Henri Cole, Orphic Paris, NYRB, 2018; Shira Dentz, how do i net thee, Salmon Poetry, 2018; Galen Strawson, Things that bother me., NYRB, 2018

Reviewed by Martin Corless-Smith

[Review Guidelines]

It often happens, when reading a number of books simultaneously, that they begin to relate to and influence each other. No book exists alone in its meaning of course, but I notice more and more that my own ideas and reflections are often drawn along certain pathways by the material I read concurrently, and even more so when I am thinking that I might want to write something down about one or more of them (a more concrete form of thinking than the circumspect and unformed thoughts that reading alone can help conjure). I make connections, because that's what we do: make sense out of otherwise disparate material.
     So. Consider these three books. A book of poems, how do i net thee by Shira Dentz, a memoir by a poet, Henri Cole's Orphic Paris. And then a book of essays, Things that bother me, by Galen Strawson. Could it have been another three books? Perhaps. These came down the pipeline in the same instant.
      The galvanizing moment for this piece of writing was reading the second essay in Things. Strawson is an analytic philosopher, but here he is playing the role of old-time essay-writing phenomenologist, taking a leaf out of Descartes or Montaigne to analyse his own experience of being. It's anecdotal fieldwork. What A Fallacy of our Age, his second essay, proposes is that there might well be, in fact appears to be, a number of alternative ways in which individuals experience consciousness. His argument is that there are multiple models for our experience of consciousness, of which the "narrative" model is just the most prevalent, described by William James as "[a] 'river': or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described...Let us call it the stream of consciousness, or subjective life. (Strawson 36)
     And we recognize that final metaphor that has gone on to describe a fiction technique pioneered by Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Though actually Strawson rather imagines a narrativity less characterized by the unfurling of sensory-driven perceptions and more engaged with a coherent story around a centrally featured protagonist self. In fact, the modernist technique is really exemplary of a transient self in many ways, subject to the next engagement of the senses, though it manages to present a kind of history, even if the identity of the historian is obscured. A rather more conventional "fiction" is the most pervasive version of the story humans tell of themselves. Strawson thinks this is non-essential:

There are also deeply non narrative people, and there are good ways to live that are deeply nonnarrative—indeed antinarrative. (Strawson 46)

     Those given to narrativity he names endurants, the others transients. He offers a defence of the potential decency of transients, pushing against a common belief that a narrativized existence is necessary to establish a solid personality capable of a sustained existence and of making ethical choices (the argument would suggest that a sense of continuity might be necessary for grounding a sense of responsibility for one's own actions). Of course a narrative sense of self does not require one to act morally. But neither does a transient self-identity suggest that there is no sense of continuity, nor that such a self is less likely to be moral, but it's a common prejudice according to Strawson (I suspect this is true, that the most commonly held metaphors of being are casually folded into ideas of decency and morality—like the rightness of right-handedness as opposed to the sinister alternative). There's no reason to assume that any one way of experiencing the world is a predictor of good or bad behavior, merely of a way of talking about that behavior perhaps.
     But what really struck me when reading this was how such a prejudice surrounds the relationship between fiction and poetry, or even between narrative and nonnarrative poetry. Sales alone will support the theory that people tend to be more comfortable with fiction (or that it is more commonly consumed and therefore more influential). But that should not mean endurants ought to disregard nonnarrative poetry as somehow spurious or written in bad faith. It might just be that some people are just like that (and even that to some degree we all are).


Let's look at a new collection that might be identified as nonnarrative.
     The opening prologue of how do i net thee collages definitions of nets or netting to offer something of a metaphor of the act of writing, and how through writing we arrive at something of the experience of being, that wild elusive animal:

mapping...to take, catch, capture/ or gather

a kind of ars poetica or at least a key to the following book.
     The first poem, "Wax," opens:


a little more tea-color than yesterday—

a march date coils

tongue dots screw in. he went to town and bought a wrench. change coins, other side. drinking coffee, mouth gone fishing. near a concrete pail. a word rising

ahead like smoke.      wax (3)

The first word is a neologism, with a sense that such an unprecedented juxtaposition will be revelatory, will open up and identify a new meaning that describes the observation of a thing as if experienced for the first time. Kind of. The milk/light is tea colored, brownish, but warm and domestic? And there is change from yesterday, so memory plays an important part in the ongoing observations. This observing being is a continuing self it appears. In fact lightmilk works only because we bring to it our knowledge of both words. It is at once the most intimate and physical (and mammalian) connection, (breast?) milk, and the most vital (and spiritual) life bestowing energy; it might even stand as a kind of origin myth of sorts. So the first word, a neologism, is also a myth of origins. Milk and light bring us to now. It was ever thus.
     Tea seems to be a playful adjustment. The English take milk in their tea. I'd argue that tea in England has the status of something more than just a timely refreshment, it is a social ritual that still outstrips any other in its ubiquity (Tea drinking flits throughout Dentz's book). But it's something else. It's a way of reducing or replacing even the greatest cataclysm with a familiar ritual. As much as to say, look, I know your family died, you have a terminal diagnosis, the dog has escaped, but...let's have a cup of tea. It's not avoidance so much as an indication that life will, in fact, go on. It's an enduring consolation in a transient life.
    The "march date" seems to me to be a future we await (the predicted birthdate of a child perhaps, there are some later clues that suggests as much, as does the milk, which might be 'coming in'?). The "coil" is the waiting snake of the future, inevitable and hidden, but rather than continue a reading of the content of the poems, I want mostly to look at how meaning here progresses. Incremental shifts from specifics that are closely observed, and not necessarily confounding in of themselves, but in their presentation we feel at once a familiarity, a trip to town, the purchase of a tool, some change in the pocket, but uncertainty as well, am I reading this correctly, are these small details meaningful of a larger trend? The progress rather than narrative is atomistic. It is the story of experience rather than knowledge. The story is of precise notices, of notes on noticing, and not of a fully open view, not a narrative as such. This is the story's material. We are made up of these distinct moments of being. So, later in the same poem, this:

it was sunny and a bit of thought passed. (3)

italicized because it is a quote, or because it is a commentary in a different idiom, known rather than experienced, recalled even, a moment of reflection upon the notations of being which continues in its atomistic fashion (so that not all nonnarrative experiencers are always only that!):

gash. bird

darts past. cobalt. rhino fly. however the rag up on the tree is taking what comes to mind. (3)

    So the gash and the bird are of the same order. An object is a wound, an experience that opens up the future. The bird is also the event of its passing by. The rag on the tree is the mind in the moment of the rag being noticed. It has a background story (how did it get there, what accident, what series of events let it escape, be blown up there?). It is a flag of sorts, waving to denote the unaccountable series of events that leads to presence and being. Even the self's own body is subject to this ongoing spectacle of re-cognition:

when you're beat you can feel different parts of your body as junk. soda cans, rope, undecipherables, dragging down, maybe a little noisy. (8)

There is consolation in narrative. But also in seeing others looking at the world as it appears anew. From "Midwinter":

strong attachment

to the way it is—

on a pole

a dog bone

colored bandage

light shingles

a car turns

slim green

this cherry day. (20)

Here each preceding line twists with the new revelations, so that what we knew of the past, a dog bone, changes, is not the object we thought we saw, but the color of a bandage (or is it? Is the dog bone colored bandage, that is, color of a bandage). A car turns, but not a corner as we might think, but into a color. Or perhaps both. "Light" might be a noun or an adjective, and shingles a verb or a noun. What we get are precise turnings, not a solid object car, but its movement and its color. When we try to rely on saying one small thing we see it pivot into something else. So it is with being for the nonnarrative thinker.
     Later, less atomistic, reliant on the juxtaposition of a sustained metaphor, but still self-conscious also of its own making, its own made-ness, we get:

My animal pushes through

a length of sentence,

gray, mangy.

A bear lowers a stick into an anthole. (31)

The animal, the seat of our continuity, uses the tool of language, a length of sentence, (a length of stick) to articulate being, to get at being, but it's a messy tool, mangy and gray. Unless that is the bear of course, or the stick the bear uses. With language of course, it is all the same. The bear, the mange, the grayness: it's all of the same order. Mangy and grey as it might be, language has its uses, we get to think about some stuff, and the bear gets to eat the ants, by using and adapting it. The stick isn't ideal, has other functions, but it will have to do.
     So there are gaps in the net, it's the only reason we are able to move it, throw it around and catch something. Anything more solid and it wouldn't be as adaptable; it'd be unusable. Nets, our sentences of words, are porous, but handy, they do catch something of the being we are after. Not everything. But the next new thing.
     When Henri Cole says "[u]ncertainty is a virtue, and the tolerance of uncertainty," (Cole 13) he seems at least partially right. Perhaps rather than a virtue, uncertainty is the experience of the bewildering state of things, and the virtue would be an acceptance of that, a realistic appraisal of how the world functions sometimes. For the most part life doesn't stray erratically out of control at every instant. Not even for the insane. Though life does not permanently adhere to simple predictable patterns that straightforwardly either. Tolerance of uncertainty does seem like it might be a handy skill. Perhaps rather than a virtue it is an accident of temperament. The bon mot also has something of Keats's famous description of being a man of achievement:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Letter to George and Thomas Keats (December 22, 1817)

     To be tolerant of uncertainty is to be available to the next experience, rather like Dentz, and this seems an important feature for a writer. And not just in life, but in writing, in letting the writing unfold like life. But, it seems to me self-evident that endurant narrative prose doesn't embrace uncertainty as clearly as transient poetry (or transient prose for that matter). There are rules and patterns to prose that tend to be obeyed. A narrative arc for example. One thing is for sure, Cole's motto does not display the virtue it praises: there is no lack of certainty in its articulation.
     And such is the case for most of Cole's memoir. But then Cole is an endurant, and the act of memoir itself the endurant act par excellence. The past is more easily available to us as sorted and resorted information, because it has happened, and for the most part is there for us to shape at leisure (ignoring a release of suppression, or the revelation of a ground-shifting truth), the past is fairly easily made into a coherent narrative, even by transient (or would-be transient) poets.
     Cole's writing and his life seem to suffer no lack of a solid narrativized self-presence. On the first page he goes as far as renaming his temporary Parisian address as the Street of the Iron Poet. He couldn't be more confident of his continuing presence in the world, the street names of Paris bending to his story. Even when acknowledging his own melancholy he maintains a reassuringly consistent story, such as recognizing himself in Rilke's panther:

Like me, the panther is a solitary traveller and he paces, as I sometimes do, with melancholy intensity (32).

It is quite a feat of self-projection to see one's self as the hero of this poem, a panther no less, and to see one's own melancholia as "intense," as if it were almost a vigorous and appealing trait, Byronically saturnine rather than enfeebling. I'm not disputing facts of his claim, it's just that there's really no sense of the disquieting nature of melancholy or solitude from his description. He sounds utterly robust. Even if the words point at discomfort, the writing does not. It is reported to us, but we do not experience it. Later, he contemplates his role as a wandering vagabond, quoting Paul Bowles:

"When you've cut yourself off from the life you've been living and you haven't yet established another life, you're free....If you don't know where you're going, you're even freer." I thought about this statement today at Deyrolle, the taxidermy shop, where I go often and ponder the pretty, sherbet-colored canaries. (Cole 54).

But Cole isn't cut off. This is the second time Deyrolle has been mentioned, and his routine in Paris is clearly just that, not unanchored wandering. Pondering in a shop he goes to often doesn't sound like the activity of a bohemian flaneur adrift, so much as a competent bourgeois materialist shopping at his favourite store. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just that the Bowles quote sketches a very different type of self than the one Cole presents. The artist he wants to applaud seems to acknowledge the necessity of a freedom from routine that the memoirist is at pains to establish. The endurant overwhelms the transient, in both style and attitude. "Surely" he asserts, "it is impossible to be a good writer without being an égoïste." (Cole 35) This is not a question. It's a statement of fact. "Surely" is not an appeal, it is a synonym for certainty.
     One such visit to Deyrolle turns up a finch Cole buys and names Keats, a colorful corpse that offers a physical memorial for Keats's sonnet "O solitude." So a stuffed bird reminds him of a sonnet. Two sections later, Cole discovers a memorial to Jefferson, and is reminded that Maison Carrée in Nimes, a well-preserved Roman mausoleum (which, we must assume is the real desire of a memorial—that it be preserved) inspired Jefferson's own designs back in Virginia, and that for the young Cole the same building became a model of what a sonnet is: "with its mixture of passion and thought, its infrastructure of highs and lows, its volta and the idea of transformation..." (Cole 51). But what seems most striking to me (along with the easiness that Cole places a personal anecdote along side one about Jefferson) is that the sonnet is compared to a mausoleum. The corpse of a bird, then a mausoleum.
     A memoir might be seen as a monument to self, and this memoir is filled with the monuments of famous writers such as Baudelaire's cenotaph, the graves of Susan Sontag & Cesar Vallejo, the Hotel where Oscar Wilde died. A memoir might be a memorial, but a sonnet?
     From Cole's perspective, the whole of Paris (and Orphic Paris) reads like endless graveyard and indeed Rilke describes it as "close to death" (Cole 120). Along with Wilde's we attend the deathbed scene of Alice B. Toklas, and whenever friends meet they always exchange cut flowers, a gesture as much about death as it is about life. For Cole the rose is "the symbol of the spirit in our bodies" (Cole 136). For Cole, the body is always nearly a corpse it seems. He suggest that without a poem "we cannot seem to have lived." (Cole 136) The poem is proof of having passed through life, a memorial to it. Later, in describing La Fontaine's fables he thinks "his poems have body and soul, by which I mean a narrative and a little moral" (Cole 156). So for Cole narrative is something like the ongoing tale of the body, our life if you like, and poetry is something like the soul that gives such a body its summation, a fitting end, an epitaph.
     I am aware that a memoir is not a poem, but I wonder if both for Cole serve the same ends. Or end.
     Watching an old movie, Cole is moved when Quasimodo says to an ugly gargoyle "why was not made of stone like thee?" (Cole 110). Cole's sympathy is with the burden of life felt by the hunchback, compared to which the stone's immunity (the grave) seems almost a perfect alternative. As a poet, Cole describes himself as a packer bee (Plath, Pindar and Horace are folded into the poet/bee metaphor for comparison), storing honey gleaned from flowers for conservation. It does seem that for Cole the poem is a resting place, out of the continuum, a perfected gesture aimed at capturing a life.
     Though really honey is not for just for conservation is it? It's for food. For living. For the living.
     His final chapter opens with a quote from the same Keats's sonnet he named his stuffed bird after, copied here in full:

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature's observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river's crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
'Mongst boughs pavillion'd, where the deer's swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I'll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin'd,
Is my soul's pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

This poem seems to want to break free, not contain. If it seems that for Cole the poem is a memory store, something akin to the snapshots throughout his memoir, there are glimpses of doubt in this version. One impulse for the endurant might not be a merely straightforward depiction of a vigorously consistent sense of self, so much as a need to sustain a tale to prevent it and the self disappearing. The most poignant moment for me is when, amongst the name-dropping, a non-famous figure appears and as quickly disappears. A love interest named Octave (the first part of a sonnet? Just before the turn and final sestet?) leaves and Cole questions "why is it after he leaves that I feel like an object again—without any soul?" (Cole 65?). Here is a moment of doubt (hence the question mark!) and suddenly a self without a story. The occasional grand juxtaposition of Cole's self with the attendant literary legends is shown here to be a show at confidence. The narrative memoir is perhaps not really just to make a sensible shape out of a life, nor to offer that life as proof of its validity or significance, but instead to prevent it from leaking away. It's a hopeless task of course, but this endurant is revealed as an occasional frightened transient.
     For all the talk of loneliness, Cole's memoir teems with company. That's perhaps merely a little contradictory, but the title's Orphic, suggests a mystic or oracular poetic outpouring, and Orphic Paris is written with clear assertive prose. Is it unfair to expect a memoir by a poet about poetry to embody its own assertions? Perhaps, but it seems odd that so much of its assertions are defied by the way they are asserted. It's almost as if memoir requires the transient to become endurant. Or it's as if the memoir is a retreat to the comforts of narrative, a kind of retirement plot for the wandering poet. But it feels as if Cole the memoirist wants to be counted a poet, and the work finishes with a flourish of those things he loves and the last chapter comes closest to poetic composition, with is anaphora of "j'aime."
     What he loves is mostly Paris, a place artists and poets are called to as if it gives body to the History they hope to join. "For a time I lived here...I wrote, I was nourished, and I grew." (Cole 170). His final stanza shifts from the present tense, imperceptibly to the past tense. And it is that past tense that marks his tendency. Not to be alive, but to have lived.
     For Strawson, the past is as jumbled as the "great shambles of life" that Henry James describes (Strawson 181). A narrative memoir would be fraudulent. Strawson calls innumerable examples of those who conflate human life with "self-authorship" (Strawson 184), but it mostly seems like reassuring zealotry, and he sides with Emerson who finds mankind "knowing as little as the infant who is carried in his wicker coach thro' the street." (Strawson 181). If Keats is right that "a man's life of any worth is a continual allegory" (Strawson 185) it is not necessary for the living man to have access to this allegory (or for the self-written allegory he chooses to be the right one, or even correct). Indeed as Keats goes on to say "Very few eyes can see the mystery of life." (Strawson 185). People might well write narratives, but these are not necessarily true, and indeed more likely to be unhelpful distortions. In reading through Cole and Strawson on successive days, it might have appeared significant that both mention Keats's letters. But what might that be significant of exactly? (They are both well-educated white men born in the fifties...perhaps it is best to leave it there).
     In the Keats sonnet that Cole references twice, the speaker seems (like Cole?) at first resigned to solitude. He escapes from the city (with its murky buildings which sound like mausoleums) back to a landscape. But it's a literary landscape of scenes, where a lonely self meets, through language and its pleasures, a kindred spirit. Encountering literature, in solitude, the consolation of reading is, it seems, chance of a higher union of sorts. In "O Solitude (Sonnet VII)" the reading and written spirits escape the city, the woods and even the poem? The last word is flee. It's a transcendent escape.
    So, for Keats, the poem's task is not to trace a narrative as memorial (in this case anyway), but to engage with images of "refin'd thoughts" to an ecstatic release. And although the speaker "will gladly trace these scenes" the poem's job is not to record and remind, not to go (irritably) reaching after facts, but to be ready for the release into the unspoken. The tendency is transient, though the writing mostly holds to a sustained argument (it is a sonnet after all). The deer's leap is a moment outside of argument, a subliminal image that bursts into (and out of) the poem, and it is this moment that seems to be the genius loci of the poem, not the honey-making bee going about its business (Cole?). In fact it seems to have burst out of the very pavilion that Cole saw as the model of the sonnet (it's just as well, as the foxglove is poisonous). It is the deer that gives the bee a chance to abandon his task, and the poem the chance to end with escape.
Neither Cole nor Dentz (nor Keats, nor Strawson I would argue) are entirely endurant or transient, and although these books have significantly different intentions, it seems that both idealize the transient as a poetic trait (even if only one uses that technique). Certainly this transience feels in keeping with Romantic or post-Romantic descriptions of the poet as anarchic or venturesome. But most poems don't sit fully in either camp, and often employ and contrast both endurant and transient traits (whether mindfully or not).
     There is something of the Kantian sublime in transient being, an experience of the now that has yet to be qualified by reason. Prose can describe this sublimity, but most narratives don't enact it (most poetry doesn't either to be honest). But the sublime is vital as it is rare, and it's articulation demands attention and not dismissal.
     Strawson's concern about the morality of transients seems simply to be a description of prejudice and it is true in my experience that people are often upset by certain types of nonnarrative writing, as if it presents a challenge to their very notion of selfhood. And perhaps it does. Narrative appears safer because it makes sense more easily. But simply adopting a simple narrative ignores compelling evidence that there are other ways to experience being. And of course we tend to leave out much of what makes us truly who and what we are. As Updike quoted in Strawson puts it:

The trouble with literary biographies, perhaps, is that they mainly testify to the long worldly corruption of a life, as documented deeds and days and disappointments pile up, and cannot convey the unearthly innocence that attends, in the perpetual present tense living, the self that seems the real one. (188-9)

And a narrative with the self seated happily in the middle of each sentence might tend to preserve an idea of the self as a foundational truth that is not part of a wider necessary network of exchange. We might all become little kings of privileged unchallenged integrity.
     One might accuse Cole, as he does himself, of being an egoist. And one might see his story to be self-aggrandizing at times, but in the end, Dentz's book is also fixated with recording her perceptions, in an attempt to record the self/universe relation. Perhaps the difference is one of tendency. Unlike Cole on his melancholic literary tour, Dentz is not carving a memorial stone, she is more concerned with showing how strange it is that this language-thing might be played to show the on-going spectacle of being. One looks back, one looks forward. If Cole is a bee storing honey, Dentz is that bee shocked by a leaping deer.
     My essay is written as a narrative of sorts. It hopes to make a coherent sense. The essay came about because three books sat together on my table. And of that I made a pattern of thinking. I do not think of it as simply true. It certainly doesn't represent anything like my experience of being during its writing, so in that respect it is a failure (if that was its aim). It's a model of thinking, not the experience of being. As Strawson himself must acknowledge (as self-proclaimed transient), his book is proof that the transient will often wear the clothes of the endurant. But we ought not to limit nor disregard the variations of language use, nor the various descriptions of being they might offer. A coherent description is a compelling fantasy in an incoherent world. But an endurant-seeming essay might really be waving the transient flag of poetry, not carving a memorial stone.
     One bee gathers as another scouts. One bee dances as another stings. One bee is even thrown off its task by a leaping deer and returns as a poet bee, somewhat ostracized, but nonetheless on occasion, listened to. The hive needs all its bees.