Reading Chapter One of John Peck's M

There are no set texts at arduity, I do what Bourdieu sneeringly referred to as 'undirected reading'. This may be because I'm self-taught but it may also be because I've found it more entertaining and profitable than following a pre-determined route. This means that I've never paid attention to any of the Romantics nor Holderlin, nor Rilke, nor Pope nor Chaucer. I'm very comfortable with this because I've been doing this since I was 14 with my Saturday mornings spent going over the poetry shelf in the Middlesbrough branch of W H Smith (on the left at the top of the stairs) and the monthly trips to Acklam branch library. The other routes, apart from this glorious browsing have been personal recommendation and Cammilla Paglia (Spenser Milton) and Nicholas Lezard (Hill, Marvell). All of which is a long way of saying that, in recent years, John Matthias' friendship has given me David Jones (In Parenthesis, The Anathemata), Anna Akhmatova (Poem without a Hero) and John Peck, especially his M, a longish poem that was first published in 1996. This has been a revelation and I'm going to try and explain why.

This is subtitled A Poem in Ten Chapters and One Thousand Lines and contains a wealth of thought provoking and involving material which is written with a staggering level of skill and intelligence. It's also densely worded, which can be quite daunting at first but this closely woven cloth turns out to contain a certain breed of majesty that takes my breath away.

These are big claims, even for me, but it's an initial response - the kind you get when you know you've come across something that challenges the way you think and feel about poetry. We'll start with the natural world from Chapter One:

    As on forty-five-degree slopes tufted beneath summits,
    where spruce start straight out and then angle up
    to gain the plumbline ordained by day's fire - 
    each trunk begins as a knee rounded full at the rail,
    so each acanthus curved out from the fast green cable.
    And as trees at that altitude when thrown by wind
    topple not down but back, their roots sheathed and cones
    still budding, pliant and roseate, so each leaf flap
    sprang to the humming bole, shining as it went.

I can't do this, by which I mean that have tried for more than forty years to adequately describe the point at which things meet the land. This means that I know how technically difficult the above is to achieve in any shape or form but the these few lines take my idea of skill to another level. None of the words hear are obscure, all are straightfoward in what they say and do but they nevertheless attain a precise beauty that is very rare indeed.

Let's start with this tree and the way it comes out of the ground, 'start' and 'angle' are not usual to describe the growth of trees but here it seems completely accurate, creating immediately the thing described. I live on the south east coast of a small island that sits in the English Channel, the prevailing wind is from the west and each mile in that direction along the coast produces trees that are more and more 'angled' towards the east. Of course (being a townie at heart) I haven't looked at the base of these trees to see how this might work, but I will now. Moving on to beauty, this is one of those gloriously wide and loose terms that I try not to employ but in this instance 'aesthetically pleasing" doesn't seem to fit, nor does 'lyrically inspiring'. Beauty for me here operates at three levels and these come together to produce something very special. First there there are the words on the page and, secondly, these produce a strong picture of the tree and its development and, thirdly, there is the effect on the ear when these lines are read aloud. Geoffrey Hill, for fifty years the UK's finest nature poet, comes close to this at his best but doesn't convey this level of complex grandeur. I'm not familiar with the growth of acanthus leaves and therefore cannot vouch for the accuracy of either simile but I don't think that this matters when you have work as impressive as this.

A plumbline so ordained is something compelling and satisfying because it's succinct, complex and precise, we know exactly what Peck means. I'm suspicious of the idea of poetry as the use of heightened language because I don't understand the adjective, language is language and we don't use 'high' or 'low' as descriptors, nor should we. I am, however, at a bit of a loss to describe in other ways what's being produced here. 'Refined' language, in the sense of being made into something superior or more productive also has the English connotation of poshness, Honed, distilled, compressed, condensed all fail to convey the other skills involved. So I'm going (provisionally, tenatively) for 'artfully crafted language' in a feeble attempt to capture two of the main elements involved in the production process.

So, my mind is taken for an engrossing walk in nine lines and this finishes with the extraordinary startlement (technical term) of the last four words.

We now move on to God and mysticism in general and Hidegard of Bingen and the obscurity problem:

    This must be one thread of what you call viriditas.
    I faced the fighting abbess, the discriminator
    of herbal transformers green from the blurred seasons.
    For a warp forming from blackness had cowled itself
    over the iron singing reed of Rhein's Bingen.

I'm always suspicious of names or references that might be unfamiliar to readers, primarily because many people get put off and don't go any further but also because it implies a coterie of those few that will recognise who is being referred to and her significance. Over the past couple of years I've been trying to get a grip on the Late Medieval in England and came across Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich and from there (this is a guess) to Hildegard who thus finds herself on the arduity list of Things to Find out About. I think that before this I may have been familiar with the name but not much else. She therefore is categorised as reasonably obscure in this secular age but not as obscure as, for example, Geoffrey Hill's discussion of Thomas Bradwardine or J H Prynne's use quotes without any indication that they are quotes. Now that my interest has been roused, I've done some very brief and superficial blundering about on the interweb and it turns out that "viriditas", as used here is quite a central concept in Hildegard's thought. The v excellent Notable Women blog has a couple of very useful pages, in plain speak, which illuminate what might be going on in the above. A crude and essentially drive-by reading would suggest that viriditas is a 'greening power' as a noun and what God does, in terms of exercising a generative power, as a verb. As might now be seen things are becoming quite mind-stretching especially if we throw in the acanthus mentioned above.

The last two lines seem to take me in a different direction although the mention of 'Bingen' was what pointed me to Hildegard. I'm still floundering a bit with regard to 'warp' which, as a noun, I've always thought of as a fault, as in something that had been warped or twisted out of shape or a line of threads used in weaving, as in 'warp and weft'. Neither of these would seem to fit in here but it transpires that warp as a verb did once mean " To project through space; to cast, throw, fling". I'm also tempted by the noun as the name given to a look-out who, in the Elizabethan period, worked with a courber who hooked goods from upstairs windows. Instead of this brief flight of fancy, I'm reading a fault and projecting through space as both making some sense (at this stage). These days, having spent too long with Celan's Notes and Drafts I can't help thinking of his view of the poem as coming from and rooted in a primordial darkness but I guess that it's either the big bang or God's generative power that's intended here, or maybe both. The end of the line is tricky because a cowl is usually some form of hood and the verb is to pull the hood over the head. as monks would do. If the foregoing guess is correct it is this thing that projects and forms itself that has donned the hood, an action which can imply being shielded from the world, being anonymous, concealed, disguised. I'm perversely reading it as 'taking shape', beginning to become solid although the picture that I have in my head alternates between the formation of the earth and the night sky The 'singing reed' may have something to do with the many liturgical songs that Hildegrad composed during her very productive life.

Before getting any further into this, it might be worthwhile to look at M's two epigrams, the first is personal:

Avec reconnaissance après une maladie, et pour Sainte Jehanne

So, personal gratitude, thanksgiving after an illness and written for 'Sainte Jehanne'. The next is, in this instance a bit more pertinent from Marcus Aurelius:

    Nature has kept everything in view,
    the end no less than the beginning
    or the intermediate period of duration;
    much as a boy who throws a ball in the air.

Given that other parts of Chapter One appear to be about the sun and moon and matters celestial, things seem to be coming together. In the context of Sir G Hill's recent collection of epigrams and colophons (Ludo), I've expressed some puzzlement about the function of the epigram (esp as used by Prynne and Hill) but here things seem clearer, the sequence is offered as a way of personal thanks and is written for Sainte Jehanne. The Aurelius quote seems to set out the frame for the work in that there's consideration given to Nature's (capital n) omniscience and perhaps an exploration of the state of being thrown.

I want to end these few words on Chapter One with a review of the arduity position on poetry and philosophy. Initially, I was firmly against the philosophical poem, feeling, along with Ezra Pound that poets should stick to poetry and seekers after the truth should stick to that. Over the last four years, mostly due to the work of Simon Jarvis, this position has modified to: poets should only 'do' philosophy if they have something to add and can do it with a high degree of skill. This then brings me to the Hegel problem which is much, much more straightforward, the H name does not belong in a poem mainly because it intimidates and excludes readers but also because many poets use it in order to appear more profound and 'deep' than they are. Unfortunately here we have:

    A mountain goat's severed forefoot on snowslope
    without effort or protection points the way.
    Hegel had arced his compass across the whole, whereas
    she now vanished into all things, while that sun rested
    on living coils funneling down to a void point
    or aperture into fullness: window shut onto green speed.

Okay, on reads 1-3, the H word comes as a shock and feels out of place but on the fourth and fifth reading, I realised that this isn't obscure nor arcane so there is a kind of sense in the inclusion. This again is complex and beautiful stuff that very very few can write and even fewer can write well. It's absorbing and addictive for those of us who love language and the things that plain words can do.

On further reflection, the democrat inside me would still have preferred "some have arced their compass"

In conclusion, M is a hardcore and grown up piece of work that more than achieves what it sets out to do with incredible flair and strength. The next installment will try and show how things develop in Chapter Two.