A boy overhears a horrifying act of brutality, and hears too an agonized question—“Who are you?”—to which the poem is a kind of answer. In the midst of suffering and terror, he puts his lips to a source, and violence occasions an awakening to personhood. Only the argument encoded in the structure of the sonnet, a form Cole has reinvigorated for years, connects this primal scene to the image in the first eight lines, a singing bird stocking its larder. Even as a child, the poet seizes on agony for the use he can make of it. No poem I know offers a more devastating account of the discovery of vocation.
How brightly you whistle, pushing the long, soft
feathers on your rump down across the branch,
like the apron of a butcher, as you impale a cricket
on a meat hook deep inside my rhododendron.
Poor cricket can hardly stand the whistling,
not to speak of the brownish-red pecking
(couldn’t you go a little easy?), but holds up
pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.
Once, long ago, when they were quarrelling about money,
Father put Mother’s head in the oven.
“Who are you?” it pleaded from the hell mouth.
Upstairs in the bathroom, I drank water right out of the tap,
my lips on the faucet. Everything was shaking and bumping.
Earth was drawing me into existence.
Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1956 and raised in Virginia. He has published nine collections of poetry and received many awards for his work, including the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Lenore Marshall Award. His most recent collection is Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015). From 2010 to 2014, he was poetry editor of The New Republic. He teaches at Claremont McKenna College and lives in Boston.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
Read all of our Poetry Month coverage here