John Peck is the author of ten volumes of poetry, a psychoanalyst, translator of Euripides and C. G. Jung’s The Red Book, a poet under-appreciated by or unfamiliar to most, yet long and deeply admired by a cadre of serious poets and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. What are we to make of his magnum opus, CANTILENA, a poem “in four spans” (“Cedars of Liban,” “Denarius,” “Caelum,” and “The Bewitched Groom”) just published by Shearsman Books? This long poem consists of 328 cantos that incorporate elements of the literature, philosophies, and religions of both the West and East; the natural world and our predations upon it; the wars and bloody history of the human race; fragments of Peck’s own intellectual and lived experiences; and the fields of mathematics, nuclear physics, and alchemy. With so many avenues of access, where to start?
We must fall into the work, as Nate Klug suggests in his fine introduction, and then, as we begin to move across it, get our bearings. We must start with the sheer pleasures to be found in individual cantos, which build in places into pairs or suites. Open the book anywhere. Pick one. Peck’s virtuosic play of imagery, sound, syntax, and subject matter offers an encounter with a deep and incisive intelligence. On the ancient and threatened cedar forests of the Levant, he writes:
That which from the mineral into swayings
piles up through orbital fire, bores into basis,
veins itself with drink, sheathes with callus,
here shades the ant. That which diameters
darkness turpentining manifest push.
Which from Gothic morphs through tensegrity
to floating feelers sucking in carbon and oozing
isotopes of Greek Fire, trading lung waste
for jet fuel. That which coffers the trousseau
of Maria de’ Medici and Lincoln’s bones.
The seven lamps of architecture kindle
and extinguish along its resinous
radius. That which declares itself single
and integral, defending the eld, paneling
boardrooms and catafalques,
tendrils here through anchorage.
Spindles territory into maps. Seethes with camphor.
Ties off the below with azure in a frondy tourniquet
loosened only by storm or chainsaw.
Cantilevering moons, it breathes out. Spining
suns with pond-rippled calendars, it breathes in.
Has no image of itself save its seed.
Will light out for Norway in the Big Heat
while stemming farther into the mountain. Will. And thus is.
(“Cedars” #26, page 40)
Nouns working as verbs, adverbs working as nouns. Imagery layered, fast, and fierce. Syntax agile, complex, rhythmic, and precise. Time and space fused and compressed. Sound, everywhere. We poets often speak of the desire to put language “under pressure.” What other poet can consistently deliver this many pascals per page?
As we move across the spans, the images and thought-movements layer and link moments in space-time. Following its expansive instincts the poem opens out into multiple dimensions, which can be intuited, glimpsed, or starkly viewed. The technology of the steel mills in Peck’s native Pittsburgh echoes alchemists’ refining of chemical and spiritual material, as well as the work of Clarence Peck, the poet’s father, who, as part of the Manhattan Project, developed the critical alloy needed to sheath the atomic bomb. The figure of the bear that disturbs the speaker into speech is also Odin, rune-finder; this figure rhymes with the bear/Christ figure that appears in a vision to Brother Klaus, patron saint of Switzerland. Gilgamesh’s assault on the cedars of Lebanon and his attempts to cheat death come forward in time to link with our own assaults on forests that extend from the watered earth beneath us to the blue sky above us. And there is war and our endless complicity in that project: the Persian and Roman wars, the Civil War, the Western Front, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Gulf wars, 9/11 and its aftermath. Permeating all this are questions of ethical choice, of how to deal with that burden of guilt. Here, for example, “Caelum” #34 layers Greek myth, metallurgy, the 9/11 attacks, and the speaker’s encounter with his employer:
Through carbonized mist he brings her,
Herakles after pinning death
with two falls to spare, freeing
Alkestis veiled in toile—
rumpled deathware translucently
spun to lifewear, she maintains silence:
in red-flecked crystals, pyroclast
throughout dust samples
from Towers 1 & 2, from Building 7,
microgeodes of iron beading her veil,
buckshot hurled in the billions
by thermite, and sidefall pleats welded
much as cheddar, boiled then iced, blisters milk
through furnace into evidence, reeking
of sulfur its midwife, with sulfur’s transform thermite,
the welder’s butter knife
through I-beams: these the wardrobe
not of rescue but reclamation, vulcanism
scorching loss so as to sear denial, quick hurt
then long release. With bluefire torch and glazed visor
she must fall through 40,000
tons of steel members able to resist
five times their load, then return in such dress
not in six and a half seconds
but the length of unwavering pledges however shabbily
laid aside—come back to honor, accuracy,
the temerity of fact.
My own employer later, who had managed cleaning teams
in Building 7’s hotel,
her muteness: this grit stole wraps her as well. (186)
Peck is no haphazard collagist. He is a poet of disciplined exploration, one who “registers our sense of living in a world charged with meaning” while understanding that “poetry need not be composed of finished propositions, but of the structures, relationships, and materials from which such propositions will eventually be made” (“Patterns of Flight,” a review of Peck’s Selva Morale, by Clive Wilmer, Times Literary Supplement, 25 August 1995). CANTILENA offers moments in a process of searching, not as snapshots from a shambling road trip but as a testament to a fearsome confrontation with that which we are not entirely able to master, those powers and “eldest primes” that are “fit disturbers whom the mind loathes/yet down through its girderwork/of unrealized ends may crave” (“Cedars” #1, page 15). Such a stance is described in “Caelum” #8:
I stood into something still arriving:
not our usurers’ freedom,
but hard with blood older than the hunters,
prior to the great pledges: family, clan, honor. (160)
This seems a work that might be endless, that, as Robert Duncan once said of his Passages, extends beyond the poet’s work in it. But CANTILENA has a frame, and guy wires. In music a cantilena is a simple lyric melody, but clearly this poem is no such thing. “Cantilena” is also the name of a long poem by Sir George Ripley (1415-1490), Canon of Birdlington, a highly regarded English alchemist. The poem was given a close reading by Jung in 1955 and 1956 (“Rex and Regina: The Regeneration of the King (Ripley’s ‘Cantilena’).” C. G. Jung. Collected Works, Vol. 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, 1963. 274-330). Ripley’s poem describes an ailing and decrepit king who, seeking renewal, must embrace the queen, a mother figure whose familiars include savage animals, peacocks, and multi-colored stones. These are the chthonic partners the king must integrate with on the path to resurrection. While Peck’s poem is by no means tied to Ripley’s script, Ripley’s work offers a take on CANTILENA’s mission. Given the burden of our violent history, bucking its insanity, how does one get a shot at some kind of understanding or transcendence? “Denarius” #61 points to a possible answer: that which is “older than the hunters” and can be sensed underneath us:
time—when the allotted disc
already hangs chewed off in places,
or dinged, or dented—time seeps value.
Even so, deal nobly with time
and the tsunami will not vacuum your beach
but bathe your ankles, destroying nothing,
rinsing no single sense but threshing the basement
current through all of them.
A stream machine with no moving parts, the rimless
listening not yet in your ears but already
prayer’s underpower, will be yours—
with the sightless all-directional mercury
at bulge in the images
while ebbing at the eye’s corner: that too
pushes the velvety volumeless
undersensing in sensing. (149)
As with the poem’s title, each span’s subtitle and epigraph anchors the constellation of cantos within, as well as identifying tensile links across the whole. They offer the reader a root map of sorts. “Cedars of Liban,” the first span, yokes together, among other things, Gilgamesh’s assault on the cedar forests of Lebanon and his encounter with the guardian demon and goddess there; the Norse World Tree that links the underworld, earth, and heaven; and our own slow destruction of whatever cedars are still left standing as the planet warms. The second span, “Denarius,” invokes the simple Roman coin as mirror and mandala and also points to the efforts to square the circle (quadrata circuli)—a mathematically impossible task that must be taken on by seekers, alchemists, and even Abraham Lincoln (“Denarius” #45) “as a life discipline” in Peck’s words. “Caelum,” the third span, conjures the quinta essentia, a sky-blue liquid the color of air, that is the product of alchemy, and the long march home of Xenophon and his 10,000 fellow Greek mercenaries, fighting their way up-country, out of the Persian desert to the sea.
In the last, long span, “The Bewitched Groom,” the speaker begins his voyage again by means of a cryptic image: a groom lying senseless on his back on a stable floor while a horse and a torch-bearing crone look on, based on a woodcut print by Hans Baldung Grien (c.1544) The image serves as a touchstone for speaker and reader, a way of testing where we come out on, or enter into, all this:
How you are singing:
from that you show me what you’ll be singing
in durance hale or vile.
How you survey a groom flat on his back,
eyes shut, the mare peering back around
and a crone gawking through a half-door with a torch—
the engraving by Hans Grien—
hold that for a moment and I’ll tell you
what you’ll be saying about the stylishly
cloaked injustice working inside sunlight
on promenades jollied out
past your front yard. What you make of it,
the straw-and-dung-flecked scene,
whether or not you scroll witchcraft into it
or construe the mare as a stud or momentarily
affiliate the stall boy’s jacket, its pleats
and ripply tucks, with high station: though these cogs
in the gearing of your take
tooth a definite sequence, coloring
and culling a specific harvest—these tell
less in the mound weight on the pan balance
than how the macro already in you cups it,
the man you are, the woman you are, leaning
in at the stall, breathing, not breathing. (“Groom” #25, 251)
Peck, a master at the height of his literary powers, presents in CANTILENA one account of seeing, of moving toward some kind of whole. To do so, the speaker must come face to face with the unruly and terrifying components of our collective and individual histories.
They sat me down, interrogated me,
asking what I had seen with eyes closed, and I said:
the honoraria of sadness, nugget-bright,
ores ropey molten in the encased seam,
and messages, or messengers, their in-between
blood filamentals criss-crossing
pain-clear soothingly swift, at rest in
unassessable velocities across chiasms
chasmic in their embassies. (“Groom” #118, lines 1-9, 348)
If Peck is an alchemist, the raw material in his lab is vast, deep, and ours, and from it he has forged an alloy, brilliant and unanswerable. To steal a phrase from the last canto, “Groom” #121, CANTILENA is but “one stab at squaring the circle of our crimes.”