—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.
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.
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were as out of step with the times as his poetry seemed to be, and the essay, rejected for publication, remained unpublished until after his death.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]
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.
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).
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 here. Haber 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.