In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.
“Who wants to read Kabbalist poetry?” asked no one, ever. In fact, when this book was recommended to me (I’m a sucker for New Directions Press and a friend said it was pretty good), I didn’t have any sense of what a Jewish poetry might even look like, much less a Kabbalistic Jewish poetry. Yet here we are, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Really, truly, this book (parts of it anyway) are knock-your-face-off-shit-your-pants good. And I don’t say that often. A drunk and very sad guy I know recently sent me a tweet-manifesto decreeing, “contemporary poetry has stagnated.” Obviously, this is stupid. Fields don’t stagnate.
What this guy was actually talking about (though he was likely far too drunk to realize it) is that his own particular expectation of poetry — his idea of poems — wasn’t being met. And that’s fine; I get that. In fact, on a particularly good day (today isn’t one), I might go so far as to make the claim that if you don’t find that, largely, current poetry (i.e. a body of poetry that hasn’t been eroded to its core by time, if you will) is unsatisfying, (though not stagnant), then you’re fucking stupid, but I won’t because I don’t feel well, and I’m tired of defending myself against the anyone-can-write-poetry crowd who believe that phone books, framed in just the right way, are art. What I will say is this: there’s a reason that, Charles Wright (in some poem I spent half an hour looking for but couldn’t find) writes “make your song/your favorite”; that with something so diverse, so culturally and intellectually and ideologically differentiated within itself as poetry is, idiosyncratic preferences are going to express themselves, whether or not you’re too lazy or drunk to realize it.
I say all this to impress upon you two separate things:
1) that this book speaks to me, my sensibilities and concerns as a poet and a human being, it is the ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside [me] (Kafka) that I’ve been looking for for about six months and, more importantly,
2) my little aside gets at the core of the book’s intellectual project: that (in the Kabbalist idiom) angels, which become synonymous with epiphanies and artworks throughout the text, are the product of influence… but not in a bad way. Rather, the angel/epiphany/artwork is the result of what’s learned, inherited, through blood and culture and socialization, internalized by you, and changed so that, when you see it/speak it/write it in the outside world, it is both you and not, an unknown knowledge you’ve received and re-articulated as your self. It is both you and not you, and, in being so, it changes you.
Now, I know that last paragraph reads like heady grad-school crap. I know it. So, let me try to make a metaphor (though Cole’s are much more arresting): Imagine moving to a new, profoundly regional part of the country (say, Alabama) and moving into your grandmother’s old house. By living there, interacting there, you’ll be inherently changed, you’ll adapt and adjust without even realizing it, but you’ll still retain who you were prior to the move. Some day, you look in the mirror and think: Fuck, I’m not who I used to be at all. That’s the sort of commonplace, everyone-has-experienced-this-thing dulling of Cole’s project. Now, take that experience of moving and internalizing and realizing, and amplify it to mystico-spiritual, super-introspective heights. Are you starting to get the picture?
At the center of this book (literally, section II of III), the titular (title poem) “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” rests, a behemoth of a poem completely obsessed with (and in many parts, comprised of the writing of) the tragic Victor Tausk, a suicide and disciple of Freud who was the first to use the language “The Influencing Machine” to consider a schizophrenic’s perception of his/her own mental capacity. The “influencing machine” Cole-as-Tausk writes “makes them see pictures. It produces/thoughts and feelings, and also removes them,/by means of mysterious forces./It brings about changes within the body—/ sensation and even emission,/ a palpable kind of impregnation,/ as one becomes host.” With this idea, Cole weaves a thread through mental illness, the Kabbalist Jewish experience (which he takes very seriously), and Tausk’s suicide (resulting, it seems, from his inability to stop doing the work Freud was doing, to remove the influence of his teacher and to do his own work, to see that he has his own, individuated vision of psychoanalysis (as opposed to regurgitation of another master’s thoughts)). And what’s amazing, what truly sets all this apart, is, formally, just how well he does it.
I’m sure the non-poetry crowd is, at this point, thinking I don’t give a fuck. Stop talking or I’ll stop reading. They’re thinking please don’t talk about how nearly the entire book is written, classically in couplets or quatrains and then juxtaposed, fragmented, against each other, or how most poems are rhymed (some not quite so silently as I’d like, though maybe that’s the point), how the poem “On Coupling” argues that couplets are used to join unlike things (remember the vision of the angel as simultaneously the self and the internalized influence??) and that rhyme creates the effect of simultaneously going backward (into what we’ve internalized) and forward (into the exterior world in the present moment and beyond), that quatrains, two rhymes set in four lines, are as “Ezekiel’s/four-faced cherubs facing at once/every direction.”
So I won’t. I won’t talk about it. Instead, I’ll suggest that you give a long, hard thought to why Cole might write in such a kind of modern/postmodern, jagged classicism, or in a verse-form itself so dedicated to joining two things at once, so appropriate for moving backwards (in rhyme) and forwards (because we can’t read the same two goddamn lines forever) when talking about influence and artwork and angels.
This book walks a fine line between the pointedly post-modern—pastiche, fracture and juxtaposition, and ambiguity—and the pointedly classical—rhymed, measured, searching for “wisdom” and “truth” and all that shit no one believes exists anymore—, and it’s gorgeous. Really.
What I’ll leave you with is a great, difficult, short poem from the book. If you don’t read the book, kill yourself. If you don’t read this poem, kill yourself twice.
The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet
It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, … “the essence of speech.”
Avraham Abulafia, “The Treasures of the Hidden Eden.”
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
Is that so hard to explain It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now… apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped across the lips of a dream
Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image source: New Directions