“The tongue is what we strop our words on.”
Sometimes we’re not ready for a writer. Over time, values and tastes evolve, deepening and decaying as we age. The writers we love at fourteen are unlikely to remain unchanged after half a century. A few do – Kipling, Shakespeare – but we’re always adding to and culling the private library we carry in our heads. Fortunately, the world’s stock of literature is bigger than any reader and perfectly indifferent to our decisions.
Several years ago, the poet David Sanders, proprietor of Poetry News in Review, sent me a copy of The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), edited by Donald Justice and Robert Mezey. It wasn’t a matter of incomprehension or indifference. I saw the technical deftness, the wit and sophistication accompanied by a satirical tartness. Coulette (1927-1988) had many of the qualities I most enjoy in a writer. He reminded me of Turner Cassity, but with the ferocity lowered. Still, I shelved the book after one reading, grateful to David but untouched, like Teflon.
Last week, I pulled the book out again, curious and guilty after hearing Coulette was admired by Zbigniew Herbert. In their introduction, Justice and Mezey quote the Pole as saying that while reading Coulette he felt “at once in the presence of a major poet, one in complete control of the technical resources of his art, but—more important to me—one who has seized upon thematic material of central importance to the modern world.” The lovely line quoted at the top is from “The Black Rose,” one of two previously unpublished poems Coulette dedicates to Herbert. Here is the final stanza:
The black rose, distilled, is our milk,
Our bitter milk. Na zdrowie!”
In three lines, Coulette alludes to World War II, a German board game (“Don’t get angry, pal”), a Polish blessing and toast, and possibly to Paul Celan’s most famous poem. When Coulette makes a pop culture reference, it doesn’t feel like slumming. He knows movies and detective novels, Horace and Raymond Chandler, and sees no reason to leave them behind. “The Fifth Season” is from his first collection, The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems (1966). The only allusion I hear is Homer:
“It will be summer, spring, or fall—
Or winter, even. Who would know?
For no one answers when we call
Who might have answered years ago.
“The harvest will be in or not;
The trees in flower or in rime.
Indifferent to the cold, the hot,
We will no longer care for time.
“Mortal, of ivory and of horn,
We will become as open gates
Through which our nothing will be borne,
By which all nothing now but waits.
“It will be summer, spring, or fall—
Or winter, even. Who will care?
We will not answer when you call,
For nothing, nothing echoes there.”
Coulette values durability, a poem that will adhere for the long run. A poem ought to be at least a cunningly made as a chair – a heretical thought for a poet in his time and ours. If his work is suffused with melancholy, it also cheers us with plain-spoken eloquence. In a suite of sixteen epigrams, Coulette writes in one titled “The Collected Poems of What’s His Face”:
“Sixteen thousand lines, give or take sixteen—
And no two lines that you can read between.”
Honest readers will fill in the blank. There’s much to read between Coulette’s lines. Here is the final epigram in the series:
“A one-eyed cat named Hathaway on my lap,
A fire in the fireplace, and Schubert’s 5th
All silvery somewhere on a radio
I barely here, but hear—this is, I think,
As close as I may come to happiness.”
In a 1983 interview, Coulette says of his friend J.V. Cunningham, the master epigrammist of the last century: “My whole notion of what literature is about derives from him, that a poem is in a sense a statement, that the problem of reading somebody’s poetry is a simplified version of the basic human problem of trying to understand another without imposing your personality or beliefs upon another. But to really hear them and to really understand them. Now that’s the human problem.”