Henri Cole could have easily won this year's Pulitzer Prize. His collection, like Wright's, chronicles one man's solitary quest to make sense of his existence. Page after page, the speaker wades through Middle Earth - the shadowy land of his fears and doubts - trying to connect with other beings, including his own distant father. But where Wright's journey was narrowly focused, centering on one man and a benevolent God, Cole explores a much larger realm. He communes with flowers, animals, and human beings.
Cole's language can be hauntingly lovely. Currently a poet-in-residence at Smith College, he has a good ear for rhythm, and his quiet voice makes the reader take notice. Perhaps most striking, however, are Cole's images, which often serve as evocative springboards into larger, broader concerns.
In "Kayaks," for example, he writes:
Beyond the soggy garden, two kayaks
float across mild clear water. A red sun
stains the lake like colored glass. Day is stopping.
Everything I am feels distant or blank
as the opulent rays pass through me....
"Middle Earth" is strongest when the imagery and music do most of the "talking." The poet stumbles when he tries too hard to make grand statements or to speak for those he doesn't understand.
"Ape House, Berlin Zoo" is an example of Cole overstepping his bounds. "It is understood that part of me lives in you," he writes. Then, later on: "I am sweat and contemplation and breath./ I am active and passive, darkness and light, chaste and corrupt. I am martyr to nothing. I am rejected by nothing." The speaker here is unconvincing, and the longer he goes on, the weaker the poem becomes.
But even with its missteps, "Middle Earth" has much to recommend it. [Editor's note: In the original version of this story, the book was incorrectly named twice.]