Necessary and Impossible
by Henri Cole

 

I think the reason why I first took note of “Necessary and Impossible” when I read Henri Cole’s Middle Earth was the resonance it shares with Czeslaw Milosz’s “Incantation.” I’d once committed Milosz’s poem to memory, partially because I loved the grand, authoritative, risky pronouncements it makes: which begins “Human reason is beautiful and invincible. […] It puts what should be above things as they are, / Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope. […] It saves austere and transparent phrases / From the filthy discord of tortured words.” The opening of Cole’s poem embodies that same sense of grandness: “It is a nation born in the quiet part of the mind, / that has no fantasy of omnipotence, / no God but nature, no net of one vow.” And so the “no’s” pile up throughout the poem: “no swarm of polluted flies,” “no false mercy of truths buried in excrement.” Cole performs the extraordinary feat of writing a poem of affirmation through anaphoric negation. Additionally, by being a single-sentence poem, we’re swept along, line by line, into the speaker’s vision of this idealized world, not unlike the forward momentum of Robert Frost’s portrait of the idealized woman in his single-sentence sonnet “The Silken Tent.”

The fourteen lines of Cole’s poem are sonnet-like in their structure and form; the poem forecasts its turn in the sestet, in which the poem shifts from its broader pronouncements to something more specific: “and in this nation of men and women, / no face in the mirror reflecting more darkness / than light…” Cole refines the abstraction of “a nation,” with which the poem began, to the “nation of men and women”—reminding us of the individuals which comprise the larger body. By extension, he transitions from the abstractions which dominate the poem overall: “the poor,” “hate,” “strength,” “knowledge,” “love,” “mercy.” We are directed to imagine not only an individual face, but a face in the mirror, a face which occupies a peculiar transitional space between the universal and the particular: implicitly, it is simultaneously one person and every person.

But the turn truly accomplishes its work as the poem reveals the speaker to be not the omniscient third person voice we’d assumed, but a single first person engaged in an act of gentle benevolence: “no more strife/ than in my hands now, as I sit on a rock, / tearing up bread for red and white carp / pushing out of their element and into mine.” With this final image, I’m reminded of Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fishes; Cole seems to reclaim this connotation from the realm of the divine for the realm of the human. There is nothing inherently miraculous in the feeding of these carp, and yet we are reminded that an act of human compassion, especially in the context of the world implicitly outlined in the lines that precede this, must always be treated with a degree of reverence and awe. The focus on the speaker’s hands reminds us that the hands of every human being—the speaker’s and reader’s included—carry with them the capability for both damage and healing. And the fact that the poem describes its ideal world as one in which there is “no God but nature,” we can see this final gesture on the part of the speaker as a form of prayer.

 

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Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House, winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her second book, The Octopus Game, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in early 2015.  Her awards include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a Discovery/The Nation award.  She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

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