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M and Other Poems
John Peck
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, $12.95 (paper)

by Brian Lennon

John Peck's recondite and elementally difficult poems tend, by appearing to ignore the question of audience, to press it more insistently--at least for the reader who, upon a first encounter, finds him- or herself held almost entirely at bay. Peck's five previous volumes have been sympathetically reviewed, primarily by a few critics whose acumen is up to the scale of Peck's highbrow voyaging through European classical and Eastern history and myth. But praise of Peck seldom comes unqualified, and critical reservations tend to focus on the poet's adoption and extension of the hermetic modes employed by Ezra Pound, his principal influence.

A native of Pittsburgh, Peck attended Stanford in the 1960s, completing a doctoral dissertation on Pound's work and associating with a group of Yvor Winters's writing students (including Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky). Shagbark, Peck's first volume of poems, appeared in 1972. The Broken Blockhouse Wall (1978), which followed, won the Prix de Rome. After thirteen years of silence, during which he trained as an analyst at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Peck published three substantial volumes in four years: Poems and Translations of Hi-L– (1991), composed "in the guise of a Chinese medical student studying in Zurich"; Argura (1993); and Selva Morale (1995). Progressively more stratified and polyphonous, packed with arcane references, and annotated (when annotated at all) with a kind of crabbed reticence, the poems seemed to be charting a descent into learned solipsism--demanding, as Jules Smith put it, more than "most readers would be prepared to tolerate or engage with in pursuit of reading pleasure."

All of which remains an issue in M and Other Poems; but those who may be daunted by this vision of obscurity should know that this is arguably Peck's most accessible work since Shagbark. In fact, the volume contains entire poems that are highly readable, rewarding even on a first pass. Whatever this may signify, it is welcome; the contents of M and Other Poems go a long way toward establishing what Peck's critics have most often cited as the element missing from his work--the "human."

Compare, for example, these lines from a sequence in Argura with what follows, from the volume under review:

Knowledge drained out of me,
heaviness flooded back,
life blinding through the head.
("Little Frieze")

* * *

Oh the gap
I must close with this living
across which I cannot lean
with my seeingăoh this giving
always onto it, further!
("Attic Canzonetta")

The first extraction is typical of what Joan Hutton Landis has identified as Peck's crypto-Romanticism--that of a rationalist, as it were, resisting himself. Embedded in the final lyric of a long and densely coded sequence, it records a powerful but passively experienced event, underwritten by the elemental image of a vessel "drained" and "flooded." By contrast, the lines from "Attic Canzonetta" declare the speaker's personal activity: that "living," that "giving." In each poem, a state of tension is examined--between living and knowing, the intuitive and the rational--but that tension is resolved quite differently. There is a change of voice, too: where the lines of "Little Frieze" fall (albeit effectively) like stones, "Attic Canzonetta" offers a sensual, Rilkean tone: consider, for example, that vehement "oh!" (Thematically as well, the poem recalls Rilke's "Exposed on the cliffs of the heart" [Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herzens].) The lyrical buoyancy of these lines, their lucidity, the affidavit of an exclamation point--this proximity is something rare and new in Peck, and points up a revolution not so much architectural as optical. That's to say, one feels as though the poet is offering something of an explication of what were previously submerged, or shrouded operations on his sensibility. The "gap," that gulf between passive registration and process, is here not merely noted, relegated to the inexorable ebb and flow of tides, as in "Little Frieze"; instead it is activated.

Indeed, it is this newly clarified (though not to say resolved) emphasis on process, on activation, which most clearly separates M and Other Poems from its antecedents. In "Woods Burial," the speaker, observing a man and his son pitching a fallen tree into a river, reflexively annotates and weighs their un-self-consciousness:

That boy leaps as the limber corpse
hurtles a chute, his father chuckles.

If they really knew what history is,
even though they're in it up to their necks,
they'd feel it, the tug, the cold tilt. They'd stand, shiver.

Having distanced himself from the two figures, he abruptly reverses:

But how much smarter is that? And how am I better?
It is that log I've got to be,
shot straight, unstuck from the banks,
sluicing my wood-lice through the white gates,
hurling home.
But how much smarter is that? And how am I better? It is that log I've got to be, shot straight, unstuck from the banks, sluicing my wood-lice through the white gates, hurling home.

Nostos, or "return," which throughout Peck's work has functioned literally as a trope, is proposed here as the immanent consequence of an act of "hurling oneself (or allowing oneself to be hurled) in"--of relinquishing the analyst's perspective. Again, it is instructive to measure this rhetorical choice against the earlier work, here from Shagbark's "Viaticum":


Shedding ravines
And mist shoaling the cirques
What we were has come back with us
What we are hangs back
The sky waits for its thunder

The weight here, the stasis, the sense of Kierkegaard's "infinite resignation" (another poem in Shagbark is entitled "SŻren") verges on the gothic. "Woods Burial" might be read against this poem as an option for Romantic "inspiration" minus its traditionally chthonic overtones--that is, overtly anti-mystical, envisioned as an active preparation by the poet.

Elsewhere, Peck envisions process as the unimpeded flow of history through the focus of the individual mind, the consequence and reward of an autodidactic yet "secretarial" Bildung: "Sleep not. Still the heart. Study" ("Memorandum"). This is an image of Eliot's argument in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and it is offered not least to justify Peck's conservation of the modernist program. Yet here too there is the hint of some unmet need, the necessity to enter into, or at least place oneself in the way of life. "Anasazi, Ancient Enemies" is launched by the crayon rubbing of an ancient rock carving, yields to meditation on annotating in general, and concludes with a prescription:


We study populations in the forests,
we hold the paper flat,
mark, note, warnăthe dictated

prophecies do their work, we do some workă
cut horn from rhinos so they won't be poached.
But, to go on from there,
one needs to stand in the doorway

some evening and feel the air as if it were fire
pulling illusionlessly, letting the draw
of one fact heat its chain
of links, such as, Japan

clear-cutting forests in Siberia
where tigers not already harvested
lope their dwindling range,
two hundred as the hinge

for their growled arc of existence, bones of the others
ground to powders for old men's potencies.
One needs to feel the tug
of the draft on skin, the drag

of process utterly anciently itself.
Faster, now, the pull is from birth through dwelling through
dissolution, along lines
streaming through us, ageless winds.

What is "human" in this poem is not necessarily personal; it is the commitment to a moral view, expressed in necessity and choice: "But, to go on from there, / one needs to stand in the doorway. . . ." Where so much of Peck's work has offered a suggestive but virtually entombed refraction of the poet's world, here he concedes a kind of key or reading tool. Take my word for it--this key is indispensable for a relatively undefeated reading of the poem.

"Agelessness," in the final stanza of this poem, is an image of Peck's nostos: absorbed particularity, a "sleep with eyes open"--in Eliot's terms, the "extinction of personality," or as Jung conceived it, "individuation," cognition of the collective unconscious. Throughout the volume, its repetitions tend progressively and radically toward that aspect of "dissolution," as in "On Tiny Obsidian Blades from Peary Land, Greenland":


The light most ancient, dear,
is of forgetting,
of memory without fear

and without content,
cutting no flesh, horizon
looking to the rise
of a disc long since risen

where one can drop free
of you, refound talismans
of identity,
beyond fortune and past plan.

"Dissolution," "sleep," "forgetting"--all of these connote extinction, and it is true that transformation implies the risk of death, failure to retain one's self. Yet repeatedly in these poems it is hinted--and here, I'll say once more, is where it seems to me that Peck, if not exactly breaking new ground, is explicitly committing himself--that venture, "stepping out," is the process of a life; that the continually refueled tension between modes of synthesis and analysis permits an ongoing revolution of the spirit, which needn't be opposed. On the contrary, it might well be courted--which is, in the end, the operation of so many of these strenuous poems.

One third of the volume is occupied by "M, A Poem in Ten Chapters and One Thousand Lines." "M" records the speculations of a frequently disembodied speaker who glides through the topography and history of Asia, the ancient Middle East and Europe. (All while scaling a mountain, on a kind of Zarathustran hiking expedition.) Here, one comes up against the vintage Peck, and concessions of the sort I have noted are fewer and further between. It is, like all the poet's more ambitious work, astonishing: undeniably the product of something like genius, insofar as this is measured by its remoteness from what most of us know as experience; and hence, in an alluring way, hubristic. It is safe to say that Peck remains secure from the threat of a burgeoning readership; and yet the "other poems" in M and Other Poems throw open a few more doors. Caveat emptor.


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Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review



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