Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Things on Which I've Stumbled

Peter Cole's Things on Which I've Stumbled presents to the reader explorations of spiritual activity in the state in which this activity normally occupies the believer, which is of an individual learning how to embrace their own attributes of confusion and ambiguity. Reading these poems one not imagines in the author a sense of guilt, or penitence necessarily, instead something more akin to reverence. Cole is a spiritual man, and takes his spirituality seriously. Yet the concepts he presents are universal; you can sit with these poems. They do not reveal “answers” but possibly hope to point to useful questions for seekers, and to life lived deeper than any question can ask for if it's asking for the floor on which all the table-legs are standing.

This work is an examination of the gaps of mystery that open up in the quest for a spiritual life, which the poet reminds us are useful to remember for their tension as well as their enjoyment. He personally writes from the nation of Israel, his life enmeshed in a region of the world that a media-saturated Western mind may have come to associate with dogmatism and all those really, really certain guys whose beliefs make the news. Cole is not as interested in these people, but more in his own relationship to God and how the vicissitudes of attempting to forge that relationship impact his other relationships, his work in poetics, and to the community in which he lives.

The poems keep a low profile and stay on the page, nestled. Most words are delicately put, contemplative - it's not a book that puts you at the edge of your seat, but you'll be glad. What is it that gives rise? What is meant by being? Cole asks. Styles vary: free verse, Sufi translations, rhymes that walk up to you slowly that you don't quite see until they say hello; then in part IV of the book there is a snapshot prose juxtaposed with the longer poem: “What Has Been Prepared”, which appears to be an investigation of judgments, ceremony-gone-wrong, distractions, aggravations. But are the distractions things that should be listened to more closely? Cole leaves all the doors open and suggests that they were either open already, or that there are no doors at all, just visions, movements, patterns, ornaments. These externals may become foci for study as a priority over personal motivations.

In his interview with Ben Lerner in BOMB magazine, Peter Cole had this to say about this piece:

... the subject is a kind of moral outrage in the face of destruction and desecration—of Palestinian society and culture, of (humanistic) Judaism, and of the land itself. “Anger management raised to the level of art” is how one poet-friend has characterized it. Sound and form are enlisted there, and listened to there, to help me make sense of a truly outrageous situation...

Total interview is available at this link:

There is a rich sestina on Palestine that uses the words Palestine, pain, hills, green, guests and land. There are poems looking into the results of applying words such as then and always to epiphanic moments, and what do these words mean for us? Such questions are at times valuable, since it can be deduced that the English language by itself may contribute to limitations in political or spiritual discourse. Cole is also an acclaimed translator, and ponders on the nagging effect of an asterisk and why he needs to physically return to “spiritual” locations at all.

And occasionally there is a dart thrown at the political body, such as “Israel Is”:

Israel is he, or she
who wrestles with God, call him what you will

not some goon (with a rabbi and gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.

Succinct, and can apply in more places than Israel alone. Israel - derived from yisreh – he wrestles, and El (God) as it is noted by the poet on page 99.

The Notes on Bewilderment show the unanswered prayers, the prayers never sent, the soul twisted in on itself. These are Anti-Psalms where glory doesn't arrive, but humor sometimes does:


He wanted to know how love was rewarded:
True love. That's easy, the lover replied.
the prize for that great desire comprises
the absence of any distinction between
the pain and pleasure one is accorded.

“Things on Which I've Stumbled” is the centerpiece poem in which Cole accounts a series of investigations and misunderstandings alongside a depiction of someone digging through archives, and some places that may be considered “garbage”, in search of beautiful clothing or jewelry – memories also as jewelry, friendship also as clothing. It's a highly personal piece yet no rectifying thought lingers except near the end, where he asks a philosophical question that has caused him to stumble before– tell me what man the end notes he relates how the poem was composed of scraps from 11th and 12th century poets he discovered at Cambridge, kept in the geniza at Cairo. (A geniza, the notes tell us, is a store-room for Hebrew texts that are too worn to be read)

There is a bookend in the presentation – the two poems at the beginning and end have a more declarative certainty while grasping the meat of the book like two hands embracing a friend by the shoulders. The first piece is “Interpretation on Lines by Isaac the Blind,” who reveals himself to be quite the seer -endnotes tell us he was a 13th century kabbalist. Then there's the final poem, “The Ghazal of What Hurt,” which gives us an image of a person, previously injured, walking with utter health in a familiar street with acquaintances. They don't have roller-coasters in Jerusalem, so a jaunt like this may be one of the more joyous experiences one could have in public there. It shines.

Here is a piece I liked that used the word their effectively (who-? not sure what's going on, but it's lovely), also noting the repeated 'd' sounds that stop at a kind of period – at any rate – then the use of the 's' and the unexpected rhyme then opens into a wider space. The writer here does, as he often does in this work, easily move from the internal to the external.

And So the Skin...

And so their pounded hearts
were worn -
like a badge
or talisman that canceled
almost all their blindness-

creation's linkage depending
on a drive itself
derived from a kind of kindness
or desperation, the sense that one's
at any rate

the space for time-

water has it, flowing
(even from a faucet...)
and here the black swan glides across it

as the sunlight's suddenly on my back,
and now the skin along it's warmer,
which lets me walk by the river...

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