Henri Cole’s new memoir, Orphic Paris,is a series of delights—a description of the cenotaph of Baudelaire; an observation of 15 horses marching in “the cold, bright sunlight”; insights into the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. Set in Paris, this movable feast blends photos, memoir, and travelogue with musings on poetry and art. Cole, a prolific poet, received the Award of Merit in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; here, he talks about human feeling, Sylvia Plath, and strong espresso.
Orphic Paris engages with the ideas and work of Baudelaire, Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, and more. Was your intention to be instructive and accessible?
“Instructive” sounds like a gym class. That’s not me. In the passages about writers, I am just talking to myself and feeling my way in the dark. “Accessibility” is overrated. I don’t really think writing needs to be accessible, though I am eager to move my readers (if only in some quietly melancholic or joyful way). And certainly accessibility helps me do this.
Memoir by definition reveals the author, and yours feels especially intimate and gentle. Did you struggle with the temptation to disclose less of yourself?
We are living at an intensely coarse moment in American history, so I am grateful if my book seems gentle. I wanted the voice to be tender, and I wanted this to be in counterpoint to what we are facing daily in the news. Since there is nothing lurid in the book, I feared it would seem the opposite of intimate. But I didn’t dwell on this question of disclosure as I wrote Orphic Paris. For me, it’s just so hard to get the right words down in the right order and then to put them into sentences and paragraphs that feel fresh and moving.
You write in Orphic Paris that “a knack for writing verse doesn’t necessarily make one a good poet.”
Oh, there is a lot of poetry out there that feels, to me, quite tepid. I am drawn to intensity. Sometimes, intensity can be born out of the sublimation of feeling, as in Elizabeth Bishop. And sometimes, intensity can be born out of very bold utterance, as in Sylvia Plath. But a knack for writing clever acrobatic rhyming quatrains is rarely accompanied by any special sensitivity to, or understanding of, human feeling.
J’aime your list of loves; e.g., “J’aime the kisses the Parisians give one another, touching their cheeks, and allowing men to do the same, though they never lock their arms in embrace.” Will you give us one more?
J’aime the residue of butter on my lips after eating a flaky, warm croissant from Rue Jean Nicot and the strong espresso breaking it down into little smears on my white paper napkin.
You often write about animals, especially cats, dogs, and bees, which is a lot of fun to read. What is it about animals that draws your attention?
For me, animals, insects, plants, and flowers are stand-ins for humans. It’s very true what Oscar Wilde says about man being least himself when he talks in his own person. So we must give him a mask, and then he can tell us the truth. For me, animals and flowers are masks.
You say you’d like to reveal, among other things, the “everyday myths” of Paris. What’s an example of a Parisian myth?
The everyday myths of Paris are like those of other cities. A mother waiting for her child in front of a school. A homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk vent. A plaque commemorating soldiers who were murdered resisting the Nazis. A darkly handsome man with his sinewy arm around his lover’s waist. An ugly bell ringer in a cathedral who falls in love with a street dancer. This is what I see when I zoom in for a closer look at Paris, beyond all the intense beauty of its streets, river, and skyline. This human landscape is just as moving and mythic to me as the one made of stone.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.