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John Peck’s Cantilena is a book that asks to be re-read at every scale. Each new canto in the book, I read more than once: now for sound, now for meaning, now for sound and meaning together. And after I read a few cantos individually in this manner, I go back to the beginning and read again up from the beginning to wherever my progress stopped, looking now for interconnections. Finally, once I have finished the book (at my current rate of progress, more than a year from now…), I will surely feel a need to re-read it in its entirety—at least, if it continues to be this good.

All this by way of an explanation for why, though my first post on Cantilena dealt with canto 7 of “Cedars of Liban” (the first of the book’s four “spans”), this post will consider primarily canto 3.

But it will do well to start from the very beginning of the poem in order to see this canto in its proper context. Here are the first lines:

My paper-covered half-pillar
near the door to hold letters, in shutter-louvred
storm light sinks deeper away…

We begin with the poet in some kind of office (during a storm). But this setting sinks away as the poet sinks into his mind, into its “girderwork / of unrealized ends.” As the introduction to the entire book, this suggests it will consist largely of a journey through this individual mind, perhaps a blueprint to this girderwork.

Canto 2 continues this journey. It juxtaposes two images. First, there is a war (“for a fifth year / unstoppably piled the uncounted”). The poet imagines, or rather struggles to imagine, informing “Melville, Higginson, Duyckinck, Emerson… movers of Young America” of these “redcoat wars.” This thought is set next to an image of a young girl (twelve years old) looking at Marsden Hartley’s painting Mount Ktaadn:

The bulk dark of it shoulders fires into space
neither as spangle nor aura but the bloom of itself.

So much for the background. Canto 3 picks up on aspects of each of these first two cantos. The dominant image is of a man riding a horse:

Dressage!—a red-brown door bulges and rips
the sun’s torpid delay, then muzzle and foreleg,
roan kick and a mane percolating
through fence and hill, a cloud cliff sheared
by sternum and belly…

The horse is, it seems to me, an image of the soul or mind. We are later told, “No innocent, the soul broods in dunged hayey / dolor past nightfall, hurls men its enemies at the horizon.” Meaning: the soul has a life of its own, is not a mere servant of the man, who is even its enemy, who it tries to hurl off.

There is something unreasonable about this dressage:

There it goes—assertion leaping past argument,
lungs sucking a hot chaw of teeth, seeing caught
at the boil, raw fight afloat there
past policy, out-churning advance.

The horse moves not because it is persuaded by argument (so calm and so stoic) but because its sight is “caught / at the boil.” It is raw fight—perhaps to be contrasted with the organized, civilized fight of the previous canto’s war.

The poem as a movement through the mind and this portrayal of the soul-horse together naturally suggest a comparison of this canto’s description with the poem itself. This does not disappoint. The movement of Cantilena has a logic, I am sure (though I am only beginning to sense it), but it is not a straightforwardly narrative or otherwise reasonable logic. The image of a horse attempting to hurl its rider captures Cantilena well.

Canto 3 ends strikingly:

Clatters toward cumulus and trots back
trailing a dust cloud of the dead
baptized but clamoring, their omertà
trembling the window wall in nude daylight.

The horse, having rushed out of the gate, now trots back. What could this mean? The last line tells us: the window, first seen in canto 1, returns (though the storm is done). We are back out of the mind, into the external world, though likely only for a brief time. Yet we do not return unchanged, for the horse returns “trailing a dust cloud of the dead.” Numerous dead have appeared in the poem thus far, named (Melville, Poussin, others) and unnamed (“unstoppably piled the uncounted”). What strikes the poet about them here is their silence, their “omertà.” This is a tremendous word choice. An omertà is the Mafia code of silence about criminal activities. The silence of the dead thus is likened to a conspiracy, takes on a rich yet lurid content. That is why it is “trembling the window wall in nude daylight.”

However much guidance history, via the helpful hand of habit, may provide, ultimately each new book demands a unique sensitivity in its reader, a fine attunement to its nuances. Any good book will furnish clues to help the reader along, will provide hints as to its methods.

That is the function of the following lines, which cap the seventh canto (of three hundred and twenty-four) in John Peck’s difficult Cantilena:

And I let move my mind’s motion
in a signing spiral around the finely
gritty brain pan of the baked water clock.

The difficulty of the poem is that characteristic of modernist poetry. Though Cantilena was just published this year, it is a clear descendant of that movement, a dense swirl of allusions to anything and everything. These lines provide a glimpse of the thread that holds the bulging fabric of the poem together.

First is the easiest part, the “mind’s motion,” suggesting that in moving through the poem’s web of images we are tracing out the structure or course of an individual’s thought. That is not, in itself, a very interesting characterization, though it is helpful. But the remainder of the lines flesh it out in an intriguing manner.

The voice says, “I let move…” This informs us both that there is something passive about his relation to his thought (it proceeds according to a logic of its own, unguided) and something active about it (he chooses, consciously, not to impede or alter this procession). The form this motion takes is a “signing spiral.” “Signing” because it is a kind of signature, though an ever-expanding rather than a completed signature, spiraling out from a fixed center.

The final line introduces a crucial ambiguity. The phrase “brain pan” refers to the skull, and thus the movement is suggested to occur within the confines of the head, a kind of pure interiority. The world comes into the mind, at least is represented therein, and thence emerges the poem. Yet the reference to the “baked water clock” immediately sends us to the outside world. This and the previous canto are set in Rome on the date of the Ferragosto (August 15). It is noon, and there is a “heat-ripple”—the water clock is thus “baked” by the very external sun. Thus, just as the world comes into the mind, the mind goes out and suffuses the world.

To fully grasp the what the water clock is doing here, we need to consider the two lines just previous to the three quoted above:

…I have not counted the hours, for shall increments
accuse the continuous hand of the heaper?

Time, the “heaper” (of images and allusions, among other things), works continuously. There is something false in hours, in the presumption of dividing a continuum into increments. Yet a clock fundamentally requires such division. Perhaps, though, this particular clock does not tell time in hours. Here the description of the brain pan as “finely gritty” comes into play. “Fine” suggests a continuum (a continuum is the limit of an increasingly fine division) and so flatly contradicts “grit.” Yet “finely gritty” aptly captures the manner in which the poem flows continuously through the various substantial, particulate images that it heaps up.

Cantilena is a kind of water clock, telling time not by counting out the hours, but by tracking the finely gritty motions of a mind. It remains to be seen how much help this will provide me as I proceed through the book, but, at least in the early stages, it seems a valuable foothold.