Olympia by Henri Cole
As for the poem's meaning, it's clear that the speaker moves through a strange, hyper-sensual, and perhaps threatening, environment to reach a place of revelation. It's not clear, however, what that revelation is. It involves shedding societal definitions of fulfillment for a purely solitary one (Jenny is hardly present in the poem, and we know her only by her flippers) . The poem reminds me of a vision quest, a Native American ritual (sometimes involving hallucinogenic drugs) wherein one looks into one's soul. But what the speaker finds here is complex and not necessarily positive: the final image calls up pain, perhaps sickness, and perhaps drug abuse.
The presence of uncertainty, or mystery, in a poem, doesn't mean it doesn't work. Most great poems, in fact, leave room for interpretation. This, among other things, allows the reader to bring a measure of his/her own experience/identity into the reading. A lot of new readers of poetry are uncomfortable when everything isn't clear, but when uncertainty is done well it can be one of the real joys and strengths of the genre. The trick, as a writer, is knowing just how much uncertainty to leave.
by Henri Cole
Tired, hungry, hot, I climbed the steep slope
to town, a sultry, watery place, crawling with insects
In the semidarkness of the mountain,
small things loomed large: a donkey urinating on a palm;
a salt-and-saliva-stained boy riding on his mother's back;
a shy roaming black Adam. I was walking on an edge.
The moments fused into one crystalline rock,
like ice in a champagne bucket. Time was plunging forward,
like dolphins scissoring open water or like me,
following Jenny's flippers down to see the coral reef,
where the color of sand, sea and sky merged,
and it was as if that was all God wanted:
not a wife, a house or a position,
but a self, like a needle, pushing in a vein.
Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1956 and raised in Virginia. He received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1978. Cole is currently poet-in-residence at Smith College.