Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The weird condition we'll call tradition - Peter Cole's The Invention of Influence

My schematism is still acting up, so I remain too sick to write about Matthew Arnold.

I am hardly well enough to write about Peter Cole’s poems, either.  Cole has become a major translator of Hebrew poetry, medieval to contemporary, none of which I have read.  His own poems, as I found them in The Invention of Influence (2014) , are full of Hebrew references as I know from their titles (“The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet”), explanatory notes:

The words in capital letters are the ten Kabbalistic sefirot, in ascending order.  The sefirot are expressions or even translations of divine influence into existence, refracted attributes that reflect human qualities and processes as well.  (119)

and on rare occasions, my own paltry knowledge.

But I do not know how much it matters.  We all like flowers.

Summer Syntax

Saxifrage, arabis, phlox;
lobelia, euphorbia, nasturtium;
coreopsis, guara, flax;
brunnera, salvia, rubrum;
delphinium, snapdragon, alyssum;
bacopa, yarrow, thyme;
viola, cress, chrysanthemum,
convolvulus and clematis that climb
over the flowering fescue,
the prairie mallow, and sage,
with Lucerne sisyrinchium to the rescue
of spirit surveying the cage
of its inching calibrations –
luring us out to stare
into this constellation’s
efflorescence as        everywhere.

This poem is hardly typical of Cole except in its clever rhymes, fondness for Latinate words, and plunge, at the end, into the infinite.  The gap before “everywhere” is in the poem.

More typical are poems about angels, or poems about 13th century Jewish poets from Spain, or poems about poems, which also includes the first two categories (“Angels are letters, says Abulafia”):

Borges likens his Aleph to Ezekiel’s
four-faced cherubs facing at once
every direction – something conceivable
as well in the circuits of a quatrain’s hunch.  (from “Actual Angels”)

A poem titled “On Coupling” is only partly about sex; it is of course in rhyming couplets, and is in part about rhyming couplets:

So it is that a coupling’s rhyme
threads us, sometimes, through the sublime

The center of the book is a 52-page poem in varied meters about Victor Tausk, an actual person, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who comes to a bad end, unable to shake off or cope with Freud’s powerful father-figure.  Tausk is tormented by the idea of originality:

I cannot bear
    not to have been
the first to have uttered
    a certain thing.  (57)

Freud is describing the psychology of the plagiarist, but also describing Tausk.  Or is this Tausk describing himself?  “Weird is the word that suited him,” says Freud (56).  This is certainly Tausk:

Gaps are opened
    within the real,
which echoes like doubt –
    or debts we feel
and may have forgotten
    returning as
the weird condition
    we’ll call tradition.

“The Invention of Influence: An Agon,” it is called.  The story of Tausk and Freud are mixed in with Jewish wisdom from the Sayings of the Fathers and other sources.  The poem is ambitious.  A strong Austrian strain runs through the poems alongside the Hebrew theme (see “Six Cheers for von Hofmannsthal”), which is what attracted me to the book, but now I wonder about his big translations, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (2012) and The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (2007), how much work they would require to enjoy.

Have I given the slightest since of what Peter Cole’s poems are like?

Either the world is coming together
or else the world is falling apart –
    here – now – along these letters,
    against the walls of every heart.  (from “Song of the Shattering Vessels”)


  1. I've been working my way through Cole's Things on Which I've Stumbled for about a year and a half now. The poems are often long and often filled with political and Jewish references. Even my Jewish husband is at a loss for what most of them are. It's hard going but the poems do tend to be ambitious and they are definitely interesting which is what has kept me reading. I hope you feel better soon, I am really looking forward to your post/s on Arnold :)

  2. Some of his poems are pretty tightly coded, aren't they? But we keep reading, we learn more, and things fall into place. Or don't. As if I need to understand everything.

    I've got to try his earlier books. The Invention of Influence is the work of a major poet, to the extent that such a creature can exist today.

    I may hook some of my "criticism as memoir" irritation to Arnold - you will recognize that.

  3. Not well? Well, please be well soon!

  4. Thank you! i was worried that my schematism was going to turn into full-bore rigorism, but I think I am getting better.