Sunday, March 15, 2009

Henri Cole: "Oil & Steel" & Subtlety

Henri Cole's 2008 book Blackbird and Wolf has won numerous awards now, and highlighting a poem from the book seems a little like telling people about how computers will soon be changing society. But every time I read this poem I'm struck by it, especially because Cole said in an interview that, aside from free verse, there's nothing particularly American about American poetry. To me, "Oil & Steel" seems very American, though I can't quite say why ... something about the seriocomic tone of the line about the schnauzers and the way the capitalization of "Modern Fiction" implies a slight sneer, as though the father's contempt for the idea has been at least partially passed to his son.

Oil & Steel

My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.


I love how concise this poem is, how much it tells about the relationship in so few words. I love the way the peculiar alliteration (it comes nowhere else in the poem, and so is startling when it appears) of "neglected, needing nursing" manages to deflate the anguished image of the weeping father and keep the poem from swerving into sentiment.

I love the multiple schnauzers (how many? We never find out), and how they help flesh out the image of the home this man lives in and of his consistency of habit.

I love how the simple, direct voice and absence of rhyme disguises the fact that the poem is essentially a sonnet, complete with the classic turn, in the 9th line, toward resolution of a presented problem. And dark as the memory is, the narrator's recollection of seeing his father weeping and neglected is part of his own resolution, and what seems to allow him to give the man some small (if partly ironic) credit.

More than anything, though, I love the word "mostly" in the final line. Whole worlds of regret and anguish and a wry, pained acknowledgment of inherited graces (and wounds) lie in that one little "mostly."


Angela said...

Wow. What a stunning poem. I love that his inheritance was a plaid shirt and some motor oil. That says so much. Your observations are excellent and make reading this poem even more worthwhile. Thanks for sharing this! xo

JforJames said...

Thanks for introducing me to the poem. I liked what you said about that 'mostly' at the end. Against the general editorial notion be to strike that word.