Things on which I’ve Stumbled, Peter Cole, New Directions
The cover image of poet, translator and publisher Peter Cole’s third volume of verse, Things On Which I’ve Stumbled, a woodcut by Joel Shapiro entitled “5748,” anticipates the central poetic concerns of this erudite, politically charged, and often dazzling collection. “5748,” of course, refers to the Jewish calendar year (September 1987-1988) which commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, as well as the advent of the First Palestinian Intifada—the popular uprising against military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The woodcut itself, in its concatenation of blocky rectangles, evokes (at least to these eyes) both a broken swastika and a person mid-stumble. Such is the bifocality of Cole’s project—it is at once a dilatory celebration of the rich mystical and sensual traditions of Jewish life—which has survived despite a history of oppression and marginalization—and an unsparing look at the politics of Israel/Palestine. In this way, Cole’s work offers us nothing less than a poetics of coexistence, in a time when a future of coexistence seems more distant than ever, and never more necessary.
Cole’s Things announces the valor of human stumbling—both “stumbling upon” things (in the title poem’s discovery of an 11th century genizah, a repository of supposedly worthless Hebrew poems and documents) and “stumbling over” the real, that which cannot be denied—whether the political realities of Israel/Palestine or the existential realities of human mortality. In an end note, Cole quotes from Bahir: “When a person accustoms himself to studying the Mystery of Creation…it is impossible that he not stumble. It is therefore written (Isaiah 3:6), ‘Let these ruins be under your hand’ [or ‘This stumbling block is under your hand’]. This refers to things that a person cannot grasp unless they cause him to stumble.”
Cole’s embrace of stumbling hails, in part, his longstanding devotion to the humble (and humbling) art of poetic translation, referenced literally in the opening of his poem, Bewilderment:
Translation aspires, clearly, beyond its words,
beyond what it renders, beyond even—if through—
sense, yielding, or wielding, blunders and wonder,
erasing our notion of a sacred uniqueness
(the original), as incarnation of what it heard.
Cole’s poetics of translation, thus “erasing our notion of a sacred uniqueness,” proffers a model of writing and being that de-fetishizes both text and identity, and celebrates the performative and mystical alchemies of writing-as-transformation. Such a stance makes poetic what has been Cole’s practice for many years as a translator. It is in his translations of Israeli and Palestinian poets such as the provocative Aharon Shabtai (J’Accuse) and the plaintive Taha Muhammad Ali (So What) that Cole has become a pivotal mediating figure between Israeli and Palestinian poets, and between the literature of the Middle East and readers of English. Recipient of the MacArthur Foundation (“Genius”) Fellowship in 2007, Cole extended his cultural influence by co-founding Ibis Editions in 1998 with his wife, the writer Adina Hoffman; Ibis Editions publishes literature of the Levant and focuses on the “cultural cross-fertilization that characterizes the best writing from the Levant,” thus promoting both cultural understanding and a new way of envisioning a subjectivity not limited to tribe or state.
Cole’s vigorous engagement with the conflict occurs in the middle of the book, in a selection of poems that meditate on the need for a poetics of coexistence (The Ghazal of What He Sees, and Coexistence: A Lost and Almost Found Poem) the shared claims for the land (Palestine: A Sestina), and critiques of radical fundamentalist forms of Judaism—seen viscerally in this angry piece, Israel Is:
Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God—call him what you will,
not some goon (with a rabbi and a gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.
In Daisy Fried’s words from her review for the Poetry Foundation, “Certainly if poets were the acknowledged legislators of the world, AIPAC [American Israeli Public Affairs Committee] would have sicced itself on him long since.” Such a minor provocation is not necessarily a disavowal of political Zionism, just its extremist manifestations. In the wider landscape of the book, then, Cole’s poetry offers itself as a return to the mystical and ethically transformative aspects of Jewishness, away from rigid political messianism. Cole’s more intriguing and complex political poems turn their attention, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, to the failures of the nation to answer its own rigorous ethical traditions by its creation of separation walls, limiting Palestinian movement, and detaining without charge in the West Bank and Gaza. Coexistence, for example, juxtaposes couplets describing Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and refrains from Deuteronomy:
Over the border the barrier winds,
devouring orchards of various kinds.
Cursed be he that taketh away
the landmark of his neighbor.
And all the people shall say, Amen.
The road was blocked in a battle of wills—
as the lame and sightless trudged through the hills.
Cursed be he that maketh the blind
to go astray in the way.
And all the people shall say, Amen…
In such moments, Cole’s work echoes his translations of the firebrand Aharon Shabtai, whose gadfly rhymes harry and provoke.
One of the remarkable discoveries in Things, for those of us who know only his translations, is that Cole’s own poetry is driven by a pulsing formalism—not only in the taut meters and insistent rhymes, but also in the tendency toward received forms: the villanelle, ghazal, sonnets, sestinas. Though he occasionally lapses into abstractions—as Fried noted, “his embrace of abstraction…can make the eyes cross, at least out of context”—his willingness to “stumble” both into philosophically “abstract” and politically incendiary terrain make him an unusual and courageous contemporary poet. What Fried does not account for completely is the way in which such “abstractions” are, in a very real way, translations of the mystical poetic traditions of Judaism and Islam into a contemporary American vernacular—which, by its very essence, resists such flights. Poems that reference or gloss such traditions include Sufi Abstracts (thus announcing his embrace of the abstract!), Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind, Proverbial Drawing, and the long poem, What Has Been Prepared. At times, Cole’s mystical impulse is trumped by the physical, when we compare, for instance, The Ghazal of What He Sees against the dynamic and gorgeous final poem, The Ghazal of What Hurt—but Cole wants to suture both of these impulses into a larger repository of traces, of ways of being. In the Ghazal of What Hurt, both an existential poem and a political poem with resonances for Israel/Palestine, Cole makes momentary peace with the magnitude of historical forces and poetical forms with which he wrestles. The poem ends by noting how suffering changes us, but does not last forever:
making you wonder: Are you what you are—
with all that isn’t actually having flowed
through and settled in you, and made you what you are?
The pain was never replaced, nor was it quite erased.
It’s memory now—so you know just how lucky you are.
You didn’t always. Were you then? And where’s the fear?
Inside your words, like an engine? The car you are?!
Face it, friend, you most exist when you’re driven
away, or on—by forms and forces greater than you are.
Philip Metres is the author of five books and two chapbooks, including To See the Earth (2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (2007). He teaches atin