Peck, John

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.

My slow progress through Cantilena continues. I began on August 12; now, over two and a half months later, I am on the 25th of 300 cantos. They demand slow reading and much effort. Sometimes this effort ends in consternation, but other times it reveals beautiful meaning behind the beautiful language—for Peck’s language in Cantilena is nearly always beautiful (it is this that gives me the energy to put in the effort it demands).

Canto 25 of the book’s first “span” (Cedars of Liban) is about aging. The first lines make this clear:

Contraction—a scoping down toward essence—
accelerates while the wiring vanishes:

I do not see any way to interpret the vanishing of the “wiring” than as the wiring of the brain. Peck appears to be describing a neurodegenerative disorder, or perhaps merely the cognitive decline that generally accompanies aging. But notice the mood of this. It is not despair, though anyone who has seen the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease will know that despair is warranted. Rather, there is something hopeful in it, for this contraction is conceived as “a scoping down toward essence.” A similar lack of resentment for his condition is seen in the following lines, in which he describes his eyes (“the searchers”) in their “side-to-side brooding.”

Where does this realization of his body’s frailty lead? It brings his thoughts to the builders of model railroads: “The scouts of fabled / miniaturization were idolators / of the massive.” He thinks especially of John Whitby Allen’s famous Gorre and Daphetid, apparently one of the most famous and beloved of model railroads. (I, who know nothing of this world, am taking Wikipedia for granted on this matter. The article, by the by, is a charming expression of such love by one of Allen’s admirers, though the Wikipedia staff have left a note expressing the need to bring the article more in line with their standard “tone.” So catch it while you can.) Though the model (“those unleaving groves”) was destroyed in a fire, it nonetheless serves as a marker, a signpost for Peck: “Already pointing down into / the condensed realm, showing the way in the era / of the swollen and spreading.”

Despite the lack of resentment in the canto, the model, and its destruction in a fire, nonetheless does bring Peck back to thoughts of death. Allen, Peck tells us, never answered his guest’s questions about the railroad. In this regard its very existence, and the existence of its particular features, might be called “questionable.” This becomes important in the canto’s majestic final lines:

Already pointing down into
the condensed realm, showing the way in the era
of the swollen and spreading, with Shiva’s light smears of ash
and bone-yard vacancy they went on through, leaving
the questionable for the inconceivable.

The destruction of the model, with its questionable nature still unelucidated, contains a moral lesson: the questionable is to be left “for the inconceivable.” Here the inconceivable can only be death. I take Peck to be referencing the classic thought that one cannot imagine oneself dead, because the very fact that one is imagining conflicts with the absence of all mental process in death. Just as the railroad goes up in flames still unexplained, so too the individual human, so too Peck.

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.