On the Turn

Clive Wilmer

  • Collected Shorter Poems: 1966-96 by John Peck
    Carcanet, 424 pp, £14.95, April 1999, ISBN 1 85754 161 8

Poets whose work has a kinship with that Ezra Pound are likely to be ignored. This is the case with the American poet John Peck, who, now in his late fifties, with a massive and challenging achievement behind him and the devotion of an active British publisher, is unknown not only to general readers but to those who think they know about modern poetry. To be strictly accurate, Peck is not a card-carrying Poundian – such poets tend to be tiresome – but there are several points of convergence. He resembles Pound in the quality of attention that is present in his sensuous evocations; particulars are delectably rendered in their otherness and, as in Pound, are sometimes clues to the larger order of things. Like Pound, he is fascinated by those activities that suggest dialogues between matter and consciousness – stone-carving, clay-moulding, carpentry and other crafts. He shares Pound’s enthusiasm for a wide range of languages and cultures and has memorably translated in the Poundian manner. In particular, he has a keen interest in Chinese poetry and thought, which have probably made an even more profound impression on his work than they did on Pound’s. (His third book, Poems and Translations of Hi-Lö, is in spite of its title an original work which purports to have been written by a Chinese medical student living in Zurich, where Peck was studying at the time.) Perhaps his greatest debt to Pound is a mastery of the singing line that seems to owe little to formal prosody, though many of his poems are written in orthodox metres.

Yet Peck’s literary provenance is a complex matter. He began his career as a student of Yvor Winters, whose influence can be glimpsed in a few rigorously formal early poems (e.g. ‘In Front of a Japanese Photograph’). The subject of one of them (‘Involuntary Portrait’) resembles Winters and, not surprisingly, the poem is ambivalent: Winters was a fierce critic of Modernism, who advocated a return to traditional form and the rational methods of Renaissance poetry. At the same time, he had been an early disciple of the Imagists and learned a great deal from Modernist innovation. He encouraged his students to study Modernist poetry thoroughly, critically and with a view to learning from its virtues as from its errors. The list of poets who followed his advice for some part of their careers is impressive. It includes J.V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie and Robert Pinsky, all of whom have paid tribute to his teaching. Many of them went further in the direction of Modernism than Winters would have liked. Davie, for example, spent much of his life championing Pound, yet nearly all his books include approving references to Winters. When Peck began a PhD on Pound, he chose Davie as his supervisor.

Peck early established an individual manner that is nonetheless indebted to this particular genealogy. His dazzling first book, Shagbark (1972), can sometimes be read as a debate between Pound and Winters with Davie presiding. There is, however, a ‘sensuous fullness’ and ‘sinewy opulence’ to the writing – I am quoting Davie – that marks it as Peck’s own, right from the start. He went on to develop a steadier, more consistent style in The Broken Blockhouse Wall (1978). Thirteen years of silence followed. During this time, Peck abandoned academic English to study analytical psychology at the Jung Institut in Zurich. There was already evidence in his work of a mystical inclination, syncretic in character. By the time his poetry began to appear again, he had built up a huge body of work, richer, more complex than the early books. Poems and Translations of Hi-Lö appeared in 1991 and was soon followed by Argura (1993) and Selva Morale (1995): these 450 pages of verse are so deeply interrelated that the books constitute a kind of trilogy. M and Other Poems (1996), which includes an ambitious long poem, is perhaps the first sign of another new direction. Collected Shorter Poems reprints most of the lyrics from that book with the whole of The Broken Blockhouse Wall and substantial selections from the other four volumes. Much good work has had to be left behind.

Despite the fits and starts of his career, Peck has maintained an impressive consistency. At the heart of it is the need to reconcile a range of sources and influences – Winters and Pound, mysticism and Chinese literature. Most of these coexist in the beautiful ‘Viaticum’ with which this book begins – a gateway to his universe. In it, a party of climbers on a mountain approaches ‘the last cols’ before the peak:

Doors in this termless morning
Sills, thresholds
And the firmness beyond.

The poems, too, are like gateways between consciousness and the world, which is always ‘termless’ – both nameless and infinite. The method is a combination of ‘firmness’ – a Poundian hardness of definition, also admired by Winters – with what appears to be its opposite: the moment when experience is transmuted into thought.

A few pages on from ‘Viaticum’ we find ‘Colophon for Ch’ing-Ming Shang-Ho T’u’, whose sinuously musical free verse apparently translates the marginal gloss on a Chinese scroll painting. The rendering of Chinese images owes everything to Pound’s Cathay, yet there is a far greater emphasis on the continuum of language. Much of the energy in Pound derives from discontinuity and fractured syntax, but while admiring the beauty of Pound’s effects, Winters and Davie nonetheless bemoan the loss of sequentiality. In response to their objections, Peck seems to have found a fluid way of patterning discrete perceptions that perhaps alludes to the Chinese art of calligraphy. At any rate, the relation of written language to pictorial image in scroll painting becomes a model. The physical world is evoked with immense resourcefulness and at the same time language stands apart from what a later poem refers to as ‘the stout weave/Of what is’. Words cannot penetrate the intricate texture of things, however seductively they may evoke it. At the same time, language has its own textures and metamorphic properties, which may reflect the world but must not be confused with it.

It is Peck’s least Poundian characteristic that provides the key to his poetry: the anticipated but unpredictable outcomes of his syntax. In the 1978 collection a poem called ‘Bounds’ reflects directly on these matters. It links a series of anecdotes, whose historical resonance is partly obscured by the passing of time. They are drawn together by the notion of a ‘questioner’ trying to ascertain what they might now mean. By the end of the poem the questioner is identified with Socrates, the legendary champion of the open-ended:

    When that gadfly questioner
Among powerful sons

Of the powerful, ambling and gesturing,
Alluded to the city’s walls, the logic
       And compact we have dispersed,

He took them at the same time through the gate
Into the half-formed, along the ravelling
       Lifeline of his sentence.

Rope of twined lifetimes, of allegiances
To salt and the grape’s candour, oak and stone
         And the grain of linked reasons.

This seems to be saying that, though the poet aims at closure – at the shapeliness of this repeated stanza form, for instance – his engagement with language, and language itself, can never be concluded. Hence the emphasis on the liminal – the ‘bounds’ of the title, the gateway of ‘Viaticum’ and so on. The poem can evoke the firmness and finitude of what is, but that is only a beginning. There is something almost clairvoyant in the way that logic is extended into intuition with the parallel ‘ravelling lifeline’ of the sentence and the ‘rope of twined lifetimes’. This procedure is then illuminated by a further analogy:

A questioner is worth his augury,
       As when a swallow streaks

Up from a warehouse roofline, or erupts
Clearing the noon glare of the careful fields,
       Sensing already a changed air,

The shape of other weather in its climb
And dizzy spinout. Scrawled intelligence
       Of the turn.

And it is there, on the ‘turn’, just three syllables into the line, that the sequence ends. We have heard earlier in the poem of a plough turning in its furrow and been reminded – as we are again by this last enjambment – that the word ‘verse’ derives from the Latin versus, the turn at the end of the furrow. It is at the line ending that the energies of a poem are engaged, its form defined, its rhythm articulated – and there, too, that the language may seem to hesitate before plunging into the sequence of its outcomes, like the swallow, which has to anticipate its target and does so partly through memory of its own and its species’ past.

Peck’s poetry teems with migrating birds and their patterns of flight. This is the origin of the clairvoyant quality in the work: what the poem calls ‘augury’. Peck is not, however, another modern irrationalist with a taste for the occult. There is undoubtedly religious feeling here, but the poems are not concerned with the supernatural or the weird. They depend, to adopt the terms of scholastic philosophy (in which Peck shows some interest), on argumentum (which rests on demonstrable fact) rather than on ratio (which depends on reasoning). They arise, in other words, from the poet’s contact with the world, rather than from systematic and abstract thought. This helps to explain the sharpness of their images and their crisp musicality of movement.

The poems are touched at every point by moral, social and historical concerns. Both the Vietnam War and the residue of the Second World War are necessary background to the early books. Peck’s Chinese persona, Hi-Lö, in his Swiss exile, is conscious of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as of events nearer to hand in Yugoslavia and the Lebanon. The apparently ineluctable currents of history are a major preoccupation. ‘Woods Burial’, the first piece in M and Other Poems, reflects on a father and son who hurl a felled tree over some rapids:

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.

This distinction helps Peck to focus the paradox which is, as his poems often remind us, at the root of poetic art: that a poem is both rhythm and form, a thing that moves in time and a stable artefact, ‘a monument more lasting than bronze’ (as Horace puts it) which alters in the mind of each new reader, enabling us to judge our history at the same time as accepting we are part of it.

The poem which most memorably dwells on these concerns can be found in Peck’s fourth book, Argura:

He who called blood builder is now memory, sound.
Dear, if we called blood wrecker we’d not lie,
but how thinly we should hear time’s curved cutwater,
and never the full song of the falling pine,
that swish the nets make running through swells gone starry.

The steersman heard nothing, and then felt nothing,
toppling through the salt humus of passage.
And when Aeneas taking the tiller gathered
our woody landfall, the turning belt of worlds
spread out sparks of a brotherly burnishing.

Memory may work for us as did his mother
Venus, sluicing his wound invisibly,
its hurt going as a flood
with which he heard
one life wash over and another rise,
but faster than remembering. He fought again,

and so the other thing may not be refused,
stand with me hearing it: from the bushy hill
the sound of fellings as huge nets hauled dripping,
plasma from slaughter clotting into nebular
founding stones, and smoke breathing screens of columns.

(‘He who called blood builder’)

Poetry is the art of memory. It memorialises – ‘a word is elegy to what it signifies’, as Robert Hass has written – and it is itself in Auden’s preferred definition ‘memorable speech’. The man ‘who called blood builder’ is Osip Mandelstam – a victim of history whose wife preserved his work by committing it to memory. But the matter of the poem is mostly derived from the carnage and confusion of the Aeneid, which also celebrates the founding of an empire. So the blood that is both wrecker and builder is partly what Virgil calls ‘the Latin race’ and partly the slaughter that makes its triumph possible. On the one hand it is the sine qua non of life and, on the other, it reminds us of myths of blood and soil. The moment Peck chooses to fix on is Aeneas’ landfall in Italy. The falling pines recall his first action, the felling of trees to build funeral pyres, the observance of pieties requiring an inaugural act of destruction.

The most impressive thing about this poem is its refusal to surrender to the despair it has exposed. The nets, like language, haul in a richer harvest; and memory, the faculty which registers the horrors, is also the source of poetry and whatever it is that we call civilisation. Peck compares memory to the goddess Venus, who soothes and heals Aeneas’ wound in one of the battles that follow his landfall. In the myth, she is his mother, of course, but here she the planet Venus as well – one of a chain of cosmic images that in this poem link stanza to stanza. These culminate in the image of plasma as nebular/founding stones’ – like the primal soup from which solar systems emerge. Culture may be compromised by its origins, but it is not uniquely determined by them, partly because it is not exclusively human and partly because, like everything else, it grows and changes in time.