Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

Many voices are one voice

By Jan Baetens

hymns and qualms

Peter Cole

Hymns & Qualms (Poems and Translations, New and Selected)

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017

ISBN-13: 978-0374173883

Internet culture has made copy and paste, sampling, “uncreative” or “unoriginal” writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith or Marjorie Perloff like to say – in short all kind of modern day versions of imitation – fashionable once again. However, the success of this way of writing should not prevent us from understanding that real imitation always involves a high degree of admiration and awe, but not fear, and this in many cases is the most challenging way to authentic poetic expression. Just as there is something like “deep time”, there is something like “deep theme” as well as “deep form” in poetry, and ambitiously imitative takes on writing are perhaps the best way to address these issues in both modern and sustainable ways.

Born in Paterson, as, among many others, the hero of Jarmusch’s Paterson (see my review: https://lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/une-semaine-dans-la-vie-du-poete/), Peter Cole is a deeply multilingual and multicultural poet, whose work in English is nourished by his knowledge and translations of Hebrew and Arabic. Dividing his time between New Haven (CT) and Jerusalem, he is the author of one of the most remarkable bodies of poetry in English today. His new book, an anthology of old and new work as well as old and new translations that reuses the title of a previous collection from 1998, seamlessly brings together texts from three different languages, many cultures (it would be absurd to reduce the Arabic and Hebrew traditions to monolithic wholes) and a wide range of periods (the book contains translations of texts from late antiquity and the 11th century till very most contemporary creations). In that sense, it is much more than a personal anthology offering wonderful examples of the modern lyric, which in a very accessible but always sharply formulated language blurs the boundaries between the local and the global, the personal and the political, the descriptive and the meditative. The most striking feature of this multi-voiced and multi-layered book is its incredible unity. Not as the result of a modern and subjective streamlining, but as the outcome of a poetic inquiry into what authors, languages, cultures, and epochs may have in common in spite of their welcome differences, the very discovery of what humans share, which only poetry can teach them that it exists.

Hymns & Qualms is a once in a lifetime book for his author, a work of great maturity one can only publish every two, three decades. Readers, don’t miss it!