ORPHIC PARIS by Henri Cole


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Self-portrait of a prizewinning poet in search of himself in entrancing Paris.

“In part, I come to Paris because I am a dreamer. It is a place where I am able to escape the shadows,” writes Cole (Literature/Claremont McKenna Coll.; Nothing to Declare: Poems, 2015, etc.) in this delicate, affectionate, and reflective memoir. Originally serialized in the New Yorker, the book’s 17 parts are mini-essays exploring the Paris landscape, family, friends, films, being gay, and the art of poetry. One of the many questions the author poses throughout the book is, “why am I writing all this down, dear reader?” He answers, “I don’t want to conceal anything, or be surreptitious. Instead, I want to reveal something…that might otherwise remain dormant behind the intense beauty of Paris.” Cole visited a number of graves, including Baudelaire’s and his very good friend James Lord’s. While visiting Susan Sontag’s in Montparnasse, Cole describes himself as a “literary tourist….Cemeteries, after all, are for the living.” Stylistically, the book has a strong aphoristic feel to it. The text, a “landscape self-portrait,” is quietly understated in its reflections. Not surprisingly, at the heart of the book is poetry, Cole’s own and that of others, including Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens. I want my poems to seem rebellious…definite, self-sufficient,” he writes, “and true in what they represent, like expressionist paintings.” When “so much American poetry feels emotionally tepid and almost suburban,” Cole revels in the “organized violence” of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, which “extended the boundaries of the lyric.” For Cole, Paris is the “city of the beloved. Some say a man goes mad if he is without love.” The book’s ending, with its series of sentences all beginning with “J’aime,” is exuberant, Whitmanesque, Orphic: “and in this place, I wrote, I was nourished, and I grew.”

A wise, astute, and luminous literary commonplace book.

Pub Date: April 10th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-68137-218-1
Page count: 184pp
Publisher: New York Review Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2018


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