The Self Itself: A Review of Henri Cole’s Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets and Randall Mann’s Deal: New and Selected Poems

Does selected have a queer flair? It’s experienced, quietly pantherish, and, as to select is to reject, elegiac: work encountered in a selected volume is burnished by what’s missing. This is especially the case when the poems, like Cole’s sonnets and Mann’s sinewy satires, speak with so much silence. Because a selected volume is also a way of making a durational argument out of poems, near-ephemera, that white space is the place where we think about the connective links that are present or not, where we feel the presence of what hasn’t made it in: it’s where history enters not as grand narrative, but as atmospheric pressure. This is most the case with Henri Cole’s Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets (FSG, 2023), which describes a longer arc in a tighter bandwidth, while Randall Mann’s Deal: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2023) tells the past slant in idiosyncratic detail, coded gesture, fading slang. Yet each poet argues—forcefully, quietly— against the creeping mezzo del cammin suspicion that the individual poem, as the life behind it, can only be a trickle-down effect of its time. Comparing the stories each chooses to tell about  queer selfhood and community in America offers a master class in how poetic form can modify and control those too-familiar narratives—including that sticky master narrative of lyric poetry, the self itself. 

Henri Cole has trademarked a disarming tenderness that dignifies subjects sometimes mundane, sometimes streaked with pain or cruelty. His tone is broadly audible in contemporary gay work, and its characteristic reach for acceptance and forgiveness, of others as of the self, colors this selection. But Gravity and Center, stressing the sonnet, forefronts his formal innovations, and he emerges here as a deft engineer of time. If his sonnets begin almost invariably in an anecdotal first-person present, where they go from there is quantum physics. Cole sometimes accelerates thrillingly into the past; sometimes steps forward into theology or wisdom literature (he channels Pip in “Beach Walk”: “we fall, we fell, we are falling”); often ends the poem with a yank, leaving us reeling on an abrupt, unmediated image, like the “choke-chain” of “Arte Povera.”

In an afterword, Cole connects his deployment of the form to a year in rural Japan, which led to valuing “sincerity over artifice.” That transformation is palpable in this volume. Whereas the early sonnets tend toward chiaroscuro as they counterpoint high and low emotional peaks, using sharp voltas or Christian images to stage sudden, stately transformations, in the breakthrough collection, Middle Earth (2003), they learn waiting and surrender. This other temperament is interesting precisely because it’s intermittent. The spirit yearns, but the flesh is stubborn; Cole’s zen flickers in and out, and a “preoccupation with themes of love” weighs in beside equal themes of violence and insoluble loss. This duality comes through in “Mask,” a sonnet powered by the contrast between life experienced and life written. In it, Cole’s speaker ties “a paper mask onto [his] face,” and then struggles to reconcile the uncanny neutrality of the effect, with the tumultuous history he knows to be his: “I’d done things / I hated; to be loved, I’d competed promiscuously.” When the poem bubbles to an end with an image of the speaker’s irises “float[ing] up / like eggs clinging to a water plant / seamless and clear, in an empty, pondlike face,” the poem’s commitment to the primacy of natural images over artificial ones (paper becomes a “water plant,” probably papyrus), and a kenotic evacuation of self and history, dares us to forget the artifice encoded in the poem’s title and theatricality. 

If we could trust “faces,” the zero that “Masks” aches toward might be attainable; but desire is more interesting than consummation. This is the crux, I think, of Cole’s poetics, and the structuring psychological tension of many of his speakers. A surface of apparent passivity and Franciscan fellow-feeling—e.g., the frequent “dear” or “little” bees, deer, bowls, hearts—ripples, with the slightest tension, to reveal the histories of violent love and melancholic grief that it masks. We return to the father’s inscrutable hardness, the traumatic separations from the mother, at birth and death, the cruel addict lover. But Cole’s poems are unique in that we don’t experience these ruptures of appearance, the return of the repressed, as deeper truths that explain away or devalue the poems’ surfaces, as in the Freudian epiphanies so common in late 20th century American lyric. Rather, the mature work is more interested in moments when such lay psychology feels overscripted and two dimensional; in the alienated states—that perhaps only the act of writing a poem allows one to experience—when control and desire are suspended as equally available choices in a prolonged present tense. Or so I read the poem “Away,” from Touch (2011), a prolonged meditation on the mother’s death, and her body, the second half of which I quote: 

How poignantly emptiness cries out
to be filled.
But writing this now, my hand is warm.

The character I call Myself isn’t lustful, heavy,
melancholic. It’s as if emotions are no longer bodied.
Eros isn’t ripping through darkness. It’s as if I’m
a boy again, observing the births of two baby lambs.
The world has just come into existence.

Sonnet form is complicit in this poem’s self-conscious wish-fulfillment, which opens an almost theatrical void at the volta. Grief then supplies a dissociative grammar of negation and conditional statement—“But,” “isn’t,” “as if,”—and a hint of Rimbaud (“je est un autre”), of Proust (“mon moi”). Yet the words embedded in the distancing clauses slowly take on their own gravity (“warm,” “heavy,” “bodied”) until, miraculously, the “this now” of writing becomes the eternal now of Christian Logos, and Cole’s speaker is able to witness, by proxy, his own birth twinned with those of the lambs. The poem is, very literally, an act of miracle. 

Cole thus uses the sonnet’s leaps and pressures to refract selfhood, that monolithic twentieth-century American construct, into a nimbler, more fractious, and responsive animal. One of the eight new sonnets included in this volume, “ELF-STORAGE,” (subtitled “White letters on a Bronx warehouse”) carries this resistance to cultural pieties, in earlier pieces so often graphed finely across encounters with an other, toward a longer temporal horizon. In a slyly historicizing, distinctly twenty-first-century discourse, the poem begins:

The paradoxes and mysteries of elf identity
are not so frightening in storage. Of course,
there are arguments—affectionate and intense—
among the elves, each one grappling with basic
questions of love and elfhood. What can I mean
to another elf? Which elf do I want to be with?
What kind of elf do I want to be?

This puppet-show Ozymandias exemplifies the affordances of the minor that Cole has mastered—a gauzily transparent, childlike wit, a double-reference, a way of speaking to ponderous questions by turning away from them. But the targets of this poem are, in its very quiet way, very serious: the temptation to define oneself within intelligible external parameters, viz., identity politics (“elf identity”), versus the social death that may result from refusing those parameters. Cole’s thumb seems to be for the latter choice, but the poem’s fey tone and unusually recessive speaker—a reaction to the enormous stakes of such politically charged questions—mean we can’t be sure. Creeping out as an obstinate residuum of broader cultural claims in the sixth line, the “I” itself is elfish, after an italicized I quietly stands up, in roman, to admit its own doubt and loneliness: “Which elf do I want to be with?” If this is a politics, and I think it is, it is one of successive intimacies, not coalitions. In “storage,” Cole writes (a figure for literary or library time) “Many elves with / a deep and long-standing investment in elfhood / deteriorate.” This is a play for posterity, and, elfishly, Cole’s money is on what he’s doing here: a sly humor, an I that winks in and out as it leans toward its own decomposition. 

Randall Mann is almost invariably labeled a formalist, an epithet whose various connotations usually counter a value like history. He is also a historian. A characteristic poem narrates a moment as it recedes, turns to chronicle—as the perceiving consciousness itself transforms enough to recognize a once-familiar experience as public or alienated. I’ve been arguing Henri Cole’s sonnets in Gravity and Center use multilayered present tenses, and domestic scenes, to remediate larger cultural narratives that are palpable in the poems primarily as structures of feeling and pressurizing externalities. Mann, by contrast, relishes mordantly in all the absurd scenography of a hypermediated present: the precise, meaningless dates, the names (of San Francisco streets, parks, bars, of vintage porn, of demi-mondain poets), the insane corporate jargon we have to process daily, the erotic shorthand. In his earlier, Gunn-inflected poems, formal repetition (pantoum, sestina, villanelle) enacts the melancholic circularity of post-AIDS affect—not grief, so much as eerie absence—even as the poet traces, elliptically, the refinement of sensibility. In more recent work, white space on the page crowds lines so short that you feel, as the axe of enjambment falls and falls again, a rage for control expressing as propitiatory self-mutilation. Like Justice at the gym, Mann hones himself, edges. 

Subjectivity in poems like “Deal” can feel beside the point. Bleakly postcoital, its speaker reflects “Anonymous, / no / gent / is in / his Lyft …,” as each micro-line invites possibilities—the mind fraying out with the break—before landing again where it has to, in brave summary, in the common fate. If the story of recent San Francisco is that of big tech, Mann’s project is a clear-eyed, sometimes bitter, sometimes nostalgic satire of the shrinking possibilities available to the individual as he is squeezed between predictive algorithms and strip-mined for his data. 

 Speaking of squeezing: as Mann has developed, his poems have grown increasingly svelte, to the degree that the reader of Deal—which fronts the new work—will encounter ballads whittled down to dimeter, threads of lyric a single syllable wide. It’s a narrow world, but Mann pushes it, virtuosically, in any number of directions. “A Walk in the Park” has a jaunty whiff of Auden that keeps it moving before it can get too sad (“The palms along / Dolores Street / do not belong. / The past looms / like chat rooms”), while in “Deal” the speaker “shrivel[s] / by / bleak / acronym” as internet shorthands blur into those other four letters. Rereading these poems, it’s impossible not to be struck by the sorrow, like a taste of absolute zero, that balances their prestidigitations and their takedowns of deliciously deserving targets: tech egos, corporate Pride, exes. All the while, the speaker knows his skewering works only because he’s enmeshed with that same culture, and wink by wink, makes it clear that while poetry may help, it’s not quite a solution:

 I lost 2010

 trying to rhyme sext
with sucked, or sacked,

or, that’s it, sect:
it’s San Francisco…

 Mann’s punctuated wit and delayed glee are worthy of Skelton, but the real virtuosity here is in the negative gesture. In these lines about poetic labor, enjambments allow us to feel the lapse of time, the uncertainty, and the hard, utterly unrecompensed work of sifting language, as these are collapsed between the monolithic shorthands that loom on either side: “2010,” “it’s San Francisco.” 

The extraordinary level of condensation and shorthand endorsed by the narrow lines of the newest work pushes its communicative wavelength ever tighter, ever closer to crypt and kabbalah. This is often thrilling. It has risks. Sometimes the poems are best read a few at a time, so that the echoing space around each word, dropped like a bead on a string, remains enchanted and strange; there are moments shaved awfully tight to the bone, as in “Summer of 1996,” where the stubbed elegiac tone, masterfully modulated, somewhat overwhelms the language that composes it: “vague / elegy, / one more / basin.” This is rare, a side effect of Mann’s innovation. In general, these narrow poems are kept surprising by a range of formal devices—trip-up silences, hairpin swerves, split words, triple entendu. Their sleek charm and confessional intimacy keeps the reader feeling on the inside of an exclusive club, even if information is usually more hinted than given. This exclusivity is key to Mann’s poetics. In an era that so often calls for public declarations of just what you mean, in which being coy is suspect, Mann uses all the recondita of poetry—a fetishized subculture if there ever was one—to recreate the possibilities, and disappointments, of a lost closet and the thrill of its glory holes.

This duality drives “Double Life” which begins: 

Let’s go
to Ocean Beach
to undermine
the line:

vultures flick

The title echoes an earlier split between public and private, but is also poignantly a life in which poetry itself is experienced, and resisted, in the body. Its invitation is infective, subversive, Prufrockian. “The line” works both as a standard poetic line—which Mann’s razored lines are undermining—and, in a poem that closets Eliot, the ponderously patriarchal lines of influence he emblematizes. Against inheritance, Mann militates the vultures’ “arithmetic”: a figure for the ideal of quantitative meter, as for all those behaviors which don’t fit in the narrow band of values imputed natural. Reading through the achievement of Deal, one can’t help but be struck by the many poems addressed to queer poets, from D.A. Powell to David Trinidad, and by the queer icons celebrated and mourned: Rock Hudson, Leo and Lance. The book, a crosscut of one poet’s history, offers itself as also a web of horizontal affiliation and care, in which influence—erotic, poetic—moves slantwise and unpredictably. It’s a sexy club, and we’re invited. 


Noah Warren

Noah Warren is the author of The Complete Stories (Copper Canyon, 2021) and The Destroyer in the Glass, chosen by Carl Phillips for the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets. He is the recipient of fellowships from Yale, Stanford, and the Mellon Foundation, and teaches at Claremont McKenna College.

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