John Peck: Modernist After Modernism a review by Brooke Bergan
John Peck: Collected Shorter Poems 1966-1996. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1999.
You are what you read, especially if you are a poet. That is why the best way to come to a poet is by way of other poets. I first met John Peck’s poems through H.D. His “A Weaving at the Zollbrucke in Zurich” appeared in Michael King’s H.D.: Woman and Poet, one of the many attempts to unbury this frequently trivialized Modernist. H.D. had the misfortune of an interesting life and an even more interesting psyche, both of which flicker in her poems like phosphorous, just long enough to be misleading. Peck was not misled, perhaps because he trained in H.D.’s beloved Zurich as an analytical psychologist and was thus spared any interest in amateur analysis. Eschewing the usual cliche, H.D. as ur-victim / hysteric, Peck engaged her as serious artist and serious woman, capable of forging epic literature with an “extravagance as humble / as homespun . . .” (74) and an epic life that risked breakage in the search for knowledge. In fact, Peck’s H.D. bears “the white flash / the badge, that tell-tale of breakage then mending.” Like H.D’s own heroine in Helen in Egypt, his H.D. is “unimpeachable,” a woman and poet of absolute integrity who “underwent the charge / and the curse” she invited, pursuing it fearlessly into the darkness—or light—“past shadowy Karnak.”
The “humble” demotic voice H.D. brought to ancient Greece was her solution to the Modernist conundrum: how do you get there (to the past which presumably vivifies the present) from here (the disconnected present)? That she got there and brought it back to us more successfully than most of her contemporaries is rarely recognized or acknowledged with as much force as in Peck’s poem. H.D. brought us nothing less than “totality in a petal, lightening from age to age.” Only Robert Duncan has been as perspicacious in recognizing this achievement. Peck’s willingness to accede to H.D., and his subtle understanding of her remarkable reanimation of myth, of “Gods like shrapnel or pursuing seeds,” impressed me exactly because so many critics, even friendly ones, miss the point, distracted by that fascinating, somewhat out-of-control, life.
Not long after reading this surprising poem, I happened upon a Peck essay. “Poems for Britain, Poems for Sons” appeared in John Matthias’ collection David Jones: Poet and Man. Peck wrote with similar subtlety and respect about this underrated Welsh-English poet and his unfamiliar poetic material. By way of partly explaining Jones’ obscurity, at least in the United States, he noted the poet’s resistance to “the prophetic pseudomorphosis . . . to which we [Americans] remain temperamentally and culturally disposed,” a happy avoidance he had seemed to see as well in “H.D., American.” For Jones, pseudomorphosis—the distortion of truth in local telling—was inevitable and even desirable, but prophesy implied a progressivist view that he, unlike those great elitists Pound and Eliot, rejected. The escape occasioned by this disposition toward prophesy into “mystical participation, this time with the great dispossessed poets of the East” may be Eliot’s Shantih Shantih Shantih or Pound’s Cathay poems or Rexroth’s translations—or Peck’s own. All of the above are siblings to H.D.’s question, “What are the islands to me?” The answer is that they are puncta, as Roland Barthes called them, wormholes we’d say now, into another time and place. In Peck’s preface to Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo, selections of which are collected in his recently published Collected Shorter Poems 1966-1996 (Carcanet, 1999), he speaks of the “salvage operation” that is Modernism, contrasting Eliot’s “shoring” with Pound’s “shelving”: “the shelf providing no salvage post but rather a stage for new alignments.”
The thirty years of poems in this volume, most of them drawn from previous collections, prove that Peck too is seeking new alignments. For H.D., alignment came through Karnak, the Egypt back of Greece, the Goddess back of the gods. For Jones, a Roman Catholic, the “seed-ground,” as he called it, was Wales, and the aligning force, the crucifixion. What went before prefigured. What came after reenacted. No “pseudomorphosis” here, but transubstantiation at every turn, the blood of doughboys seeping into the blood of Roland into the blood of Christ. Peck does not make quite the same demands on his readers’ belief systems, nor can he. He is too catholic in the other sense of the word: born in Pittsburgh, trained in Switzerland, teacher of literature, practitioner of analytical psychology, poet / translator / critic, his interests include political and intellectual history in the East as well as the West, German Expressionism, Chinese poetry, Greek mythology, geology, and the anthro-philosophical implications of naming and memory—for starters. But these two poets, H.D. and David Jones, along with the other poets Peck admires, alludes to, writes about, or “translates” (Holderlin, Mandelshtam, Wang Wei, Pound, et al) are a locus from which to approach his work.
Peck is aware of the difficulties he, or any remotely complex poet, presents. They are, of course, not solely his difficulties. Poets, scholars, and readers no longer have shared obsessions. And, as he notes in an essay on the work of John Matthias, “the collective formation of memory . . . no longer goes in, having abandoned Augustine’s vast camps and palaces of recollection for the microfields of the wired chip.” What we know, in short, is often outside ourselves, in some disembodied, displaced electronic ether. A curative “renaissance of memory” would require an “inner discipline” and that “constitutes a place, locus, topos.” Peck’s locus is not as obvious as Matthias’, or for that matter H.D.’s or David Jones’. Switzerland is just not as sexy—ok, resonant—to us as Greece or Britain. And Pittsburgh is—well—Pittsburgh. Besides, Peck is not interested in “wringing lilies from the acorn.” His poems about place avoid recognizable local color as avidly as his poems about historical and literary figures avoid familiar incident. Mercifully, they also avoid the kind of superficial psychologizing that inevitably devolves into sentimentality. This is what makes his many homages so effective and what makes him one of the few contemporary poets able to handle the dramatic monologue convincingly.
Perhaps most remarkable, the problematically satisfying thwack of outrage is absent from Peck’s political and historical poems. He leaves it to the reader to supply emotion or even the inferences necessary to produce it. “The Spring Festival on the River,” which Peck describes in a note as “Vietnam-era” and ends parenthetically with the coda “1969, war in the East,” recreates (or imagines) a scene that occurred thirty years before, when the Japanese raided Chungking in 1937:
The public stairs at Chungking, after the air raids, after
The stampede crush—mothers as if asleep upon
The wide stone steps, their clothes torn back about them
By panic force of feet, their arms
Serene over the tiny bodies
The moment, hovering vividly between tableau and cinema, is any moment in any war, and Peck’s ability to make it immediate without editorializing produces a more powerful and more general indictment against war than many of the more obvious Nam poems written at the time. Here, as in all of Peck’s political poems, the concern is with the ethics of policy rather than any particular political agenda. That is why Peck is always on the side of the German girl in “Border” who hides a Swiss lover “either side would have shot.” That is why the other poems he labels “Vietnam era” also slip and slide across often unrecognizable or nearly interchangeable terrains and times. “March Elegies” begins with a blast of lightening, or bomb burst, in some contemporary space, moves through Troy, Finland, the landscape of an ancient Japanese painting, Machiavellian Florence, Bull Run, and Austria before the Great War to the Rome of Trajan and Eustace, patron of hunters; moves too through the lives of warriors, politicians, painters, and saints, since “a man may / retell the story / Lived by another because neither / Is in that way free.”
Like Pound, Peck presumes a wide-ranging knowledge not necessarily shared by his reader, and he is not above covering his tracks to heighten the effect, end notes to the contrary. In a poem called “Getting at What Happens,” he begins “There was a wife named Hope.” The end note to the poem reads “‘Hope’: for example, Nadezhda.” Not very helpful unless you know Nadezhda was Osip Mandelshtam’s wife, but the point is in the title: to get at what really happened without being distracted by what you think happened. “There [is] a wife called Luna” in the poem as well. Her connection to Hope is not clear to me, though I have every confidence that she belongs. Peck’s control over his work inspires that kind of confidence.
Once a well-known New Critic, whom I like and will therefore not name, admitted to me that he’d never seriously read Pound, for fear that after all the effort “nothing would after all be there.” The “there” he was looking for was coherence, which, of course, Pound himself famously fretted about in Canto 116. But these days you can slap gigantic gargoyles on a Georgian building and call it macaroni—or Post Modern, which amounts to the same thing. Sans the obsession with coherence obvious in Eliot, Pound, David Jones, and even H.D., Peck is nevertheless a Modernist not a Post Modernist. The eliding times and places in his poems are not pastiche. Peck makes it clear in his “Ars Poetica” that there is an ordering principle—inevitable but not deterministic—shaping poems and the world they describe. “By silvery increment, by mineral touch of the remorseless, / the irregular stone takes shape, though it derives shape / from the ruled lattice, denuded hegemenous crystal.” There is as well, Peck states in his Matthias essay, a “hyperspace in which regrounding occurs for poetic speech” and where “memory . . . persists yet changes.”
Resisting, like Jones and H.D., prophetic pseudomorphosis, Peck gets to this hyperspace (another time, another place, another consciousness) in a variety of ways. Sometimes an artifact is the punctum, as in “Fog Burning off at Cape May” when Peck and his playmates come upon a blockhouse built during World War II and find “ . . . we had walked into it, / Whole. We were There” (italics mine). More often, Peck uses one of the many poetic devices that allow one consciousness to penetrate another: homage, parody, satire, dramatic monologue, “weaving” (that is, interlacing texts), imitation, and translation (as in Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo).
Hi-Lo is described in Peck’s preface as “a Chinese intern in psychosomatics who worked in Zurich during the 1980s and used his writing as a way of adapting to the West.” Peck is, of course, using this invented “dispossessed poet of the East” as a way of weaving together his own varied experiences and interests, avoiding “pseudomorphosis” by courting it. The collection is a tour-de-force of riddles (“Hier Heidi war geboren “), rhymes, homages, parodies (“It does not add up,” writes Hi-Lo in a note), satires, folksongs, and jokes: “The one-man band / seeing the cop draw his sword / exercised / that capacity known as / the Science of Absence” (“A Gross of Poems Linked in the Mixed Manner”). Most of all, there are the “translations”—of Wang Wei, of Parmenides, of Andreas Gryphius, of Friedrich Holderlin, of Rilke—as a Westerner filters the West (and the Westernized East) though the imagined mind of an Easterner. These “contested realities” reach their apex in “Tally Stick” when Peck, through Hi-Lo, translates lines from one poet that transmit the “dream voice” of another poet. In rather an understatement, Peck notes that the subject of the translated poem is “not literal but spiritual.” The proliferated personae, like nested boxes, achieve unparalleled “alignments” that are also “not literal but spiritual.” In another poem, Brecht, Goethe, Furtwangler, Baudelaire, Lenin, Wang Wei, Aquinas, Mallarme, Nixon, and the Swiss doctor who first postulated you are what you eat rub shoulders with Celine, Dostoyevsky, Bismarck, Joyce, Hegel, and Sontag.
In his more recent work, Peck sometimes allows himself an “I” almost Romantic in focus, as with the elegantly rhymed “Canzone of Wood, Paper, Water”:
Convex lens of water
in a glass is sanity,
though thunderheads now totter
no less steeply within
that clarity —
He also begins to address a certain “Termia” (short for Terminus, perhaps?), in the manner of Propertius but passionate about such circuitions as “the unaccountable moment men call Rome” (“Begin’s Autumn, After the Late Massacre, 1982”). This slightly distanced way of speaking to his “Thou,” as he acknowledges in “Passacaglias,” sidesteps “the ritornelli of divulgence, bland / authenticities of the personal gargle.” Peck’s work is always larger than “the personal gargle,” larger even than his own consciousness, and certainly larger than the limited concerns of an agenda—cultural, political, poetic, or otherwise.
This collection is framed, or nearly so, by two poems titled “Viaticum,” the Eucharist of the Last Sacraments before death. Written thirty years apart, both look forward as well as backward. “What we were has come with us / What we are hangs back,” Peck writes in the earlier poem, which ends with past, present, and future exquisitely merged in the image of a deer racing across the landscape: “Dust runs after the deer.” Unsurprisingly, the past drags more heavily in the later poem: “the drift down years / backward, slipping, as if I blur the fear.” But it too ends by looking forward: “with its old tread it will take its winding climb through the levels that dusk absorbs.” Treading always into the unknown, into the territory psycholinguist Michael Polanyi calls tacit knowledge, Peck has sustained through thirty years of writing poems a remarkably consistent vision and a wholly original and elegant voice, unbeholden to fashion or formula.