February 2014

Zack Newick


The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole

Influence is often a thing we recognize with the aid of time passing. We see how our parents shaped us when we have our own children making a mess of things; we see how much of high school Shakespeare stuck when we begin the novel we've always been meaning to write. When it comes to literature, influence can be anathema, a cousin of derivative. Often it's the critic who will use it this way, the critic who, like the skeptic at a magic show, sits in the front row and refuses amazement. At the end, the crowd cheers, and the skeptic says: I know how he did that.

Peter Cole's The Invention of Influence plays adroitly with the idea of an artist's influences being his fate. The first may even be accidental: Harold Bloom pens the introduction to this book, and in his diligent reading of Cole's poetry he sees it as his duty to list the various works one ought to be aware of to fully appreciate Cole's poems. Bloom categorizes Cole as a member of "the Jewish wisdom tradition" and writes an unsurprisingly warm few pages on the verse to come. But Cole toys with this sort of work in his poems and the reader should not let Bloom's list of inspirations color his reading, for that would go against the ample effort done by the poet to both highlight his debt to the past and showcase his skill. Skip Bloom and come back later.

Cole is a dexterous writer and intellectually gifted. His poetry is not fireworks, it's candle flame -- heat clinging to the wick, slowly reshaping what was once there. He is gifted at the level of the line, in the selection of words, but his true talent is in crafting a book without lulls -- there is a sense in the reading that Cole is always building, always accumulating. Divided into three sections, The Invention of Influence consists of dozens of short poems and one very long centerpiece, the poem that lends its title to the book itself. The early poems, like "On Finishing" and "Actual Angels," introduce some of Cole's recurring fascinations, and prepare the reader to notice and contemplate Cole's pet causes. "I'm never / finished with anything," Cole writes in "On Being Partial." "As though living / itself were an endless translation."  Cole is unafraid to allude (and thereby elude, and indeed he might often) -- but his poems are not difficult to read because he is so playful sonically. At the most basic level, Cole's poems operate the way a finch moseys in "A Palette:" "Finches inch their way up a branch, / Blushing at being so subtle?"

The title poem is the core of the book. It concerns Victor Tausk, an early disciple of Freud grappling with his own ambition and his deep respect for Freud's work. The poem itself is an ingenious creative effort: it's composed of radically reworked excerpts of Tausk's own poetry -- never published in his lifetime -- and supported by Cole's synthesis of prior works on Tausk's relationship with Freud, Tausk's own scientific writings, and, of course, Cole's peculiar invention. In Tausk, a man who recognized Freud's genius and nonetheless made his own efforts to surpass him, Cole finds the perfect subject for his own special interests. The poem is a striking rumination on the nature of competition in a narrow field, or a field made narrow by a force as gigantic as Freud. It is also a work of collaboration: "The Invention of Influence" could not exist without Tausk. It is a work of translation (in both a literal and figurative sense), and a commentary on life as a process -- the next generation taking up the work of the prior, reshaping it, making it one's own. Cole makes the case that the recognition of influence is itself an act of creation and a sign that the poet has come to a certain level of understanding of self.

Tausk's story is a tragic one. Unable to find his niche and burdened by his relationship to Freud, he kills himself, sending letters to both Freud and his family. The poem focuses on what numerous writers before Cole, particularly in Jewish-American literature, have grappled with previously: the uneasy relationship between sons and fathers. Tausk's struggle with Freud's influence is rendered as the son who can't find his own way from beneath the name given to him. "I am only I in relation," Cole writes, in a typically sly and succinct phrase. It is at once a statement of inadequacy and a clever claim to potency; Cole has the benefit of hindsight to see the gifts Tausk couldn't any more. After reading that line, I began seeing Tausk everywhere: in every word with an "I" inside was Cole's subtle homage to the man whose life inspired these poems.

While the collection's heart is its long title poem, its vitality comes from the numerous short poems in which Cole stores phrases with the weight of wisdom. The poems that make up the book's first section are clever and insightful; the book's third section takes on a darker, more mournful tone. In "On Coupling" Cole mentions Heraclitus, and distills his philosophy into aphorism: since character's fate. In American literature (and, in this case, a particularly Jewish-American literature), those words recall most immediately another writer, Saul Bellow, whose iconic opening to The Adventures of Augie March includes the phrase "a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus." Influence is a kind of synthesis, in the end. Cole's poems confirm that in the shadows of history there is room still for creation, and that marking influence in a writer's work is a kind of invention on a critic's part. Who's to say how Cole came to Heraclitus? The poem speaks for itself.

The book concludes with the elegy "What Is." It's a poem to mark a special absence and exemplifies an earlier Cole line: "Perfection's in facing what we lack." Cole renders the world as sharing in his mourning: "the weeping cherry shedding petals, / like snow in an ancient ocular rhyme." The artist must always keep his eyes on life, as much as art, and in this final poem there's no doubt Cole has managed that. The Invention of Influence is skillful with history and lovely with ordinary life: a wonderful book.

The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811221726
128 pages