Wanting Song: On Peter Cole’s “Draw Me After”

By Rachel KaufmanJanuary 1, 2023

Wanting Song: On Peter Cole’s “Draw Me After”

Draw Me After by Peter Cole

like      someone listening into a
certain sort of uncertainty speaking
of uncertainty as a song
of songs tangled truly in our
being led along a luminous
line singed and fringe within
the singing’s seeing seeing us through

PETER COLE’S Draw Me After is a work of translation: of visual art to poetry, letter to line, and Jewish text to new song. Guided by breath and an ear attuned to melody, Cole intertwines ekphrastic poetry grounded in the drawings of American artist Terry Winters, whose works pattern the natural world, musical notation, and architectural etchings into abstract landscapes, with kabbalistic musings on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, translations of Hebrew poetry, and lyrical reflections on the passing of time and the ways language travels with, past, and into us. How does the poetic line serve as a medium of so many kinds of translation? And how can the poet translate tradition in a way that is meaningful for the political and spiritual violences and joys of the present?

In an ekphrastic poem mid-book, Cole writes:


a silent roar the world
is bound by secret knots,
they say, though what that means
is hard to know and flickers

The poem sits next to one of Winters’s drawings, in which horizontal lines and clef-like symbols ornament an elusive music staff. It is juxtaposition that propels Cole’s project forward with a bright momentum; the poet gathers Winters’s drawn blossoms, the curves of an aleph, a figure seeking an allegorical “Hearsing,” quoted news stories of the Aleppo bombings, the poet’s memories of poems unwritten. How does nothing feel out of place? The world is in overflowing order in Cole’s hands, and this order is held together by a continuous self-awareness of thought, which the poet bares to the reader. Draw Me After not only enacts the translation of media to media; it also sketches a theory of translation. As in his oeuvre of translations of Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, Cole is, in his words, “[attending] to distinctions of timbre” across text and across media. The gentle erudition of Cole’s playfulness allows the world to enter the reader’s hands in “secret knots” with a thread or two pulled loose, their paths revealed to us.

In his book on John Keats, Julio Cortázar writes of the act of looking: “[A]cepto el impulso ciclista que nace en la mano” (“I accept the cyclist’s impulse, born in the hand”). The wheel turns with a careful guide, revealing the sensory world; “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” the Jewish sages famously taught about the Torah. In Cole’s case, to accept the cyclist’s impulse, for him born in sound, is to reveal the world of the original (whether a Hebrew letter or one of Winters’s drawings) and to mark its turns as it becomes something new. Take one of Cole’s alphabet poems, “Yod : י”:


In this tradition
smallness stands
tall through all
lending a hand
to creation

And so a squiggle
crowns our scrawl
as eminence bends
down to call
us through duration

The smallness of the poem’s stature is at odds with the height toward which the little letter, and the poet, reach. The Yod is the first letter of a name for God in Jewish tradition; in this poem, it is similarly marked as a squiggle which aspires to more. And, of course, the squiggle is the poem, as Cole marks the impossible desires of poetry, of naming at all. Each alphabet poem has its own form, its own rhyme and patterning of sound. “[S]mallness stands / tall” in the complex rhyme scheme of “Yod”; some rhymes abut one another, and some are farther apart. The poem creates a density of sound as it attempts to stretch beyond its means.

Cole’s chapbook, On Being Drawn (2020), is reproduced, with some changes, as the middle section of Draw Me After. In the original chapbook, ekphrastic poems and Winters’s drawings are interwoven with prose reflections on ekphrasis as (literary) translation and on translation as ekphrasis. Media to media, sense to sense — “the sentence is like a sill before a view I heard,” the poet writes. “All the people saw the sounds,” Cole quotes from Exodus 20 and continues, “so in these poems I was writing to hear the drawing.” How can one sense be translated to another? What does it look like (or sound like) to emerge from Jewish text, from the Hebrew alphabet, or from a drawing? The prose from the chapbook is not literally reproduced but is rather embedded, or enacted, in the book’s poems; the poetry explains its own process.

In Cole’s ekphrastic poems, each word carefully curves to the next through rhyme and rhythm; no word sits still. Like Winters’s “layered swerves,” the poems fold and open, tune and retune: “[W]hat matters, as matter.” Cole makes visible what lies between sound and sense, consonant and vowel, as thought becomes sound, or sound becomes thought.

It is this process of “as”-ness with which Cole begins Draw Me After. In a stunning, sparse poem called “Edensong,” the poet unveils the fragility of his act of translation. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In this poem, as in Cole’s others, breath is the poet’s guide through desire. The poem is halting in its rhythms and fluid in its sounds (“ing” carries the reader forward), mirroring the poet’s wonder and doubt. As Cole writes in a poem after 13th-century poet Rumi:


How could I have
known it would happen?
How could it happen
that I’ve known?

Cole’s poems turn and turn, each contour marked by the denseness of the poem’s sounds, an intricate wovenness that emerges when the deft poet translates “a light / leaked from Eden” into new, sustained language. Breath lends fragility, a pause before articulation. In turn, sound gives the act of translation its playfulness and self-consciousness; sound is how Cole links content to form. In a seriously playful ending to the ekphrastic section of the book, Cole writes a poem (“IX”) that endlessly retunes forms of the word “draw”: “drawer” turns to “drawn to, / drawn aside or else / asunder” turns to “the luck / of the draw,” turns to a bath drawn, a breath drawn, and finally, to a return:

Cole’s own “proverbial drawer” is wide. In a series of poems which runs throughout the book, the poet draws from Kabbalistic tradition, a part of Jewish mysticism, to translate and perform each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The lines of the letters unfurl into lines of poetry; shapes morph. In the poem “Mem : מ,” the poet writes:


Thinking’s chariot starts with it:
this angels’ tank of measured listening,
wherein mum’s the ready word
riding mem, the mouth closed,
lips resting along one another,
kissing silence and yielding hmmm.

The poem gives us a code to understand the sonic landscape of the book, the ways in which sound can guide logic and reveal thought. In “Tsadi: צ,” Cole writes:


                                  […] as thinking is a
sort of talking to one’s self or ghosts whatever
either is or isn’t really ears begin to stir
not yet a sound that spells more a humming
through a grayness call it a patience maybe saintly
or indulgence just so long as its longing’s sung

Cole’s poetry gives itself permission to sit within a thinking that is “not yet a sound that spells” but rather is a patience, a longing sung. Echoing the Jewish text Song of Songs, desire pulls sound forward: “Let me hear your voice, / your delicious song. / I love to look at you” (Song of Songs, 2:14). We are pulled back into the visual and sonic as they touch: “All the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20).

In his classic text “The Translator’s Task,” Walter Benjamin writes that, unlike poetry, “translation is, of all modes, precisely the one called upon to mark the after-ripening of the alien world, and the birth pangs of its own.” Perhaps Draw Me After feels so special in its ability to bridge the impossible, according to Benjamin, and to act as a work of poetry as well as an act of translation. Cole’s method of translation “[determines] how distant what is hidden […] is from revelation, [and] how close it might become with knowledge of this distance.” The poet’s act of creation is “a fading / echo of what’s / beyond us but also / near, and even / welling as never / before,” as Cole narrates in “Coda,” the final poem of the collection.

In response, it seems, to “Edensong,” the first poem of the book, Cole writes in a poem entitled “As:” that


The river’s parting into four
rivers running through the world
to the ends or end of the world
the light of beginning beginning to end

the light of beginning which hasn’t yet been
in rivers of letters running through words
needing Eden’s injured green
angeled garden, Eden’s song

Eden is injured; Eden is calling; Eden is undone. Our tradition reaches us in parts, in letters, in longings. The letters may reach the light of the beginning; they are just not quite there, yet. It is within this space and breath of reaching that Draw Me After squiggles towards “seeing seeing us through.”


LARB Contributor

Rachel Kaufman is a poet and teacher pursuing a PhD in Latin American and Jewish history at UCLA. Her work explores diasporic memory and the ways in which literary and historical works transmit the past. Her first poetry book, Many to Remember (Dos Madres Press, 2021), enters the archive’s unconscious to unravel the histories of New Mexican crypto-Jews and the Mexican Inquisition alongside the poet’s own family histories. Her poetry has appeared on poets.org and in the Harvard Review, Southwestern American Literature, Western Humanities Review, JuxtaProse, and elsewhere, and her prose has appeared in Rethinking History, The Yale Historical Review, and Diagram, and is forthcoming in Comedia Performance: Journal of the Association for Hispanic Classical Theater. See rachel-kaufman.com.


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