Peter Cole has been merging the work of poet and translator for nearly half a century, reminding us that writing is always a translation—of thought, impulse, feeling, memory, image, time. Cole’s poems are philosophical in the sense that they are full of propositions, riddles, twists in the language that reveal twists in our being, and unanswerable questions. They “leave a taste / in thinking’s air.” Kabbalah is never far from the mind of the writing, or the mind of the writer, who nonetheless grew up in a secular Jewish household in Paterson, New Jersey. His mother danced with the Martha Graham troupe. The writer and editor David Remnick went to the same Jewish parochial school as he did. But it wasn’t until Cole went to Greece when he was twenty-one that he realized how Jewish he was. That’s the power of contrasts. And after that, he found his way to Jerusalem and began to make a life split between the United States and that city. He immersed himself in the history of Middle Eastern poetry—in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic—and has since translated poems by Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, Aharon Shabtai, Taha Muhammad Ali, the Hebrew scriptures, and many more. His own lines often have a dazzling ephemeral—light, but dream-heavy—quality to them, and they dance down the page. Cole’s poems favor internal rhyme, they relish and ramify based on a logic of sound, of repeated vowels and assonances ricocheting through the nimble sentences. You can get a sense of the philosophical speed and lyric agility in his work in just about every poem. For instance, in his latest book, Draw Me After, which includes a sequence of ekphrastic responses to each character of the Hebrew alphabet, there’s this short poem on the letter “Hey,” a character that by the way in a game of dreidel means “half,” as in you get half of the kitty:
Hey you, she whispered
into the morning,
the he inside her bare in its longing, there
in the air of a soft address, flickering chicory-
black, like a con game—
as the whisper drifted down
the halls of their secret echoing names …
In his previous full-length collection, 2014’s The Invention of Influence, Cole reckoned—it was a revelation to me—that poetry itself might be defined as the gesture between, the in-betweenness, the bridge leaping from any here to any there, from one thing to another, the suspension and stretch that connects:
“Poetry is something between the dream
and the reading.”
Which might be just: Poetry is something between …
Which is parsed elsewhere by the voice in “The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet”:
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
Draw Me After includes another set of ekphrastic poems, besides those on the Hebrew alphabet: Here Cole has written poems entangled with, responding to, a series of drawings by Terry Winters called “On Being Drawn.” The works bend our sense of what’s drawing and what’s poem. The effect is a beautiful wavering, melting of line into line, medium into medium—and it’s yet also another kind of translation, the ekphrastic, that Cole demonstrates his talent with. (He has, by the way, written arguably the best villanelle in the language since “One Art”: it’s called, in a title befitting this poet’s approach, “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind,” and it showcases his sonic fluency and earthly wisdom, and a talent for inherited as well as invented form.) Cole’s voice is incomparable maybe in part because he’s ranged far from the typical communities that poets writing in English seem to be a part of. He has no MFA. An American who looks at America from the outside. He’s taught part of the year at Yale for fifteen years, working amid the likes of Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom, but he writes more often from his home near Damascus Gate, a place of teeming diverse ancient serious living tradition. That’s also a good description of his poetry.
JESSE NATHAN: Would you say a little bit about the title of your newest book, Draw Me After? What are some of that phrase’s meanings and resonances in this book?
PETER COLE: Titles are always tricky, but when we’re lucky they tend to percolate through the unconscious and toward what feels like their natural place on the page, or book jacket, or in the mind. They mirror a work to the world, but also invite you to pass through them.
Draw Me After took its bittersweet time coming to its final form— collection and title alike, though both were there all along, waiting for me, or in me. And suddenly there it was, the whole book in three words. Those words themselves couldn’t be simpler, and yet it isn’t immediately clear how we should read them. The implied syntax slips a bit, as de Kooning said a painting should, and the vectors are pointing in several directions at once. It’s an ambiguous phrase. But we do already sense that desire is involved, a dynamic of attraction and depiction, a physicality and kind of elemental being-in-dependence and relation. And maybe a belatedness, or quality of being derived, even derivative. At any rate, that’s how I’m hearing it.
Most readers who encounter the book as an object, who see it, will, I imagine, associate the title with the spidery or nuclear webbing of the abstract Terry Winters pencil drawing on the cover, which itself seems to be about the pleasures and possible perils of drawing and being drawn, of watching and being in worlds taking shape. And that’s as it should be, since one of the key pieces of the book is a series of poems inspired by Terry’s drawings, which tapped into an occluded and charged place in my own imagination. But when you turn past the title page to the epigraph, you do in fact slip through a looking glass of sorts and into a different dimension of being drawn: “Each letter called, saying: ‘Draw me after you, let us run’” is a passage from the Zohar, the central text of medieval Kabbalah, which in this case is commenting on the inner meaning of the female lover’s words at the start of the biblical Song of Songs. The notion of drawing opens out here onto the auditory plane, where what the Zoharic rabbis describe as the male and female letters at the very beginning of creation are giving voice to an erotic longing to be linked and to run, whatever that might entail.
That’s pretty wild—that basal sense of language-longing and desire for relation, as well as the Song-like swarm at the heart of continuous making. And, strange as it might sound, it’s also at the core of almost everything that matters to me about poetry, period, and certainly the poems of this book, where the alphabets of various languages meet and mediums translate experience.
So, that’s some of what found its way into my title, and how the title found its way to me.