readers will follow me: @colehenri. Most poets use Twitter to humble-brag – or for self-promotion. For me, it’s an opportunity to combine text with image in an original way. [Gestures to a framed Jenny Holzer print on the wall.] If you think about it, the American artist Jenny Holzer, who is a friend, long ago was a pre-Twitter tweeter. Tweeting is a way for a solitary person to participate in the world. The first time I understood it could be useful I was in Paris and a poet-teacher had died unexpectedly. News spread immediately on Twitter. All the praising and grieving moved me. Still, it takes time. What do you think?

JG

I think that poets on Twitter are mostly a wonderful phenomenon. You have poets who use it aphoristically – they’re bringing back the aphorism. I think of Doug [D. A.] Powell, who does this often, with wonderful one-liners.

HC

Yes, I ‘follow’ Doug on Twitter, but even more, I love reading his poems.

JG

Then, as you say, you have the people who treat their Twitter feeds a bit more as a self-aware artistic project, which can be great fun and very cool. I like what you say about mixing text and image. It seems to me that it can be difficult as a poet to give oneself permission to start using images, to just say, ‘I’m going to write about this thing and use images as part of that.’

HC

I’ve been tweeting a lot of Basho, and other quotations from those I admire. This excerpting and curating of revered texts suits Twitter. Occasionally, I try a haiku-like statement myself. Perhaps tweeting is connected to the question of how to write a minimum poem, a poem that’s had a good aerobic workout, and shuns all the prolix conventions of form. I support anything that makes me feel connected; especially when I know I am alone.

Extraordinary Geraniums

by Henri Cole

  
Eating a sugar sandwich, I sit at the kitchen table
admiring the geraniums outside the window,
their big heads as American as Martha Washington.
I grew them from seeds, and now the leaves are frilly like genitalia.
After so many sunrises together, they almost have faces,
with puffed-out mouths and throats, and when night falls,
they mix glamour with the gutter, like Paris or Rome,
but in the morning, they’re themselves again, as birds hover
in the distance – hunting on the wind, using their tails to equilibrate,
pushing their shoulders forward and back to rise and fall.
I love this backstroking, or upstroking,
which the sparrows use, too, when they fly right in front of my car.
Lately, my vision has been graying a little at the edges,
but these geraniums, with their fragrant leaves,
and this gritty sugar sandwich make me feel my whole body
and my whole mind superimposed at once.
It’s the opposite of self-obliteration.
If I think, Where am I? I immediately feel, I am here!

  

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

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