The title of Aurie Cole’s debut collection of poetry, Talks Between My Pen and Muse, caught my attention and held it from the moment I first saw it. That a contemporary young poet acknowledged such a thing as a “Muse” was captivating in itself because it meant the poet was willing to let something other than ego-driven rage, lust, envy, or self-righteousness control completely the contents of her lines. It also meant she was attempting a partnership between classic notions of how poetry functions in the world and her own modern vision of it. My curiosity was stirred enough to place the title on my list of poetry books to read during National Poetry Month 2021 and I am glad I did.
This is a slim volume of 75 pages divided into 8 parts. Obviously, the sections themselves would have to be brief but the emotional intensity and aesthetic intentions come through with impressive power and precision. Unless there should be any confusion, the title of each section includes its definition. For the purposes of this review, I will leave readers to discover for themselves Cole’s preferred definitions but these are the headings (caps per original text): 1) MUSE; 2) RELATIONSHIP; 3) PITY PARTY; 4) SABOTAGE; 5) MISCONSTRUE; 6) FORGIVE/FORGIVENESS; 7) REBOOT; and SELF LOVE.
“Loving, Happy, Untamed, Passionate"
What I thought I might encounter with the first poem was either a dialogue between the poet’s pen and her muse and or a monologue from one pouring out grievances to the universe. Instead, the very first poem is titled “Stolen Muse.” There is no doubting the seriousness of this theft as Cole screams at the beginning:
Somebody call the cops!
My muse has been stolen
I repeat my muse has been stolen…
The pain of this crime is felt in each stanza as she dramatically describes the sleep deprivation and loss of creativity it has caused. Yet there is also gentle self-deprecating humor while observing:
I feel too normal
I need my abnormality back…
The depth of her need is amplified with the following simultaneously pleading and demanding lines:
I want it back the way it was taken
Opinionated, LOUD, wild, confused
Loving, happy, untamed, passionate
Smart enough, encouraging, kinda shy
Uncorrupted by the norms of society
Unpierced by the actions of my peers
AND ALL MINE
In the poems which flow immediately afterwards, titled “Nicking,” “Lost Scared Afraid,” and “My Muse,” the poet’s attachment to what most inspires her can be understood at different times in different ways. In one moment, it is an addiction of a healthy variety rather than a destructive one. In the next, it reads and feels a lot like a love affair brutally interrupted by the kind of heinous disregard which too often in our current over-technologized world leads to tragic consequences.
In the Tradition of Baring One’s Soul
The poems in the RELATIONSHIP section are as introspective and soulfully analytical as a reader might expect. But they also demonstrate Cole’s passion for language with titles like “Imbroglio” and “The Rage of Words.” The latter is particularly powerful for its depiction of language as a weapon in a battle between intimates. The quality of intimacy, in fact, is one of the stronger aspects of poetry throughout Talks Between My Pen and Muse. In poem after poem, it weaves back and forth between elements of trust and distrust, strength and fragility, condemnation and forgiveness, and love and risk.
The poems “Caged Bird” and “Caged Bird Freed” reinforce the perception of Cole as a writer with classic leanings. The titles’ obvious references to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy,” which provided Angelou with the title of her famous autobiography, place Cole within the tradition of soul-baring African-American literature without restricting her to it.
Instead of offering strategies for navigating the painful uncertainties of her personal journey, the Savannah, Georgia-born poet simply presents her own efforts at balancing them. In this way, she self-identifies with humanity as a whole rather than with a single segment of it. Near the end of the volume, she notes the following in a letter to herself:
I know you
From your favorite color
To your deepest secrets
From your untold feelings
To your wildest dreams
I care about
Your every word
There is a tremendous amount to appreciate in this first edition of Aurie Cole’s debut volume as her pen makes its free-styling way through shock and despair toward hope and self-determination. However, it has to be said as well that serious readers of poetry are likely to find a number of typographical errors distracting. These are understandable enough because talented young poets rarely receive the kind of publishing support which ensures the absence of such mistakes. (How many, after all, such as the celebrated Amanda Gorman are likely to receive an invitation to recite their poetry at a presidential inauguration and subsequently get Oprah Winfrey to write a foreword for their book, basically guaranteeing its status as a number 1 bestseller?)
Other critically-minded readers may question the absence of poems dealing with such timely issues as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, or Black Lives Matter. In a way, it may be argued that the more deeply personal writings inspired by the poet’s muse are a kind of response to these very concerns as they illustrate the power of sheltering within the integrity of one’s own sanity in a world knocked off balance by myriad forms of chaos. The important thing may be the knowledge that Talks Between My Pen and Muse is only a first important literary step for Aurie Cole and readers hopefully can look forward to many more writings from her pen and muse in the future.