Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To Peter Cole, RE: "Things on Which I've Stumbled"

Your book has four parts, but actually two. One, the first, (and represented by the first section), preoccupies itself with the passion of translation, with words themselves, and this section slowly bleeds into the second half of the book, which, as it moves towards the fourth and final section, is more and more about Israel as a political entity. That age-old question, "What does it mean to be Jew?" gets recast as "What is Israel?"

As a translator, you fall squarely on the side of Israel's cultural heritage--it (Israel) is its language, its religion (which I think you'd say are one and the same), as embodied in the long tradition of midrashim (and of which I see you taking part via the secular gap-filling of poetry). You have no respect for fences, for aggression, for justice, security, etc. (And I use those words as loaded terms, as you yourself go to lengths to point out in the poems--that other process of "translating" that governments do in order to justify their actions: Justice will be / their diversion--a presence / leading up from the mouth / of malice, which has no defense // without it). You're not shy about your politics. You've lived in Jerusalem for a long time now, wrestling with every aspect of Hebraic culture, so these are arguments into which you've "stumbled", in the sense that, living where you live, doing what you do, they are unavoidable. In a city so sharply divided, one must have a clear sense of where one stands--or one cannot make a living out of being precise with his diction.

But, true to my non-political nature and my B.A. in religious studies (most of which was spent taking courses in Judaism), I'm more interested in the words ("Letters are things, not pictures of things." - Eric Gill----thank you for this quote), specifically how well you channel that Biblical, rabbinic voice, while still filtering it through a contemporary one:

Lord, goes the prayer, increase my bewilderment,
which really means allow me to question
everything, but not be lost within that
stance to the small flowers of common sense
in season. Increase, Lord, my discontent.

Sometimes your penchant for rhyme goes too far--I'm sensitive to this sin--but most of the time it's just right:

The army has nearly written a poem:
You'll now need a permit just to stay home.

Or in "Israel Is", reproduced here in its entirety. (Some poems are much too whole to be excerpted from):

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.


...A municipal mess and the Western wind. Promising land. Almond blossoms over axons, dispersing a sweetness high in the brain. Worms turning beneath the garden. An ethic rotting. Oils brushed-up in my walking: hyssop, sage, anise, thyme. Herbs crushed. Shifting nouns. Canaan. Sion.

[The first three times I read that passage I read "ethnic" for "ethic" and "mind" for "wind."]

Abraham, refusing plunder,
swore that from a sandal strap
for a thread, he'd take not a thing;
for which he was given the thought of heaven
This is what, they say is given

as being's foundation, by which we exist:
Through the merit of men in a quarrel
able to render themselves as nothing--
by this alone, the world subsists...

[Italics yours. You seem pretty consistent about italics always meaning that the words were translated from somewhere else, so I assume that's true here as well.][I wonder about that line, "able to render themselves as nothing" though. It could be interpreted as mere charity, subsuming the ego, or it could be read as suicide bombing.]

The thought of you comes and I die--
and then I revive;
and thus it is I've died so often
I've lived a thousand lives.

What good is thinking that one keeps within?
What valve does it have, until it finds
expression, until it bodies forth as
action, events informing work and feeling--
as wisdom is joined to pleasure once again?

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