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.”