Cantilena [1]

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.

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