Henri Cole, Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994–2022 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 192 pp. Hardback, $30.00.
The sonnet is having a moment. This simplest of poetic genres—arguably the only rule is that it consist of fourteen lines—has been a mainstay of the English creative-writing repertory since a couple of Tudor noblemen picked it up from the Italians in the sixteenth century. But the past decade or so has seen a special flourishing of the form, with especially notable book publications such as Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (a finalist for a National Book Award in 2018) and Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets (winner of a 2022 Pulitzer Prize).
There have been so many terrific sonnets published in just the last few years: Martín Espada’s “Of the Threads that Connect the Stars,” Eléna Rivera’s “Aug. 12th with Wordsworth,” Craig Morgan Teicher’s “Son,” A. E. Stallings’s “Bedbugs in Marriage Bed,” Jericho Brown’s “Duplex,” Nick Laird’s “Watermelon Seed,” Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s “Lima Limón :: Maduerez”—just to name a few.
Henri Cole has been among the vanguard of poets promoting the modern sonnet. Over the course of his career, sonnets have gradually taken a more prominent place among his output, culminating in his last collection, the sonnet-heavy Blizzard (2020). Now Cole has gone back and assembled his standout sonnets from the past thirty years. Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994–2022 recasts Cole’s status as an essential sonneteer.
Classically, sonnets have followed two models. The Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet features an octet (an eight-line stanza) followed by a sestet (a six-line stanza), with a transition between the two called a volta, or turn—a pivot or swerve in the direction of one’s thinking. The English (or Shakespearean) sonnet features three quatrains (four-line stanzas) with a volta then leading to a closing couplet (a two-line stanza). Variations on these forms are endless, and modern sonnets often look like anything they please.
Cole’s contribution is to muddy the distinction between beginning and end by—arguably—eliminating the volta. The traditional sonnet offers the movement of an isolated stream of thought, the subtle arc of consideration, not unlike a GIF on social media. But a Cole sonnet is much more like a still-shot, a photograph. It’s not that Cole is intensely visual but rather that he seems to be trying to arrest time, to capture a thought or feeling in its inevitable movement “from concept to corpse” and to preserve it like a specimen under glass. This stillness nevertheless involves a dance of perception, joining the separate aspects of a complex feeling into a graspable whole. For such skilled choreography, poet Kit Fan calls Cole “one of the most acrobatic sonneteers since Shakespeare.”
Goethe famously referred to architecture as frozen music, and Cole’s poems have just such an architectural appeal, like cathedrals writ small. In his 2018 memoir, Orphic Paris, Cole observes that he is drawn to the sonnet form both for its “lean, muscular, human-scale body” and for “its mixture of passion and thought; its infrastructure of highs and lows.” A Cole sonnet is as close as one can get to the verbal preservation of a fluid.
In Cole’s hands, the sonnet feels much more like a haiku, a brief and impressionistic meditation. (And, lo and behold, one of the sonnets in Gravity and Center is simply titled “Haiku.”) In a brief Afterword, Cole explains the approach that led to his own twist on this most established of poetic forms:
Twenty years ago, when I was living in the foothills north of Kyoto in two tatami-mat rooms, without possessions except a futon and a wok, I chose to write free verse sonnets in plain speech and to bring to them some of the characteristics of Japanese poetry: the Buddhist notion of dealing less with conceptualized thought that with states of mind and feeling, a sense of social responsibility, a valuing of sincerity over artifice, the use of images as emblems for inner states, and a preoccupation with themes of love.
Many of the sonnets here are essentially odes, apostrophic declarations to one thing or another, often an insect or a small animal: a hare, a swan, a cat, a praying mantis, a gull, a wren, a bee, a mosquito, a spider, a bat, a snail, a dove, a mouse, a piglet. Many others consider the death of a parent or a lover.
The title poem, “Gravity and Center,” is exemplary in its struggle to convey the pleasurable angst of resistance when called to convert authentic feelings of love into cheap verbal counterfeits. “I don’t want words to sever me from reality,” declares the poet. “I don’t want to need them. I want nothing / to reveal feeling but feeling.” Cole goes far to resist the neatness with which sonnets can package experience for consumers. “Arte Povera,” with which Gravity and Center opens, “pushes against what content and language befits the form,” claims Dora Malech, editor of The Hopkins Review.
Other highlights include “American Kestrel,” in which Cole finds the predatory bird “plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse, like the red strings of a harp”; “Ginger and Sorrow,” with the poet’s amusing attention to “my fingers, / whose ridges and grooves are so gratifying / to both the lover and the criminologist”; and “Kayaking on the Charles,” which concludes with a powerful prayer: “Lord, look at me, / hatless, with naked torso, sixtyish, paddling alone upriver.”
Devoted fans of Cole’s work won’t find much new here. Many of these poems first appeared in literary journals and magazines and, aside from just a few recent ones, they were then published in Cole’s prior volumes of poetry. And nearly a quarter of the 135 sonnets collected here also appeared in an earlier career-spanning collection, Cole’s Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems, 1982–2007 (2010). So Gravity and Center is less a bold new foray than it is a reassembling. It is a declaration that the sonnet form is indeed the gravity and the center of Henri Cole’s oeuvre.