I first came to know Peter Cole as a matchless translator of Hebrew poetry, particularly of the warrior Shmuel HaNagid and the skeptical mystic Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Those translations were gathered in The Dream of the Poem, a superb volume presenting the Hebrew poetry of Spain from 950 to 1492, and followed by his equally impressive The Poetry of Kabbalah.
Cole’s original work achieved the strength of the translations with the publication of Things on Which I’ve Stumbled in 2008. His newest volume, The Invention of Influence, surpasses all previous Cole and confirms his standing as one of the most vital poets of his generation. In combination, the two books present a rare phenomenon in American poetry: maturation of individual stance and style through the prism of Hebrew and Arabic languages and literature.
With that transformation Cole has become one of the few American Jewish poets whose work is originally Jewish, a phrase in itself paradoxical. The only poet of my own generation who achieved an authentic Jewish voicing, John Hollander, had to overcome the early effect of Auden and a later agon with Stevens before he found a way to a Jewish idiom through his remarkable translation of Yiddish poetry: Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Yankev Glatshteyn, H. Leivick, and others.
At times Cole’s new poems remind me of elegant tonalities in Delmore Schwartz, a sad acquaintance of my youth, but Delmore worshipped (sometimes resentfully) at the shrine of T. S. Eliot, genteel anti-Semite and aggressive neo-Christian. And I suspect that only a high poetic decorum links Schwartz and Cole, who share the gift of almost never writing badly.
Peter Cole has become a writer in the Jewish wisdom tradition, building an open enclosure around a secularized scripture, which for him comprehends all of postexilic Jewish imaginative literature of the highest aesthetic and cognitive merit.
I turn to poems in The Invention of Influence, the long title poem in particular. Cole (a Nextbook press author) subtitles “The Invention of Influence” an “agon,” in the spirit of Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche, chronicling the Athenian struggles for the foremost place: in politics, thought, drama, victory odes, sports. But here the agon is the unequal contest between Sigmund Freud and his gifted disciple Victor Tausk, who killed himself after sending Freud a suicide note. Tausk, who was just forty, is remembered today as one of Lou Andreas-Salomé’s lovers, part of a famous cavalcade including the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps Nietzsche, and, had age not shielded him, Freud himself. Tausk deserves a more positive memory than that.
Respecting Tausk, and finding in his struggle with tradition and his fathers a vulnerability reminiscent of the situation of the poet—of all poets—Cole in “The Invention of Influence” nevertheless avoids evoking remorse in portraying an overdetermined instance of character becoming fate. Intricately counterpointing the Tausk–Freud saga is the Jewish wisdom tradition, stemming from Tanakh and Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers)—Hillel, Akiba, and the fierce Tarfon, whose ultimate saying both fortifies and admonishes: “It is not necessary for you to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it.”
Victor Tausk’s self-defeat fails the test of Rabbi Tarfon, but Akiba, for all his greatness, was not Sigmund Freud and scarcely was accepted by Tarfon as a brother and not at all as a father.
Cole’s version of Tausk’s catastrophe sees the brilliant forty-year-old as a son unable to escape his awe of the heroic precursor, Father Freud, but unwilling to give in to it either. Cole’s aesthetic and the ethos of Jewish wisdom fuse in a remarkably fresh balance of the joys and sorrows of the influence process. “Balance” is not quite the inevitable word: One would need the subtle dialectics of Moses Cordovero, the best speculative mind of Kabbalah, to encompass this venture of the Heimlich into the Unheimlich, Freud’s Uncanny or remarkably Jewish Sublime. It is, though, just this combination that runs through this strange and powerful poem.
For in Cole’s reseeing, one of the prime purposes of poetry is the formation and integration of a specifically Jewish self somehow centered upon translation, with that process reconceived in a sense both broad and cutting. Is this calling of an American Jewish poet (half of whose life is lived in Jerusalem on the Hebrew–Arabic divide) a new kind of aesthetic vocation? Our Father Freud fully expected to replace Judaism with psychoanalysis and the man Moses by the man Solomon Freud. On one level, Cole wonders if the American Jewish poetic quest can evade some affinities with the audacious Freudian project.
Franz Kafka brooded that he might have created a New Kabbalah but for the burgeoning of Zionism, and Kafka is to Jewish literature what Dante is to Catholicism or John Milton to Protestantism: the archetype of the Writer. No matter that Kafka was equivocal about Judaism until his final relationship with Dora Dymant, when he returned to the study of Hebrew and dreamed of emigrating to Palestine with Dora.
Peter Cole’s impulse in going to Zion was allied only in that he too sought a New Kabbalah. Myself a lifelong searcher for the Kabbalah of Harold Bloom, I have never found my sojourns in Israel useful for self-development, mostly because nobody in the Jewish state ever stops arguing or is silent enough to listen to anyone else. The Sublime exception was Gershom Scholem, too grand to argue, who greeted me genially as his “most surprising disciple” while saying of Kabbalah: “It’s a free country.” But then Scholem invariably spoke to me in the third person: “The opinion of so-and-so on this is such but Scholem always says” and the last word would follow. For me Scholem became Israel. Since he was a party of one, he represented only himself but that was more than enough. He taught me how to read Walt Whitman yet mystified me by affirming his trust in Yahweh.
Scholem also taught me the freedom of Kabbalah, a lesson reinforced by his great revisionist Moshe Idel. Peter Cole, though he never met Scholem, pursues that freedom in his poetry, which is profoundly informed by Kabbalah. Here is one of my favorites:
THE RELUCTANT KABBALIST’S SONNET
It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, . . .“the essence of speech.”
—Avraham Abulafia,“The Treasures of the Hidden Eden”
It’s hard to explain What was inside came
through what had been between, although it seems
that what had been within remained the same
Is that so hard to explain It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now … apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped across the lips of a dream
I would not have thought the sonnet could become a Kabbalistic form. Avraham Abulafia, court jester of Kabbalah, follows gematria, the mystical art of numerology, to declare “desire” the center of all speech acts. Cole, reluctantly yielding to overdetermination, finds himself besieged by what he has called “the mysteries of coupling and mediation, of the relation between surface and depth.” But that is the dark heart of Cordoveran Kabbalah, where the sefirot, or ten primary modes of being, subdivide into six behinot or “aspects” each, one face turned toward or against another, a more-than-Freudian vision of the intricacy of psychic life.
The center of Peter Cole’s exacting and often exhilarating poetic enterprise is the quest to transform seed-like words into “seams of being.” A lyric variation, “Song of the ShatteringVessels,” immediately precedes it:
Now the lovers’ mouths are open—
maybe the miracle’s about to start:
the world within us coming together
because all around us it’s falling apart.
Even as they speak, he wonders,
even as the fear departs:
Is that the world coming together?
Can they keep it from falling apart?
The grandest of Kabbalistic tropes, Isaac Luria’s shevirat ha-kelim (the Breaking of the Vessels), is refigured by Peter Cole as a lovers’ kiss, or conversation. But that is what he wants from poetry, “reclamation and extension, connection and intense reconfiguration.” That indeed also was the project of Lurianic Kabbalah, tikkun, or the mending both of the shattered kosmos and the wounded soul.
I recall writing somewhere, a long time ago, that prophetic Judaism (as I construe it) rejected the injustice of outwardness and called, with Jeremiah, for Torah to be inscribed within our inward parts. Cole, a strong poet, is kinder than that to outwardness, without which poetry becomes impossible. His marvelous hymn to outwardness, “What Is,” closes this volume. The poem chants farewell to my friend of more than thirty years, the late scholar of Andalusia, María Rosa Menocal, who taught at Yale and died in 2012, at the age of fifty-nine.
“What Is” follows the downward path of the ten Kabbalistic sefirot: Crown, Wisdom, Understanding, Grace, Judgment, Splendor, Triumph, Majesty, Foundation, Kingdom. I read it closely because it is the crown of this volume and Cole’s shrewdest adaptation of Kabbalah.
Perhaps Cole, only half-aware of her here, apprehends Emily Dickinson’s presence throughout all ten of his irregularly rhymed quatrains. A journey is enacted in “What Is,” the Death and the Lady courtship of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”
The journey is María Rosa’s away from the earthly paradise she only momentarily shared with her elegist. There is an intimation of Dante’s Matilda gathering flowers at the highest reach of the Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII, but the starker shadow is Dickinson’s poem no. 479, the likely source of Cole’s “and children at recess dart into rings.”
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
“What Is,” Cole’s poem-of-poems, also echoes Hart Crane’s masterful “Repose of Rivers” from White Buildings. “A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead,” Crane wrote, and that stately Andalusian dance appears in Cole as the sefirah Hod, Splendor or the Majesty of prophecy. Poetic fusion takes place here with a Kabbalistic verve, as it does in Dickinson and in Crane.
Standing back for perspective, “What Is” relies upon the sefirot not as difficult ornament but as composite trope for the loss of a beloved friend. And yet it is celebratory: Its prime fiction is to enshrine “An instant’s / happiness” in the company of the forever lost.
About forty years ago I composed a brief book called Kabbalah and Criticism. I recall saying that for me the sefirot are not images of the secret life of Yahweh. After all I do not like him, do not trust him and just want him to go away, but so strong a literary character will not.
The sefirot (I cannot speak for Cole, who has his mystical side) are for me a useful rhetoric, tropes constituting a truly critical response for the appreciation of poems. No active Kabbalist (we still have them) or scholar of Kabbalah would agree. Where are we to find the meaning of poems? My reply would be: “Wherever we can.” Nietzsche perhaps thought that all metaphor commenced in the desire to be elsewhere, to be different. For me the sefirot are paths to elsewhere—no more, no less.
Cole, primarily a poet and translator, though one with transcendental yearnings, might agree but only in part. My angels are all like Enoch, undying men and women, yet undying only in Walt Whitman’s sense: They will live on so long as they go on being remembered. Peter Cole’s angels, like Benjamin’s and Kafka’s, are figures for everything our impatience has forgotten:
Are angels evasions of actuality?
Bright denials of our mortality?
Or more like letters linking words
to worlds these heralds help us see?
Going on eighty-three I am wary of prophecies. Nothing is final. Cole may presage a new kind of American Jewish poet or he may prove a party of one. This is a book to which I will often return in my remaining years.
This essay appears as the introduction to The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole, published this month by New Directions. Copyright © 2014 by Harold Bloom.