On Creatively Misreading Peter Cole’s The Invention of Influence

Invention_of_Influence_300_448. . . thinking we know where we’re going and then
getting somewhere, despite our intention.

—Peter Cole, from Actual Angels

I was tempted into reading poet Peter Cole’s book, The Invention of Influence, by a review in Jacket2.  From the get-go, the signs augured that I’d be in well over my head. Cole is, among other things, “a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetries, modern and medieval” [Jacket 2], about which I know nothing. But I was intrigued by the idea that his work with translation so powerfully informed his poetry—that Cole was, in this sense among others, a Pasternakian sponge:

[Cole] practices writing as a form of translation, as a “being between” fixed places, with the poet as a transponder, not an orator, a conduit, not a usurper.” [Jacket 2]

I don’t have “proper” receptors for understanding this book of poems, but I’m attracted by its ideas and methods and impelled to attempt to “make it mine.” Here are three examples of my admittedly peculiar process.

On Finishing

Even a two-line poem like Cole’s On Finishing is fully loaded with “between-ness.”

The sober Saba isn’t diminished
by noting his poems are never finished.

Cole is a generous guide. He offers notes for many of the poems, including this one, in which he advises that “Saba” refers to the Italian poet Umberto Saba. A trip to Google would have yielded this, but I appreciated not having to leave the printed page right then.

Umberto Saba and Pet Bird

Umberto Saba and Pet Bird

Of course, in the end I wanted to look further. Saba first published his masterwork, Il Canzoniere (Songbook), in 1921. For the next fifty years, he added new volumes of poems, swelling Il Canzoniere’s size to more than 400 poems in all. Early in his poetic career, Saba wrote an essay, What Remains for Poets to Do. His poetics were as out of step with the times as his poetry seemed to be, and the essay, rejected for publication, remained unpublished until after his death. In the essay, he wrote of poetry and originality, turning the idea of originality on its head:

Although to be original and to discover one’s true self are equivalent terms, whoever does not recognize that in practice the first is the effect and the second the cause, and who begins not from the need to know himself but from an unchecked desire for originality as a result of which he cannot resign himself to say what others have said even when it is necessary, will never discover his true nature and never say anything unexpected. [Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan, 527]

The longest poem in Cole’s collection, The Invention of Influence: An Agon, explores originality and influence through the prism of Victor Tausk’s tragic relationship with Sigmund Freud.

Invention isn’t god-like:
     it doesn’t create out of nothing.
It works through what’s found: it discovers,
     and much like influence, it recovers

a charge that’s already there,
     potentially, in the air.

Saba thus, in the two lines allotted him in On Finishing, presages “between” the lines a central theme of the disturbing poem at the heart of Cole’s book.

Song of the Shattering Vessels

Cole’s note for his poem, Song of the Shattering Vessels, refers to the Kabbalistic creation myth. According to the myth (as best I can glean), God filled the universe and had to draw in his breath to make room for creation to occur. God then created ten vessels and filled them with primordial light. The light was so huge that many of the vessels shattered, scattering entrapped sparks of light. Humanity is charged with gathering up the scattered shards to repair the broken world.

My closest association to the Kabbalah creation myth is Jean Sibelius’s setting of Luonnotar, based on the Finnish Kalevala’s creation myth. As the story goes, Luonnotar (the Water-Mother) descended to the sea. A duck mistook Luonnotar’s knee for an island, built a nest on it, and laid its eggs. When Luonnotar shifted her position, the duck eggs spilled out and shattered. All was not lost, for the bits of egg and shell formed up into earth, sun, moon, stars, and clouds.

That, in turn, reminded me of Sibelius’s diary entry while working on his Fifth Symphony:

The arrangement, make-up and grouping of the themes: with all its mystery and fascination this is the important thing. It is as if God the Father had thrown down mosaic pieces from the floor of the heavens and asked me to put them back as they were. [Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius Volume III: 1914-1957 Loc 460]

Though the associations I’ve drawn are surely not what Cole intended, the poem gains in richness for me when I add layers of reference I can call my own. A strange progression emerges: In the Luonnotar myth, accidental breakage forms up into a universe without human intervention. In the Kabbalah myth, the shattering is likewise accidental, but human intervention is required to repair the world. Then there is Sibelius’s God, who has intentionally thrown shards to the ground that Sibelius must now reassemble to make a whole.

The several stanzas of Song of the Shattering Vessels also work a progression: Cole rotates “coming together” and “falling apart” on their axes, examining different facets as he goes. The poem begins in conjecture (“Either the world is coming together/or else the world is falling apart—) and observation:

Today, tomorrow, within its weather,
the end or beginning’s about to start—
     the world impossibly coming together
     or very possibly falling apart

Human response and intervention are slowly introduced, until, by the penultimate stanza, “we” must act—albeit counter-intuitively—to repair the world:

That’s the nightmare, that’s the terror,
that’s the Isaac of this art—
     which sees that the world might come together
     if only we’re willing to take it apart.

In the final stanza, Cole takes not just a step, but a leap, into the darkness of “knowing’s falling apart”:

The dream, the lure, isn’t an answer
that might be plotted along some chart—
     as we know the world that’s coming together
     within our knowing’s falling apart.

Those last two lines, especially, remind me of the way poet Susan Howe deconstructs early American narratives, rediscovering their essence to recreate lost worlds. I’m also reminded of lines from John Ashbery’s And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name:

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate  
Something between breaths, if only for the sake  
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone. 

Undoing, shattering, falling apart—all are essential to rediscover, to repair, to reconstruct, to recreate “the world.” Yet implicit in the poem’s mode is the suggestion that the process is not finite, but rather that one set of processes (falling part) resides inside and in tandem with the other (coming together). Understanding may begin, yet in doing so, shall be undone, and the cycle begins again.

Notes from An Essay on the Uncanny (for Kenneth Gross)

Cole’s note to the poem Notes from An Essay on the Uncanny states “Inspired by Kenneth Gross’s Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life,” and we are off on the many-branching paths of the poem, both in and “between” the lines on the page. I’ve not (yet) read* Gross’s book, but John Rockwell, in his review for the New York Times, offers this encomium:

It’s a summation of what Gross calls the “vast literature” about puppets, yet never didactic or preachy. It makes arguments and tells stories about wildly diverse puppet traditions, but it can also be dipped into like a book of poetry, savored for its lapidary insights on every page.

Cole’s poem begins with the couplet:

The puppets guide our souls through The Dance.
Strange how jerks can hold us in a trance.

Already, Cole works a reversal: While the marionettist may be “jerking” the puppet’s strings, the puppets, not the marionettists, “guide our souls.”

The book’s subtitle, An Essay on Uncanny Life, relates to Freud’s essay The Uncanny. Freud’s definition of the uncanny, according to one source, is “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar.” In his poem, however, Cole seems to posit both at once.

He’s one with its syntax, again in a mask,
driven by the pulse of another’s poem—
odd how this being afloat in the foreign
is the closest he’ll come to being at home.

It is this “between” state that is most fertile, not the perfection of a beginning or the perfection of an end. It’s not originality—not freedom from influence—but the sponge-like absorption of influence, that offers an occasion for a new making, a new elaboration, a new translation of what is there.

Cole begins his poem, The Perfect State, with these lines:

The perfect state of being human isn’t perfection,
it’s becoming, the Greeks say, ever more real
in nearing but never quite reaching a certain ideal,
like translation. It’s deficient. A chronic affection.

. . . which reminds me of Anne Carson, who wrote in Autobiography of Red:

. . . the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.

. . . and of Wallace Stevens, who wrote, in The Poems of Our Climate, “The imperfect is our paradise.

And so it is.


*Postscript: I have now read Kenneth Gross’s book, Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life. It’s a remarkable meditation: he comes at his subject from every conceivable angle in evocative prose. Here’s an excerpt from his chapter on hand puppets:

If hands are a language and a voice, they are also a body, a face; they provide a passageway for an entire world of relation to be made visible, put into motion, organized, and shaped, means for touching and grasping that world, inviting and doing violence to it. The hand creates and is itself a created thing. [Gross 52]

Listening List:

On Spotify: As part of its CONTACT! series, the New York Philharmonic recently offered a program of “New Music from Israel.” The Spotify selections are by composers Josef Bardanashvili, Avner Dorman, Yotam Haber, and Shulamit Ran, works by each of whom were featured in that concert. With the exception of Ran’s Mirage, the works on Spotify are not those performed in the concert. For more about the concert, read Allan Kozinn’s review in the New York Classical Review here. The Dorman piece on the Spotify listening list is included on Hilary Hahn’s prize-winning CD, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. Espresso is the piece that introduced me to Yotam Haber’s work, in 2010, through Orpheus’s Project 440.

On YouTube:

Josef Bardanashvili: Symphony No 3 ”Bameh Madlikin”

Georgian-born composer Bardanashvili moved to Israel in 1995. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned his Symphony No 3,”Bameh Madlikin” (With what do we light) (2006).

Note on ”Bameh Madlikin”

It is customary on Friday night to read the Mishnah Bameh Madlikin, the second chapter of tractate Shabbat. This Mishnah enumerates those oils unsuitable for Sabbath lights as they are not drawn to the wick and do not light well. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) records a discussion regarding the identity of one of these ineligible oils — keek oil.

“Samuel said: I asked all of the seafarers, and they told me that there is a certain bird in the faraway towns overseas called a keek. Rabbi Isaac said: It is cottonseed oil. [Rabbi Shimon ben] Lakish said: It is oil from Jonah’s kikayon plant.”

According to Rav Kook, these three scholars were not just attempting to determine the identity of some obscure oil. Rather, they were discussing a far more significant question: What is the source of true happiness and success in life? This topic is integrally connected to the Sabbath since it is a day of introspection, a time when we are able to take a break from life’s hectic pace and examine our lives and our goals. The Sabbath candles in particular are a metaphor for spiritual illumination and shalom bayit, inner peace.

The various oils used to feed the lights symbolize different forms of wealth and success. Some oils burn more smoothly and produce a brighter light than others; so, too, some types of success generate greater inner joy and satisfaction. The Mishnah, then, is teaching us which goals are truly worthwhile — what is real success.

Yotam Haber: We Were All

Yotam Haber was born in The Netherlands and grew up in Israel, Nigeria, and Milwaukee. We Were All will appear on Haber’s debut album, Torus, performed by Contemporaneous. The album is scheduled for release in March, 2015.  To hear Contemporaneous’s performance, click hereHaber wrote,

The title of my piece comes from a poem called “cherries” by my friend Andrea Cohen . . . [the last lines of which are “We were all hungry. We were all fed.”] I only chose to set the last line for three of the musicians in the ensemble (who sing as well as play instruments!), because I am fascinated by what is left unsaid: what happens between being hungry and being fed? It is up to each reader, or in my case, listener, to decide.


Credits: The quotations are from the sources indicated in the post. All quotations to Cole’s poems may be found here. The image of the cover of Cole’s book is widely available. The image of Umberto Saba may be found here.

12 thoughts on “On Creatively Misreading Peter Cole’s The Invention of Influence

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    So many beautiful ideas sparkling here, Sue. Cole is now on my list of poets to read (I saw that he’s written about Joel Shapiro, a sculptor I love). I find the Kabbalah creation myth as you’ve described it fascinating. It reminds me of what Melville wrote in a letter to Hawthorne: “The Godhead is broken. We are the pieces.” In the Melville version humanity is not so much charged with the duty to gather the Whole Light (which I take to be a spiritual discipline for followers of the Kabbalah) as humanity is, in each individual, already a carrier of light, but only a piece of it and always incomplete. People only become complete by coming together (an idea one finds in Bataille, another writer I admire). This idea has always been connected in my mind to the uncanny, in those moments when writing I have the feeling of tapping into something far bigger than myself, when my “originality” is a consequence of having connected a certain series of dots–voices, ideas, points of light–already out there. It’s the feeling of having found something rather than having created something.

    The puppet throws another facet into this that somehow I don’t want to wrap my head around right now, except to mention that Heinrich Von Kleist’s puppet essay has an important place in my library. Let me get back to you on this aspect!

    I’ve followed most of your links but none of them sells me more on reading Cole than what you’ve written. Also–a poet I follow has been writing on similar themes. You may find his latest poem interesting:


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Sorry for the delay in getting back to you–I really love what you’ve added to this potpourri of a post. The Melville quote is wonderful, yet another vantage point on the “shattered vessel” idea. It’s interesting how many artists seem to have a version of this idea (including Anne Carson’s shaking the box). Your own formulation is particularly beautiful, and thank you so much for pointing me in the direction of Brendan’s poem, too. The idea of any given work of art as part of an ongoing conversation with other works and ideas I do find enormously appealing. Cole’s book seemed to me to teem with that in ways that inspire investigations in so many directions it would take me, anyway, several lifetimes, to follow them all. (The world of puppets, about which I’d never given a single thought, is just one huge example.)

  2. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue, thank you for such an eloborate analysis! I grinned a bit about “he comes at his subject from every conceivable angle” in your Post script – how come I thought of you and him as ‘brothers-in-arms’? (I’m quoting Mark Knopfler). You made me curious about Saba, and then I thought: you, Sue, are doing just the same as in describing the 3 ways of the creation-process: you use mosaic stones or splinters or pieces of egg-shells to give us a picture of something important you discovered in those poems and Sibelius music.
    Thank you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: “Elaborate analysis” is Decidedly Diplomatic (you will recognize the distortion of a Pymian phrase, I think)! Of course I had no idea who Mark Knopfler was and had to look that up. I do love where you’ve taken the creation-process imagery, too: you’re right, and I didn’t realize it at all!

  3. Friko

    O dear, Susan, more names I don’t know and more people to explore. Have mercy!
    Why do you insist on making your excerpts so exquisitely tantalising that one cannot but become curious as to what there lies behind them and what the complete texts might reveal.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: As Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” I did find the Puppet book intriguing, not half because Gross was so, well, engrossed in his subject matter. BTW, Heinrich von Kleist’s (short) essay on puppets (which Mark noted) is here: http://www.southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm. I wonder whether you might ever have run across anything of his in your reading “travels.” I read that, today, he’s “regarded as one of the finest writers—playwright, philosopher, and novelist—in the German canon.” Sad back story, though, a glimpse of which is here: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/10/16/final-chapter./

  4. shoreacres

    Oh, dear. I’ve tried, Susan, but after three readings, word by word, I’m simply undone. I keep thinking, “It can’t be so complicated!” If only I could figure out what “it” is. Poetry? The act of creation? Knowing and unknowing? Construction, destruction and reconstruction? I feel as though I’ve lost my decoder ring.

    One line did make me laugh aloud, because of a double meaning Cole surely couldn’t have meant: “Strange how jerks can hold us in a trance.” There are more than a few jerks holding entire populations in a trance these days. But that’s a different issue!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Oh, you are game, to read this post not once but three times. I was undone just trying to write about this book, but I had to do it, as it was such a fascinating, if wild ride. Your reading of the “jerks” line seems wholly plausible to me, by-the-by. On other fronts, I want you to know that both me and Mom watched the Bernstein West Side Story video you noted on Friko’s post vis-a-vis “The Art of Conducting” post here, and we enjoyed every minute of it. (PS: at your “If only I could figure out what “it” is,” I laughed out loud–unstable pronouns are a favorite quest in discussions of Ashbery poems.)

  5. David N

    Still possibly finding you and your connections more intriguing than the poet. But the ideas in the ‘shattered vessels’ poem are chiming with the constant taking-apart and reassembling, dying to live again, of Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, which I’m finding a surprisingly serene and easy read. Even there, meaning sometimes slips away into the numinous, but I respect that.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: There are certainly an endless number of pathways and byways to follow upon reading Cole’s book. The “shattering vessel” myths and all their kin I found particularly enticing. I thought of you when off on another byway reading the “Puppet” book, as one of the things Gross explores is Don Quixotes’ attack on a puppet show. (Joseph and His Brothers is almost at the top of my “must read” pile, and I’m looking forward to that.)

      1. David N

        Falla made a very charming opera based on that vivid scene from Cervantes, Master Peter’s Puppet Show, which I haven’t seen live since Rattle included it in his London Sinfonietta ‘Beanfeast’ back in the mid 1980s. The first Mrs Rattle, Elise Ross, played the part of the Boy, if I remember rightly, when it should have been played by an ace treble.

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