What is Doubled, Poems 1981-1998, Peter Cole
[209pp, 10.95, Shearsman Books]


This book combines two of Peter Cole's volumes of poetry that have previously been published separately in the United States. They are Rift (1981) and Hymns & Qualms (1998). I had not previously heard of Cole and it is always refreshing to find work that is as different as this. The perspectives here are unlike anything you will find in British poetry; yet Cole, who lives in Israel and who translates medieval Hebrew into English, is clearly familiar with British poetry. For a poet for whom pigeons seem to be an abiding preoccupation, he is difficult to pigeonhole.

About two thirds of this book consists of a poetry with a distinct lyric tone. The lines are very short, often one or two words only, and they snake and zigzag down the page. The first poem, 'Alphabet', is worth quoting in full:

     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.

This is beautiful writing, I think with beauty as its subject, but something bothers me about it. In the last two lines there is a quality of indeterminacy that is characteristic of all of Cole's lyrical writing. A facet of what? If the light is something that cracks, can it have a hinge? Why is it
under a facet? How can a thing scatter in on its hinge? If it is a description of a window, how does this fit in with the rest of the poem? Or with the title? Once one starts looking for particulars in this poem, there is a scattering; it is almost too delicate to bear interpretation.

I have seen American poetry like this before: the lyrical voice, a free-floating subject, pure, easeful description often without an obvious referent. Jorie Graham springs to mind, there are many others. In my resistance to this I think I carry the prejudice of too much immersion in British poetry, where the lyric has been long excluded, either made to carry the burden of a loaded subjective voice (the 'mainstream'), and hence pulled down by particularities, or else represented as anti-lyric, a poetry of opposition. Even when the lyric mode seems to recur, as we find with the poetry of John Burnside, it is always a lyrical moment hinged and depending on a moment of experience.

But a poetry of abstraction, of indeterminacy? Having heard so often that poetry should be specific, denotative, and hard, it is a challenge to read a poetry that is the opposite, I think as a deliberate choice. Reading through this volume, Cole meets my empirical prejudice head-on. Cole again and again chooses the abstract, the numinous, the unpindownable. Here is a section, one whole page, from 'Ambit' (p. 76):

     The lambent
     nearness there in the flaw

                      of truth

        the act is:

     where everything
               offered burns,


     where most
           of what's withheld

                       begins


     its decay

All the nouns here are abstract. 'Lambent' is an uglily poetic adjective that would be hurled from any undergraduate poetry workshop. It is used however with some accuracy, since it denotes the tongue-like flickering of flames. In these lines I like the idea of action being the flaw in truth. And the short sculpted lines work here, enacting the tenuity that is being referred to. The poem 'Perfect Pitch' (p. 103) starts: 'Through thinking comes like / eyes to lie' and ends 'but shining / slope to thinking's slope'. I think most British poets would write 'thought', not 'thinking', because
thought can be a physiological process, but thinking, as a verbal noun, is entirely abstract, disembodied.

But there are occasions in these poems when the high, ungrounded language lets the reader down. This is particularly so when we are asked to conceive of abstractions by means of metaphors which relate to concrete terms or processes. From 'Ambit', p. 84:

     And language in its nature

     which,
     chipping the infinite,

     holds it in its glass,

     as ground.

Okay, I can think of language as somehow chipping away at that biggest of all abstractions, infinity, perhaps as a chisel. But then to hold it in its glass? So language has a chisel in one hand and a glass in the other. And to hold it as 'ground' confuses me; surely it is glass that can be ground, or else it is hard to imagine what is being chipped here - ground as in earth, what we stand on? Held in a glass? Or glass as telescope? The terms do not cohere in the way that we are trained to expect. On the next page in a description of the night sky we find the line 'Constellation as gear to the swarm', which sounds fine as a description of a group of stars at the centre of the milky way, until you think; in what sense can a swarm have a gear? What is Doubled in many of these poems are the metaphors.

Another locution that is rather too poetic for my taste is the [noun] of [noun] construction: (I shall lineate this as prose to make it clearer): 'the body/builds/its fort/of mettle/and hide/this wind/is siege/is bread for/blood of the/pride's/hovel/and sty//through Noah's/robes/and choice/this wind was/food for his/hope was/blood of that first//bird's flowing out and through as/blackly/once/as river/of maybe/never/resuming/this/is flesh/of that unknowing rushing/through/us the pulse/of guest/and styptic/shawl/crystal/stress and awl of/....of if and whether through/us and how' (Awl, 47-8). That's the same grammatical structure (one relatively rare in speech) recurring eight times on two pages. A bad habit? On page 110 instead of the normal olive-grove, Cole writes 'groves of olive'. This kind of mannerism indicates to me (and I may be wrong) a certain unawareness on Cole's part of the tendency in his poetry towards conjuring one abstraction from another.

But when in these poems Cole does write about something specific, it is wonderful. At one point he climbed onto his roof (climbing and flight are central in these poems) and sees a dead cat:

     The skin
     leathery across the small
     potato of a skull
                     stretched

     an ear
     hooked
     gently over
        and stiffened

     the pin-like teeth
     the tail no thicker
        than a large worm
                   no longer

     lungs and stomach
     gone     the unclever
     spine expose to the
     glazed sky I'd climbed that morning.
          ('Leviticus' 63)

These lines are an achievement any writer would envy. After several re-readings I still can't decide if some of these lyrics work.

The volume contains much else besides: a prose journal, some great translations from Hebrew writers, some more conventional poems. They all read well and make it clear that Cole is not a writer prone to grandiosity or pretension. This is the Doubling that Cole means in his title. The epigraph he uses is from Keith Douglas: 'Perhaps one day cynic and lyric will meet and make me a balanced style'. Douglas never had the chance. Let's hope Cole does.

    Giles Goodland 2006