Conjunctions:23 New World Writing

From Speech’s Hedge Where the Honey
Peter Cole
Afterword by Eli Gottlieb
1. Speech’s Hedge

where the honeyed
         combs of light resolve

onto a couch’s blue upholstery,

    shifting with wind:

like spirit
    flinching in thinking

         as though in a gem,

or Byzantine dome,

but the onlooker backing off—unsure to his day.

And orange
                     slits of escape nasturtium
                        jutting his
             Persian wall of withdrawal.

Not images served,

     but shards of an image—
              breakage’s throne—

               text as homage,

recording the thrusts of linkage attempted,

          as place curiously home.

Nerve bridles
     before such a future floor

as though in the spooked
         childhood house

forever     on the wooded hill:

giving way to the story below
         and basement finds—

           the trap of stairs

            and libidinal
swill of spiral

or a corner turned

onto the
bevel of weakened roof

      forced by fear to climb—

for the forecast view to the jagged city,
      small       in the distant haze ...

      Hives of midday light

through a window’s invisible weave—

     and a barely registered

                     on the skin,

          lifting attention—




2. Lips for an Ethic

Idols that eyes
      model in mind
border a common space
      of sound,
   and the sound, in turn,
a feast where meaning roots
or lapses,
            lips for an ethic:

an offering of every man
   of willing heart,

   of beaten work—

for the light.

Make all things
the book of subsistence

in accordance

with the pattern shown you

whose ground was the ground
            dust of eaten gold

of beauty diffused through the dwelling

through clasps and loops of blue,
through cups and knops and buds,

the altar acacia covered
  with brass for the body
       and gold for the soul,
           to be borne by
     rings cut like a lentil
     (or food for a liver,

shame to them clinging like fat upon it,

and its lobes coiled
           like the serpent memory rides.


3. “So the Soul …

“… without extending and living in its object, is
dead within itself. An idle chaos of blind and confused powers.”

This was love in the day—

the eyes’ ray along
                an iron rail
    laced and white as the park
       brides in their hopes and veils

    guiding my climb through the air

             toward the bolted
                           double doors
                     and rooms below—

    Siennese, or like Escher
     —so as not to slip,
over the landscape of kingdom and savior—

of blood in the alleys and open sewers,
            of summer flies and trash,
        or Melville’s wash of bone—

        and hyssop fields overturned,

           or bulldozed
               groves of olive;

a fortress of knowledge and tact
        on a far off hill ...

        This was love
                     in the will,

      the eyes’ line along
                         an iron rail
        laced and white as the bride’s
           prospect and veil,

      guiding her climb through the air.


4. For One Who Would Fall

A prayer for reduction,

or release through the opulent vision
   of vermian scarlet and purple
         and insult blue:

      a sign

      to rinse him of signs

         or hollow a place in the day
            for mirrored sight to enter,
                and exit not as meaning
            but set against nothing seen

—by which the world is hung—

       in relief,
                       like a kite:

a seat of mercy, with hammered cherubim facing:

a prayer for construction—or recalibration

        —for one who would fall
                      from fealty to light.


8. The Music Room

Vaulted study arches,
   ersatz Spanish chairs,
         and drinks
on a brass tray cut with tracery,

talk like laying a tune on the air
of Gould’s contempt,
               latitude, career,

eyes catching
    the courtyard hibiscus,
          a square
where roses for the child were uprooted
                  and sand put in,
        comments on friends,
family and failures
        of nerve, the pauses

bent toward hope
    and loyalties evolved,
           giving out,
not in,
    discussing indulgences,

           virtue and applause,
the cowardly purist,
            the flexible hero

the tomb of reason
    and the graveyard of things:
splitting the hair and not finding a thread
   —response to the needs of the soul,
         so that I go blindly
                      as though pursuing
    the beauty of something before me
           but unclear—

    not to spotlight alternatives
but to resist by form alone the course of the world
         which permanently puts a pistol
                    to people’s heads.

              Better colorless than crude.

Where is my music, where—
    of Sion they used to sing—
         and how should one intone
in an alien land the sweetness of air?

Remembrance of what is good
     arose from the changes of things,
and I saw that the good which was past
      hadn’t been pleasure but pain—

    and things which were far away
      by dark for dread were sung.


11. (Tuning) Hooks

All the little
     links involved,
my non-existent
        psalter said—

all the little links involved
would rot away
           in precious time

and leave a taste
            in thinking’s air
      a shape impressed
      like loops and hooks

in precious time

and ingrown love

all the little
     links involved

like must on feeling’s tongue,

like must on feeling’s tongue.


12. The Poem Up There

“Ornament is nurse of pride.
Pleasure measure love’s delight.”
— Anonymous, in Dowland’s Songs or Airs

Nursing pride

in pride of place,

        a trope’s
loop of
central occasion—
(a slap in the face
      to patricians of theme
   and persuasion,

or civil (Horatian)


   the poem up there

   in the air of

      any beholder:

the painted vase
a useless favorite
    aunt bequeathed,

and not our cup
         of tea,

—her dominance—

defined our living
(warmest) room

in time,

   defines my life

with wife and loving

abstract lack and decor—

   not cure—

the offering of sweet
   savor exceeding prayer—

in the volume of splendor
I read)

   To forge links
          and make light,

   like Law,

   defines a practice.


20. Into Delphinium

A psychomachia
                          for mercurial things,

        for future affection and faith
in speech’s reflection of Eden’s bequeathal
         or reef-like thrust—

        which further a
                     soul’s landscape
        into delphiniums’
           white and blue through dusk,

        or black-eye’s
                      blue by night,

         by day on a bench
(by blankets of infant’s blue-eyed-leadwort backed)
              a man helping a
                 beaten-up beggar
                     with a sandwich
       under a Syrian pine        and scarlet
          woodpecker gash and black/

defining a slum’s

                  slow retrieval

    maybe to gentrification,

    like kindness weakening
              into a fear of its lack
         or possible rival,

against a thought in executive heads,
       and one’s own ear—

          was ex-post-human


Spirit War for Survival.



“No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine,” wrote Herman Melville on his trip there in 1857, “Particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart sickening …” The poetry of Peter Cole might be considered an elaborate marginalia to this diaristic comment of Melville’s, marginalia wherein optimistic disillusionment, or religious realism, takes shape.
      Following out a poetic hunch, Cole first went to Jerusalem in 1981, to study Hebrew. For the better part of the next seven years, he stayed there, while the bulk of Hebrew scripture and literature crashed full-tilt into the wealth of Western—and particularly Middle English—poetry already in his head. The encounter produced a buckling upward and within, and several years later his first book, 
Rift, a collection of planar asperities inscribed on the ground-zero of Judaism. Words in these poems were “denatured” of their habitual associations and raked up into vast lexical spires and belltowers that rang with a music new to American poetry—equal parts Louis Zukofsky, August Roebling and something else entirely. His project was abstract, even devotional by nature, yet the poems were starkly sensual. Both in its serial poems and the more traditional constructions, Rift worked the emotionally charged spaces of betweenness—those that elude us between Scripture and spokenness, loss and gift, eye and world.
      When he returned to America in 1988, Cole carried with him the Jerusalem landscape and a honed slant on Hebrew, and in the best Diasporic tradition, created a Sion of the mind, dispatching his thought and feeling all the way back to eleventh-century Spain, the golden age of Spanish Jewry under Moslem rule. It was in San Francisco that he began his project of translating, in the deepest sense of that fraught word, the poetry of Samuel Hanagid (993–1056 AD), a writer of notoriously knotty and glorious Hebrew, who has always loomed large as one of the great untranslatables. The resulting manuscript exhibited a kind of transhistorical perfect pitch, but it was an act of salvage as well, rescuing someone so intricately barnacled with the paraphernalia of Academe that he was in danger, in the various extant translations, of never being “seen” by readers of poetry again.
Speech’s Hedge, his latest book of poetry, bridges that project with his return to Jerusalem in 1992. Grounded in his immersion in medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetics, the poems have a newly relaxed amplitude, sounding within a wider range of variation. In the beautiful title poem sequence, short canto-like lyrics climb upwards along a fifty-page spiral armature, seamiessly conflating background and foreground, commentary and invocation, and producing a charmed relativity in the head of the reader, in which unlikely juxtapositions abound. In a conscious echo of the medieval Arabic tradition of inlay, quotations are laced throughout, from sources as disparate as Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, Arnold Schönberg and the eighth-century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas. The key issue of ornament is explored directly, and psychological sense is released into the figures of the work, spilled, reconciled and gathered back.

—Eli Gottlieb

Peter Cole’s most recent publications are Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and a chapbook, On Being Drawn: An Ekphrastic Translation, with Commentary (Cahier Editions/Sylph). He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.
Eli Gottlieb is a translator, writer, and the author of The Fad’s Eye and The Boy Who Went Away (St Martins Press).