I have been continuing to read John Peck’s Cantilena, albeit in a halting, haphazard fashion, now starting again for a few days, now leaving it aside for a week or weeks. It is a difficult book to know just how to read. There are two basic methods of reading it, let us call them deep reading and surface reading.
At a very basic level, the book presents two challenges to the reader. First, it contains a dense network of references to anything and everything, most of which the reader will need to look up to grasp. Second, even once these references are hunted down, it is still difficult to trace out the particular action of each individual canto—some more than others, of course. In deep reading, I confront these challenges head on, looking up every reference, struggling with every canto until it is reasonably understood.
But here a new set of challenges arises. Deep reading of that sort is tremendously time consuming. Were I to devote an hour each day to this book, reading it in that fashion, it would likely take me somewhere between six months and a year to finish it. Furthermore, there are connections between the different cantos, connections that will likely go unrecognized when the connected cantos are read weeks apart. Deep reading thus privileges local understanding over getting a feel for the whole of the work.
Enter surface reading, in which I lightly graze over the surface of the text, not worrying too much about local meaning, grasping merely what one can. Even here, I try to read each canto twice, sometimes more if they are especially arresting. I focus on the sound, and try to sense (or “undersense” as the introduction by Nate Klug explains) what connections between cantos I can. In this way, I progress through the book at a reasonable pace, but it is bewildering, and I feel generally lost.
Thus I worry that there is, ultimately, no good way to read this book. But I am motivated to continue every time I come across such beautiful lines as these:
…………………I shall be loud among the loud
but slur among her sands, and crowd
to the plunge between them, and cleanse, and begin to gnaw.