Peter Cole
January 6, 2023
Jean Landry / Alamy Stock Photo

In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel distinguishes between two domains of human existence: space and time. He associates space—a realm where one’s gain is necessarily another’s loss—with conquest and displacement, in contrast to the shared realm of time, “where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share.” Peter Cole’s poem “As:” plays with the tension between these two orientations. When I first encountered it, I read the title as marking a simile, which abides by a spatial logic. Even in claiming proximity, a simile indicates distance—as, after all, is not is—and hierarchy, as one element is subordinated to another. (Isn’t this the very condition of language, Adam wandering the Garden of Eden doling out names to the animals to master nature and know what he is not?) Cole’s poem, too, begins with edenic differentiation: “The river’s parting into four / rivers running through the world.” And yet, as I move through the poem, space and time jostle—first explicitly (“to the ends or end of the world”), then folded into a double meaning (“the light of beginning beginning to end”). When I return to the title now, I can see its temporal dimension, evoking simultaneity rather than displacement. By the last line, it is not Eden’s rivers, but “Eden’s song” that holds us, a movement driven by the poem’s own sonic play. By bringing words into song, the poet suspends language’s denotative capacities—summoning a strangeness that might lead us back toward each other.

Claire Schwartz

Listen to Peter Cole read "As:"

As:

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

Reprinted from Draw Me After, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Peter Cole.

Peter Cole’s most recent book of poems, Draw Me After, is just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.