Distant Lovers

In Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022,1 contemporary poet Henri Cole employs the sonnet to examine his turbulent romances.  Cole’s sonnets demonstrate fresh, innovative poetic expression. But Cole appears blissfully unaware that his poems are making eyes at some of the earliest male Italian sonnet writers who, like Cole, celebrated or bemoaned their adored, absent or cruel male lovers in sonnets. The common themes that bind these poems--penned hundreds of years apart--underscore the sonnet’s resilience as a contrived literary safe-space in which to express the full scope of human experience, including romantic and social conflicts within and about non-heterosexual love.  Reading Cole’s sonnets in the context of their medieval Italian counterparts provides a timely reminder that the quest for love, regardless of sexual identity or sexuality, is itself timeless.

One reason Cole’s love-sonnets resonate with twenty-first century readers is his rejection of the romantic drivel dominating the Edwardian-era sonnets many of us dreaded in high school English class. College literature courses add Dante/Beatrice and Petrarch/Laura to our sonnet associations, piling on the impression that old sonnets are overblown, treacly doilies of the roses-are-red variety. By contrast, new sonnets are portrayed, to use Cole’s erotic phrase it, as lean and muscular, a venue to be “socialized” even where the poet’s message is “eccentric or unethical.”2 The development of “American” sonnets like those of Wanda Coleman, and newer works like Diane Seuss’s unrhymed, unrhythmic frank:sonnets3 reinforces the English Lit 101 illusion that old sonnets are all crumbling lace and cobwebs, requiring brave new poets to dynamite the dominant paradigm in order to write about things other than male pursuit of an idealized female love object.

Digging back past Shakespeare and beyond the sonnets typically included in school anthologies, however, exposes archaeological literary layers holding brilliant gems in every shade and texture imaginable. Turning to original texts, or, for readers in English, translation volumes like Rinaldina Russell’s thorough Sonnet: The Very Rich and Varied World of the Italian Sonnet4, reveals that the earliest Italian sonnet writers often sound remarkably like Cole, using a surprisingly modern aesthetic to address issues like political strife, precarious finances, dysfunctional families, complex relationships and sexual identity. Literary gatekeepers have long presented a skewed and heavily edited picture of the deep, powerful and prescient roots of the sonnet, opting to include selections containing the “fluff” of courtly love while paring away grittier subjects.

In Gravity and Center, Cole’s love sonnets are built on a foundational emotional theme of disconnection and distance. His search for romantic and sexual peace is expressed through the juxtaposition of the erotic with violence or disturbing behavior. Cole describes heavy Peonies, flattened by a heavy rain, as:


Ample creamy heads beaten down vulgarly,
as if by some deeply sad-masochistic impulse,
like the desire to subdue, which is normal and active,
and the desire for suffering, which is not...5


Cole also embraces gentler, more classical floral imagery to describe a wistful parting from his lover in Fish and Watergrass:


My heart and my body were separate,
                                    Who were you
that even now all of me is in tatters,
aching to touch your face floating in a dream,
defining itself, like a large white
flower, by separation from me?6


Seven hundred years earlier, Cecco Nuccoli (1290-1350), a lawyer from Perugia--a small city in central Italy--turned to floral imagery in a beautiful sonnet bemoaning the absence of his lover, Trebaldino Manfredini, Ramo fiorito, el di ch’io non te veggio:


Flowery bough, the day I do not see you
my quiet heart is pierced through by pain,
and my mind, bewildered, turns obsessively
to Love...7     


Nuccoli uses “flowery bough” as a senhal (stand-in) for his lover, one which demonstrates layers of poetic craft: Ramo, the Italian word for branch, is an anagram of amor, or love; and the image of a bough, rather than fragile cut blossoms, is a decidedly male sexual reference. Unlike the aggressively male sexual suggestiveness of Cole’s beaten-down peony heads, Nuccoli’s flowery bough is gently, timelessly, achingly romantic.  While schoolbook poetic conventions associate flowers with female fragility, both Nuccoli and Cole have engaged these emotional images within sonnets to reflect the power and grace of romantic relationships between men.

When Cecco Nuccoli was stuck far from Perugia on business which kept him from his lover, he penned the postcard sonnet El mi rincresce si lo star di fuore, referring to Manfredini as “Tristan,” from Tristan and Isolde:


I loathe so much being outside the walls
of the town that in all good things abounds,
that with Tristan I would be ready to joust,
just to see the lovely eyes, as dark as berries,
of that little thief who stole my heart
and holds it prisoner without narrow fences;
and I am quite certain that a lot will cost me
before I’ll be able to draw it out of prison.8


Nuccoli, a prominent attorney-businessman of the early 1300s, openly penned love sonnets to his handsome male lover with lovely eyes as dark as berries. Words like “joust”--a jocular reference to sex between men—render the nature of their relationship obvious. But beyond the jocularity lies the suggestion of a shadow: the poet’s heart is help prisoner in a narrow space, and the cost of that love will indeed be high. This could simply be a continued jesting reference to the hold one lover has over the other in a young and passionate relationship. But it more likely alludes to the more bitter predicament of men in love with one another in a time and place where revealing that love could well be costly.

In Gravity and Center, Cole writes that his ability to express love is similarly entrapped in a small space:


I’m sorry I cannot say I love you when you say
you love me. The words, like moist fingers,
appear before me full of promise but then run away
to a narrow black room that is always dark,
where they are silent, elegant, like antique gold,
devouring the thing I feel. ...9


This sonnet is also full of sexually suggestive implications, but much like Nuccoli’s heart held prisoner in a narrow space between fences, Cole’s ability to express his love is entrapped in a narrow black room.  Nuccoli invokes the high cost such love can extract, bringing the cold walls of a prison into the much-missed bedroom of his imagination; Cole’s narrow black room chillingly insinuates a coffin poised to seize him should he vocalize the emotion behind those moist fingers and full promises. Both poets, speaking within the prescribed lines of their sonnets, pour forth a deep wellspring of love and passion, yet a dark constraint of difficulty, disdain, or even death lurks behind their love for both of them.

Centuries apart, Nuccoli and Cole are each taunted by lovers who treat them cruelly. In Resistance, Cole writes:


I liked the sound of someone else breathing.
I wanted to know what it felt like, eating honey
like a wasp. “Loser old man u r a cheap cunt,”
he wrote. “I need coke. Unless ur buying,
answer is no.” Now the whole insane,
undignified attempt at loving him is over,
the horrible sticky body that was mine
is mahogany in daylight. ...10


Seven hundred years earlier, Nuccoli seems to have been dating the same emotionally abusive man. In Ogni pensier, ch’i’ho in te, se dispera, Nuccoli writes:


Every thought of you drives me to distraction,
ever since you became cruelty incarnate;
If you remember my greeting you that night,
when you answered, “Go, go off, drop dead!”
now I regret again and again my loving you...11


Clearly the course of love did not run smoothly, both in the 1300s and today. And where that love is between two men, the ability to find comfort and support can be all the more difficult. Marino Ceccoli, another Perugian lawyer and contemporary of Nuccoli, expresses the anguish and unique isolation felt by a man jilted by a male lover in his sonnet Poi che senza pietà da te m’escacce:


Since you push me away from you so cruelly,
at least tell me, sir, which path I ought to take,
for I don’t know where I am and where I am to go,
while I would rather die in your arms contentedly.
If I have run away from you, disconsolate,
if you cast me off among the jilted lovers,
who have no hope, where am I to find support?12


Cole, anticipating a break-up with his amphetamine-fueled lover in Self-Portrait with an Addict, phrases the sensation more ironically:


Tell me, my love, marching forward,
how will I bear the mighty freedom?


Ceccoli and Cole both anticipate with dread the aloneness to follow the coming end of their relationships. Ceccoli expresses his sorrow and emptiness in terms of looking for support, a term which sounds quite modern. Yet the plaintive cry--where am I to find support?--also reflects the fact that Ceccoli’s the end of Ceccoli’s relationship with his lover was likely not something which could be openly discussed.

Cole embraces a brave stoicism, wrapped in patriotic, male-leaning imagery of marching forward and mighty freedom. The implication is that a man should be able to maintain his stride and use the time which had been frivoled away on a lover for more productive or creative purposes, to “do whatever you want.” Yet the emotional effect is the same as that in Ceccoli’s sonnet: where does a man put the grief and heartache of any failed relationship, but especially a failed relationship with another man, within the context of a society that has certain expectations of masculine emotional behavior?

Separation--emotional and physical--dominates Cole’s characterizations of his intimate relationships even when delving into passionate embraces. In Blur 2, Cole describes the act of sex with his lover as a strong sad ritual between us13. And in Homosexuality, Cole describes a domestic scene (getting up in the middle of the night to free a duck which had become trapped in the chimney) as an odd metaphorical rendering of sex (“the round bill, like a bud” of the duck’s head jammed tight in the dark narrow space)14. In both cases, the effect is to invite the reader to witness the erotic scene through an arms-length, quirky, dispassionate lens.

Ceccoli also waxes dispassionately as he ponders the relationship between reason and romance in Come per’giaccio, fòre andando, sdruce:


As ice liquifies when it is exposed to air,
our intellect perishes when obsessively fixed
on that accident that forces the soul to yield
tears, laughter, and other unusual feelings;
because, turning us into something contrary
to our nature, our rational faculty is impaired.15


Love makes us crazy, Ceccoli is saying; we can not think straight when we are in an emotional state. Yet one has to wonder whether Ceccoli was thinking of the intellect yielding to any emotions whatsoever, or more specifically to the state of being a man attracted to other men, when he characterized emotions as unusual feelings....contrary to our nature. Surely many a lover, in either heterosexual or homosexual relationships, has realized that their rational faculty is impaired as they try to think clearly while overwhelmed with obsession for their belovèd. But given the social pressures of the era--social pressures which, horribly, continue unabated in some corners of society today--it is heart-wrenching but necessary to consider whether Ceccoli’s sonnet was expressing his view that his sexual identity was an accident that forces the soul to yield.

Two hundred years after Ceccoli’s writing, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), twice jailed for homosexuality in his native Florence, Italy, turned to the sonnet to descry society’s view of his sexuality in Porca Fortuna s’tu scoprivi prima:


Luck, you bitch, you should have discovered
much earlier that I also enjoy the Ganymede!
Now I am a well-known lecher, as all can tell,
and you did not get any rich spoils from me!
You are blind, and I no longer hold you in good esteem.16


From Perugia in the 1300s, where a salon of gay lawyer and businessmen poets like Nuccoli and Ciccoli wrote sonnets to their lovers while maintaining their prominent positions in society, to Florence in the 1500s where Cellini was repeatedly thrown in prison, societal views against homosexuality had clearly taken a constricting turn. Yet Cellini still wrote his sonnets, which not only circulated publicly but survived to the present day. One can only assume that many dozens more were written and lost in history’s purging flames.

Writing five hundred years after Cellini, Henri Cole, along with many other poets, wrestles with the poetic expression of identity and sexuality, and turns to the sonnet as the method by which to do so. In Peonies, the opening lines of which were referenced above, Cole writes:


and deeper in, tight little buds that seem to blush
from the pleasure they take in being submissive,
because absolute humility in the face of cruelty
is the Passive’s way of becoming himself;
the groan of it all, like a penetrated body--
those of us who hear it know the feeling.17


These lines are at once highly sexual, and highly political. Absolute humility in the face of cruelty can at one level describe the submissive partner of a certain type of sexual encounter, but it can also be read as describing the role frequently played by gay men to stay unnoticed by disapproving eyes throughout the ages. The sonnet, then, may be the literary translation of that groan, the poet’s way of becoming himself, and all who read it will know the feeling.

The sonnet not only endures as a poetical architecture; it endures as a safe room in which to live the human experience. Sonnet-writers since the duecento use the sonnet to express the full range of life’s events and emotions, from poverty and political strife to dysfunctional families and the broad spectrum of sexuality and identity. Contemporary sonnets like those of Henri Cole are new in the sense of looser structure and modern vernacular, yet they remain part of the ongoing continuum of classical literary expression of our collective humanity.


1 Cole, Henri. Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 (Farrar Straus Giroux 2023).

2 Cole, p. 164.

3 Seuss, Diane. frank:sonnets. Graywolf Press, 2020.

4 Archway Publishing, 2017. Translations by Rinaldina Russell.

5 Cole, p. 10.

6 Cole, p. 35.

7 Russell, Rinaldina. Sonnet: The Very Rich and Varied World of the Italian Sonnet. Archway Publishing, 2017. Translations by Rinaldina Russell. Ramo fiorito, el di ch’io non te veggio is found at p. 120.

8 Russell, p.118.

9 Cole, p. 53.

10 Cole, p. 104.

11 Russell, p. 121.

12 Russell, p. 123.

13 Cole, p. 38.

14 Cole, p. 56.

15 Russell, p. 124.

16 Russell, p. 276.

17 Cole, p. 10.



Cindy Ellen Hill

Cindy Ellen Hill has authored two sonnet chapbooks, Wild Earth (Antrim Press 2021) and Elegy for the Trees (Kelsay Books 2022), and has two poetry collections forthcoming-- Mosaic: Poems and Essays from Travels in Italy (Wild Dog Press 2024), and  Love in a Time of Climate Change (Finishing Line Press 2025). Her poetry has been included in Treehouse Literary Review, Flint Hills Review, Anacapa Review, and The Lyric. Her essay on the sonnet volta recently appeared in American Poetry Review. Equity is everything: Cindy encourages your contributions to the Black Family Land Trust or the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, June 14, 2024 - 21:09