Resistance as a Form of Embrace: A Review of Hymns and Qualms

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Hymns and Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations
By Peter Cole
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017, 336 pp, $30)

The title of Peter Cole’s excellent book of poems and translations, Hymns and Qualms, focuses the crux of his central concern, the religious poem, in its deliberately tethered chime: songs of Faith and Doubt. The collocation of Cole’s gifted calling. But the phrase may also serve as a poet-translator’s credo: nothing is fully rendered as it passes from the grammatical exigencies of one language to another. The translated hymns arrive with the translator’s qualms intact, and more effective for that searching register. Cole’s poems too, by his own admission, are works that often draw upon translation. Indeed the level of versification, and the intensity of his line by line inventiveness and musical variations, for the most part show no discernible difference in the high quality of both his poems and translations. Page by page one is convinced one is reading poetry by Peter Cole. Poems from the Classical Arabic, Sephardic Judaism, as well modern Palestinian and Israeli works, are all poems that Peter’s Cole’s voice has found a way to invest with the authority of someone who is intensely alive to his own language, but open to foreign

registers that are never beyond the intimate circumference of his hearing. Or, as one of his poems would have it: “as though living / itself were an endless translation.” Translation as reading us back to our translated selves, whoever that is, in the act of translation. Or in the way that what we read most deeply is what the deep subconscious of language holds in store for us, as depicted in Cole’s great poem on the tormented Viennese psychoanalyst Victor Tausk:

Freud said he could never be certain In view of his wide and early reading, Whether what seemed like a new creation Might not be the work instead Of hidden channels of memory leading Back to the notions of others absorbed, Coming now anew into form He’d almost known within him was growing. He called it (the ghost of a) cryptomnesia. So we own and owe what we know.

Peter Cole’s poems about the Palestinians on the West Bank are both heartfelt in their particulars and generalized in their use of an easily recognizable template. The template need not diminish the power of the poem; rather, it may serve to intensify the localized focus. I’d like to read one of Cole’s poems in the light of an early poem by Paul Muldoon, dating back to the seventies.


The Volkswagon parked in the gap, But gently ticking over. You wonder if it’s lovers And not men hurrying back Across two fields and a river.

Muldoon’s poem is a little engine of hushed terror. It vividly evokes the anticipatory panic in the breathless air during the era of the IRA bombings. In the “gap” between the borderlines of identity and dispossession, a Volkswagon is idling. (The “volk” is exacting: as if the poem were an updated brand of Irish folk song.) But Muldoon uses a term more suggestive of terminal impact, the perfectly calibrated “ticking.” And then again it is “gently” ticking, as the speaker “wonders” if there are lovers tenderly necking in the back seat of the car. Or is the scene a sinister harbinger of the mayhem the men “hurrying” back across a very particular landscape may have done, before they race off in their getaway vehicle? An all too familial horror, the outliers “hurrying back / Across two fields and a river.” The specificity of the description brings us back, in the assonance between “back” and the “gap” concluding line one. Line breaks and borderlines. Bewildered witness and unstated subliminal imploring. Out and out worry wondering its way into the interior of this jittery gem of a poem.

Here’s Cole’s poem in response to tribal violence, with its comparable force of concision:


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.

The “is” in the title of Peter Cole’s poem serves as both the opening syllable of Is-rael and reemerges on the other side of it, giving the poem a heightened sense of demarcation right from the get-go. The title is repeated in the first words of the poem: “Israel is.” It is and its is-ness goes all the way back to Jacob wrestling with the Angel. And the poem grapples with what Israel means in light of the West Bank and the outlandishly aggressive behavior of Zionist settlers. It is what it is, implies the poem’s level and leveling tone. I Am what I Am spoke Yahweh. “Call him what you will,” goes the vernacular diminution of Deuteronomy, which is both an acknowledgment of the opposing appellations for God in this place, as well as an indictment of abuse—the ease with which the land-grabbing claimant can draw on the sacred name through the use of a commonplace term in this hallowed place. As well as the unsettling way that the sound of “call it what you will” is conflated within “biblical hill.” So too, “call it what you will,” reverberates with “Israel”–as if that tentacular nexus of sound came up from the very ground of being: being there. And then there’s the grunting coupling of “goon” and “gun,” with its monosyllabic brute insistence. The “pre-fab” home built on claims as fabricated as the term is cruel in its off-handed casualness. “This is more / than your average Lord can stand,” as Cole sardonically and ruefully intones in “I Sing a Doubled Song.”

In Cole’s very moving sestina, “Palestine,” the view from the biblical hills is queried and quarried from both sides, but the expansive vista is no less painstakingly wrought:

“I have been made a stranger in my home by guests,” says Job, in a Hebrew that evolved along these hills, though he himself was foreign to them. His famous pain is also that of those who call the Promised Land home in another tongue. Could what was pledged be Palestine? Is scripture’s fence intended to guard this mountain’s green?

This is masterful in its beautifully measured, wary negotiation of stranger and guest, ancient text and modern predicament. The poem’s dilemma is enacted in the sestina form itself, the enforced repetition of end words both a form of strictly governed verse and a renewed insistence on the (linguistic) right of return. But the tension of this dilemma always runs up against the silence at the end of the lines, where the end words are set out like cairn stones:

guests / hills / pain / land / Palestine / green

In his illuminating prose selections from A Notebook for Poetry, Cole has fascinating things to say about the Book of Leviticus: “Leviticus is, seemingly, everything literature shouldn’t be: it’s legal rather than lyrical, technical and not dramatic, priestly instead of prophetic, and more bureaucratic than charismatic.” He goes on to explain the significance of Levitical sacrifice. “It entails dismemberment for the sake of remembrance…it gives us the visceral, cadenced, tactile record of the rite of mediation, of a mediacy that will yield the experience of immediacy…”

Cole’s rendering of a passage from Leviticus begin as follows:

He is human and so will be humbled He is flesh and so will fail He is bone and so will be broken He is blood and so will bleed He has cheated and so will be changed He has deceived and so will be drained He has mocked and so will be muddied He is hollow and so will howl He has sullied and so will sadden He is nothing and so will be naught

I cannot speak for the Hebrew text, but these lines in English indeed enact the “visceral, cadenced, tactile record of the rite” with genuine power, particularly in the relentlessness of their record of human limitations. The implacable authority of that “and so” after the caesura of every line is reinforced by the inventive way that Cole finds words in English that sound an antiphonal, off-rhyming counterpart, as in “human” and “humbled,” “nothing” and “naught.” And so that “and so” suggests that just-so-much language was meant to emerge viscerally out of the experience of simply being human, as well as out of the inevitable (I told you so) of our moral and mortal failure, and out of the resources of a tetrameter line with its even break in the center as inexorable as an equals sign:

He is hollow and so will howl

The second half of each line repeats its unstressed “will” as the will is broken. The repetition of “will” sounds a downbeat note of dead certainty, as stark as the writing on mortality’s wall. These powerful lines from Leviticus are reductively didactic, and their power is precisely in the pity they evince by their pitiless enactment of the grammar of fated occurrence.

In a very different register, consider these lines from Cole’s translation of a wisdom poem from Medieval Spain, “Heart’s Hollow”:

The servant, soon, will slaughter his master, the handmaidens turn on their mistress and queen; a daughter will rise—against her own mother, a son—against his father’s name. My eye in the world dismisses what others most love, and all is labor, a ploughing for worms. Slime— to slime returns. Soul—ascends to soul.

Here the more loosely structured didactic pattern, as against the emphatic formal conflation of the lines from Leviticus, although lacking the intensity of versification to move the threat of moral decline beyond the proverbial, endows the proverbial with a kind of obdurate stubborn integrity. Still, I have some reservations about the appositional lines using “Slime” and the “Soul.” They feel a bit flatly generalized in acquiescence to the Wisdom trope; the verbs “returns” and “ascends” are simply yoked together for meaning, and don’t play off each other in the musical way of making strange that the monosyllabic chime of “Slime” and “Soul” seem to call for, with their blatant capital letters. On the other hand the verse “and all is labor, a ploughing for worms” is sublime. The line elaborating what labor is at a stroke: the furrow of work that digs its own grave. Food for worms. So too, I can’t help hearing Blake in the pitch of Cole’s line, unearthing a rich allusion: “The cut worm forgives the plough.”

If I have any lingering qualms about this book, they arise from a few of the translations of sacred hymns, each of which uses a similar kind of rational grid as a ladder to God, or transcendent wisdom, but whose supple rungs of verse, so effective elsewhere in supplying the pressure points of poetic elevation, are not always sustained. For example, the following verses are from Cole’s translation of another poem from Medieval Spain, “Kingdom’s Crown.” I quote four stanzas in order to illustrate the sudden relinquishment of lyric intensity beginning with the sixth line.

This is the brightest ring, transcending all elevation and beyond ideation.

This is the place of the hidden for your glory above in the palanquin…

You formed its frame from the silver of truth; from the gold of mind you created its matter; on pillars of justice you established its throne; ….. its presence derives from your power;

….. its longing is from you and for you, ….. and toward you ascends its desire.

In the third and fourth stanzas the complacent language of spiritual heightening feels too readily available for easy rhetorical uplift, where a spontaneous ascent borne up out of the linguistic pressures of a verse passage is necessary to measure up to the passage’s rapturous claims. The rhymes do little more than convey the conventionality of their diction: matter/power/desire. So too the bald statements about “the silver of truth” and “the gold of mind,” the listless verbs and languid rhythms, give off barely a glimmer of exaltation’s nimbus. (Contrast the rhymes of the previous two stanzas: the “bright ring” sets off the hyper-inventive and energizing echo of on/en/in chimes: “elevation,” “ideation,” “hidden,” “in the palanquin.” “Transcendence” is in the intricate verbal weave of that palanquin, as well as in the pronounced but understated authority of the rhythms generated by the simple repetition of “This is.”)

Shelomoh Ibn Gabiral, the author of both “Heart’s Hollow” and “Kingdom’s Crown,” is a masterful Hebrew poet and philosopher of medieval Spain, and Peter Cole has translated an entire book of his poetry. The following is an indication of the complexity and lucidity with which Cole approaches Gabiral’s work:

His metaphysics emerge from desire: his ethics evolve to a science of sense. What begins there in wisdom ends in anger: what was anger gives way to a grace. He is a poet of poles and swells and reversals, of splits that propose a completion. He is the most modern of the Hebrew medievals, the most foreign to a modernist approach. In his verse what looks like a mirror is meant in fact to be passed through: transparency marks a divide. Hebrew is Arabic, Muslim Jewish, his resistance a form of embrace.

In the center of Shelomoh Ibn Gabiral’s “Kingdom’s Crown,” we encounter these utterly convincing lines of profound spiritual and poetic realization:

The wheel of the wind you established over the sea, which it circulates in circuits, ….. as the wheel of it rests in that far circling.

Three stunning lines. Maybe not “at the still point of the turning world,” but a lyric turn of ecstatic stasis nonetheless: the wild vast circuits of the wind recycled in currents contained by the lines, the wind blowing in from “over” the sea just over the line break, and the breath of the spirit catching its breath in the musical “rest” of the last caesura, only to keep on circling back over the earth in its course from afar, as “established” by divine volition. The rhythmical wheel of the wind enacts the course of its verse in this triplet of supremely restless purposeful energy.

The last poem in Cole’s collection is “Alphabet,” which I take to be an homage to Paul Celan. Here’s Celan’s great poem, “Psalm,” translated by John Felstiner:

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay, no one incants our dust. No one.

Blessèd art thou, No One. In thy sight would we bloom. In thy spite.

A Nothing we were, are now, and ever shall be, blooming: the Nothing-, the No-One’s-Rose.

With our pistil soul-bright, our stamen heaven-waste, our corona red from the purpleword we sang over, O over the thorn.

As Felstiner points out, this poem is one of the most frequently discussed in Celan’s oeuvre. As authoritative as Felstiner’s commentaries so often are, his delicately cadenced translations sometimes miss the strangeness of Paul Celan’s voice, the stringent involutions of his phrasing, the refractory, compacted shards of compound meaning, the choked-off intensifications and brute abruptions of the famous “breath-turns” (Atemwende). Then again, maybe only Geoffrey Hill has given us a sense of what Celan might sound like in English. But Cole comes close. Although his poem “Alphabet” may not be a direct or even indirect allusion to Celan’s “Psalm,” I cannot help but hear it as antiphonal response. I hear the short lines in Cole enclosed by their hushed attention to the silences in Celan, even as they keep their distance from him, not trying to sound as though they were enchanted by the uncanny, but trying to speak out of the disciplined quietude of that instruction. Out of Celan’s precision of semantic and syntactical pacing, the “cut to the letter” incisiveness of muted inscription, the schism felt in each flayed inflection, this kindred sounding voice:


A way cut to the letter:

the kept bud stiffening to gem, a rose found in the foil and leaves behind a hedge at the station.

Its strict whirl preserved as gift. Edge and place. Breastpiece.

Under a facet the light cracks And scatters in on its hinge.

What Hopkins called “the unspeakable stress of pitch” has an altogether different, yet correspondingly distinctive valence here. It’s in the stark extremities of the line breaks, such as the proximate absoluteness of “Edge and place.” There too, in the uncanny Celan-like compound, “breastpiece.” Not Aaron’s breastplate, the Urim and Thumin (light and perfection) of judgement, set with rows of precious gems, each stone with the name of a tribe of Israel engraved upon it. Rather, an off rhyme for the “Edge and place” it carries within it: Breastpiece. What’s “found in the foil” is both low to the ground and the glint of transport, the tinniness of its fricative alliteration a tiny sacral fugue on the way to the terminal. “Behind a hedge” but beyond the burning bush. The magnificent final couplet has both the stark estrangement and the mournful eloquence of Geoffrey Hill’s great “Two Chorale-Preludes: on melodies by Paul Celan,” which begin as follows:

There is a land called Lost at peace inside our heads. The moon, full on the frost, vivifies these stone heads.

Moods of the verb ‘to stare’, split selfhoods, conjugate ice-facets from the air, the light glazing the light.

As seen through the revelatory prism of Hill re-envisioning Celan, look again at the ending of Cole’s “Alphabet”:

Under a facet the light cracks And scatters in on its hinge.

Peter Cole’s lines about cracked light scattering in on its hinge glaze Hill’s lines like crystalline facets of strictest impinging. The “strict whirl” of epiphanic abnegation in Celan’s No-One’s-Rose is “preserved as a gift” in Peter Cole’s remarkable achievement.