by Daniel Bosch
The Invention of Influence,
by Peter Cole,
New Directions, 120 pp.
In his six-page introduction to The Invention of Influence, Harold Bloom writes that Delmore Schwartz and Peter Cole share “the gift of almost never writing badly.” Bloom’s praise seems backhanded to me because on the one hand Bloom himself possesses no such gift, and because on the other hand, the formulation insinuates that something like the Midas touch might apply — that the work of a poet who refuses to write badly might be cold, or sterile.
So let me begin by revising Bloom: Cole almost always writes beautifully, yes, and I never feel in his lines any touch of Midas. In Cole’s poems technical mastery does not sterilize. His work never lapses in the warmth of its humanity, whether he is anchoring a concise elliptical narrative with excerpts from historical documents he’s re-written in verse lines (the method used in much of the book’s long title poem, which tells the story of psychoanalytic pioneer Viktor Tausk’s relationship to his mentor, Sigmund Freud), or he is infusing an ancillary set of images with complex music (as I shall detail with regard to dogs, below).
The Invention of Influence starts strong and gets better. “Of Time and Intensity,” the epigram at the opening of the collection, deftly acknowledges the strict limits set by its topic while it enactsrather than merely discusses “a transposition”:
Is Time a dispersion of intensity?
For epiphanists, maybe, but not for me—
for whom Time is a transposition
of immensity into a lower key. (p. 3)
It takes Cole just four lines to reanimate the qualitative as the spatial (“intensity” as “immensity”), while the visual metaphor in the root of “epiphany” (from Greek, epiphainen, “to shine upon”) becomes the auditory metaphor expressed in the literally “lower” final line of the poem. So as intangible Time is refigured as a ticking metronome, intensity is not dispersed, but shifts registers, and the immanence of immensity is preserved as art, in music. Cole’s handling of philosophical abstractions here is lucid, and — though there is good humor in him sending us to the dictionary to retrieve “epiphanists,” the poem is never obscure.
Thisnever-obscurity is crucial. Though these poems ponder influence, psychoanalytic and otherwise, no matter how lofty their reach, Cole cleaves to the earth and the earthy. One of the hues of Cole’s metaphorical catalogue “Palette,” for example, is the indelible “Death’s soot at the cypress’s top // Where the crow slows, and builds its nest.” (p. 14) Likewise one always feels that figures at the height of early 20th century Viennese intellectual life depicted in “The Invention of Influence” walk with their soles on the ground — Coles’s analysts and analysands are always embodied, and the poem is grounded by Cole’s interest in what Auden called the “doggy life” always taking place in the backgrounds of pictures of great men and great events. In the second half of “The Invention of Influence,” for example, though one can hardly picture Lou Andreas Salome picking up after her dog, Cole makes canines appear in several images, each of which is a borrowing. As the product of influence, each seemingly insubstantial dog furthers the theme of the poem and gives Cole a chance to show off the transformative energy generated when an imagination like his drives right at a source or a cliché. Cole cinches a brief meditation on teaching and learning, for example, with a quote from the Talmudic sage Eliezer that makes us forget, somehow, that dogs don’t really drink seawater:
And he would confess, a lifetime later—
“A single dog can lick from the sea
more than I’ve managed to take from my teachers. (p. 59)
Later in the poem Cole exploits the documentary evidence that Freud saw his disciples as a pack of dogs — though in Cole’s poem there is no pack, just the shade of Jung and the shaggy Tausk, who makes Freud appreciate the difference between a dog and a son, albeit with irony:
Freud on Tausk, to Lou one night
after the break with Jung, his “son,”
on why, for now, Tausk was the right
man to have at hand: “He’s clever
and dangerous. He can bark and bite.” (p. 63)
In the passage below, Cole’s punning use of “master” as a verb frames the reader’s assessment of the ambiguous nature of the threat Freud feels coming from Tausk, for dogs do not “eat” their masters:
A few weeks later,
Freud refused him
the father he’d master
within the disaster
he’d always almost
being what he’d
hoped to discuss).
“A dog on a leash”
is what Tausk was,
he told a colleague
from their circle,
“he’ll eat me up”;
instead he referred him
to a disciple,
the bridge between them
a woman again. (p.70)
At least one “circle” Cole’s Freud inhabits is defined, of course, by the arc the student Tausk inscribes as he sniffs around the margins of psychoanalytic theory at the end of a leash held by the mastermind. The sound of “circle,” so neatly echoed by last two syllables of “disciple,” figures forth the radii Freud sought to keep between himself and his adherents, radii along which, Cole’s speaker points out, the mastermind — being a dawg — would happily receive and return the attention of women. Cole’s Freud understands why he is top dog, and wants to be sure no pup or Beta dog loses track of the Alpha (and Omega) dog:
He liked to liken his students to dogs
taking a bone from the table to chew it
in a corner, on their own.
But, he’d note, it is my bone. (p. 72)
I’ll not rehearse the narrative arc of this title poem, which is best discovered in the reading. But Cole sets the arc of Tausk’s fall within a deeply thoughtful meditation on influence which is not only thematic, not only “about” how influence happens and its effects, but is enacted by and in the individual poem-segments that he’s built into the whole. The first and the final pieces of “The Invention of Influence” bear ideal witness to how Cole explores the thesis that for some irrational and anxiety-provoking conditions — poesis, for one — the cure is the illness, and the illness is the cure. The poems are fraternal twins, and literally everything in the larger poem has happened between them, but Cole’s use of bookends for “The Invention of Influence” is no mere repetition of the Freud’s trope of a return to origins. “In my end is my beginning,” writes T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, but Cole has built us a model for what this means.
The untitled opening poem begins with the following 14 lines:
It’s a machine, said the doctor,
Of a mystical nature—
Reported on at times by patients.
Their knowledge not withstanding,
Witnesses are able to offer
Only the vaguest of hints
As to how the air loom functions.
It 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 a host. (p. 31)
Fifty-four pages later, the finale, called “Coda,” begins with these 14 lines:
It is, said the doctor, a machine
Of a mystical nature—
Depicted in detail by certain patients.
Their confidence notwithstanding,
These witnesses are able to offer
Only the vaguest of hints
As to how this heirloom functions.
It makes them see pictures. It produces
Thoughts and feelings, and also removes them,
By means of curious forces.
It triggers disruptions within the body—
Visions and even effusion,
A tangible kind of impregnation,
As one becomes a host. (p. 81)
In Tausk’s theory, the voices heard by a schizophrenic patient are the products of a metaphorical machine. But in Cole’s practice, as the alpha and the omega of the poem show, that “machine” for metaphor is Peter Cole, making us hear voices he’s found in archival research, making us see (and revise) pictures, producing in us thoughts and feelings “by means of (the) curious forces” of poetic technique. (A recent article at Aeon demonstrates with a satisfying pair of sound clips that one of the most powerful of these “curious forces” is repetition itself, which can apparently induce a sense of musicality in the absence of other aestheticizing efforts. Whether Cole would claim to know this intellectually or not, his poetic practice is deeply invested in such repetitions.)
For Harold Bloom, Cole is “a writer in the Jewish wisdom tradition, building an open enclosure around a secularized scripture, which for him comprehends all of postexilic Jewish imaginative literature of the highest aesthetic and cognitive merit.” Yet I am compelled to point out that it is not necessary to be fluent in Jewish wisdom or even to grasp the particularities of what Bloom means by “an open enclosure around a secularized scripture,” to be eligible to fall for Cole’s work. The Invention of Influence may indeed be the richer for readers adept at parsing kabbalistic texts. But I think that several of the poems in this book, the title poem among them, are better than even Bloom is able to express, and that part of what makes them better is that they do not presume a reader who has special knowledge, but one who is willing to read aloud and to think. Again, the mystery in Cole’s poems is so strong that it need not be aided and abetted by obscurity.
But what of Cole’s mastery — his machinations? — just as immense and intense now, in the age of tweet, than in the days in which poetry was young? I asked the poetry editors of the journals in Australia, India, Israel, and the U.S. that had published some or all of “The Invention of Influence” to say, in a few sentences, what about Cole’s masterpiece they had found so compelling. Vivek Narayanan of Almost Island wrote:
One of the things I most admire and welcome in Peter Cole’s poetry is this implicit understanding that seems to have been all but abandoned—or ceded—in some contemporary quarters: that poetry can be openly argument, encompassing thought and archive and theory, even if it might go about this in a very different way from prose. That poetry need not be content with only exploring affect, texture or illogic. That poetry can, for instance, in its way, absorb and present scholarship. This is perhaps a classical function and understanding of poetry, but it also represents a very contemporary way forward, where among other things, authorship is opened up, where the poem is not just bracketed off for self-expression, where “inspiration” need no longer be understood as solely originating from “inside” the individual. So the special brilliance and mystery of Cole’s “The Invention of Influence” is that it seems to explore these questions as themes and, at the same time, enact them as form and substance, folding in on itself, slowly unraveling words and worlds and lives into each other, in a kind of game that is also deadly serious—the skulls of fathers and sons “floating by on the water”—to a classic measure that feels yet new.
Belle Randall of Common Knowledge echoed Narayanan’s sense that in Cole’s work there is a “contemporary way forward,” a way that isn’t, after all — like Twitter — temporary:
Every day one hears from those who think that language is an imperfect tool inadequate to the subtleties they wish to express. Peter Cole’s poetry reminds us that language is the creation of the collective consciousness. In his words, we experience the mystical properties of language. Again and again, his speaker discovers in words more rightness and meaning than were intended. In reading Cole’s poetry we come to understand that language isn’t a “tool”—but a great, mysterious resource, like the ocean itself, fathomless and deep.
Robyn Creswell of The Paris Review called “The Invention of Influence” Cole’s “most moving and most surprising poem yet. Its combination of Kabbalistic speculation, the mysteries of translation, and family dysfunction is astonishing — and utterly unique.” And Langdon Hammer of The American Scholar described how in writing a poem based in traces of the life and work of Viktor Tausk, Cole discovered “a concrete image for the way the language and thought of others enter and shape what we think and say…. One does nothing on one’s own, Cole says. Every maker is made.”
If Peter Cole wrote it, I believe, every poem would be well-made. And the degree to which I’m correct about that is the degree to which Cole — like a poem — is only coincidentally of the time of his composition. As Cole’s “On Making and Being Made” has it, any given today is ultimately strengthened when it is handed over to timeless, ancient tools:
Onto your waters, craft
I cast my muse’s raft—
As…into your hands, technē,
I commend the day’s debris.
Photographs by Max Boschini
About the Author:
Daniel Bosch‘s poems and translations have been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, Agni, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Republic and The Paris Review. He was Poetry Editor at Harvard Review for issues 19 and 20. In 1998 he was awarded the Boston Review Poetry Prize for a set of poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks, and his first collection of poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002. Recent essay-reviews by Daniel can be read at Artsfuse, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Critical Flame, The Rumpus and The Fortnightly Review. He lives in Chicago.