John Peck's M part 2

The recent look at the first part of M came to the conclusion that this is a serious poem put together with great intelligence and skill. The second part more than confirms that view and I'll attempt to show why.

One of the things that I'm learning is that Peck's work requires two kinds of reading. The first is about the music and cadence of the lines and taking pleasure from these in themselves but also attending to the finer points of what might be going on. For example, part 2 starts with a consideration of an English hunting party as a kind of presage of the slaughter to follow:

    ............................. Yes, it will be just like this
    shabby tatoo, hypnotic bent heads and arms,
    this dead army, among the leaves, while tiny eyes
    and muscles go stiff, then spring away.

This triggers off a couple of things for me, the first is David Jones' In Parenthesis, the greatest war poem of the 20th century, which culminates in Mametz Wood as the start of the Somme offensive. The other is this fascination that the lives of the Victorian and Edwardian aristocracy seem to hold for us, a kind of scratchy but keenly felt nostalgia for a simpler yet grander age. M was first published in 1996 but seems paricularly relevant now on the centenerary of the start of the slaughter.

The shabby tatoo is the sound of the beaters hitting trees in preparation for the shoot. I'd like to think a bit more about 'shabby' because it captures many different aspects of the scene and what it portends, the OED has several definitions of the noun:

All of the above would appear to 'fit' the tatoo 'standing' for both the ordinary military drum roll but also the incessant hammering of an artillery bombardment. The shabbiness of the shoot recognises that it's coming to the end of it's time rather than the sight of the beaters in their big-pocketed white coats. I know, from discussion with poetry reading friends that many can't be bothered with thinking about subsidiary or alternative definitions but, with many serious poets, it does add a degree of layered (stratified) depth that would otherwise be lost. I'm not suggesting that this is necessary, except in the case of Prynne, indeed M can be read for the strength of the words and the music they make. I also recognise that my interested in other definitions, word origins and how words 'work' might be reasonably unusual but chasing this stuff down does add to my sense of involement with a poem.

In the case of 'shabby' a drive-by reading would take the first definition because it's the most common and think that it is rather because it's usually applied to clothes. Poetry doesn't however work like that, one of the attractions of the poem is the ways in which it makes different use of words to create its effect. British readers may also sutmble over It will be / the seventh blind, not realising that another definition is :" a hiding-place in which a hunter conceals himself from the game" although I understand that this usage is more common in the US.

Peck chooses one example to show that other changes were also taking place: Retired generals / ogling the factory owners' wives. The Victorian period saw the seeming inexorable rise of the industrial into the social world of the landed gentry- an incursion that was viewed with disdain and more than a little resentment. Hunting and shooting had always been a central pastime of the higher ranks of the military since well before 1066 and generals were still readily accepted into the aristocratic world, if they didn't already belong to it.

The animal analogy which is developed further captures this sense of entrapment experienced by soldiers in the trenches, the fear of death and the sheer panic of an attack. The first (long) stanza ends with:

    their arms lift in steady arcs, their wrists cradle
    with slight curves the smooth stocks, and birds fall
    twisting. The hares at last pitch, spin, hurtle
    furrows, while the earth around  them jerks with shot.

This is seriously accomplished stuff and doesn't require any time with the OED, 'arms' can also mean weaponry and artillery fires, or aspires to fire, in 'steady arcs' to reach its target. The human body frequently twists and contorts in response to being shot. The ending crowns both of these, one of the most feared and monstrously lethal devices in use in the trenches was the machine gun which could scythe its way through row after row of advancing troops. Those rounds that missed would hit the gound and cause the surrounding earth to move briefly in response.

The other thought that occurs me, as it often does, is that I might be overreading or have completely missed the point. I might be reading the images in this way because I want this to be about WWI, my only defence is that there are many things that point in this direction, especially 'it will be just like this' which is repeated four times.

Things then move on to prisoners, especially prisoners who happen to be poets as well. I wrote about the poential obscuruties in part One and the same issue may crop up here:

          So, to Bakhtin in prison, consuming backwards his own
    study of Goethe as paper for his smokes, grant worded fire!
    To Cellini, relisher, ravisher, and cell-sitter, give bronze.
    To Constance Markievitch grant a cell's consoler beyond Yeats.
    To Osip of the goldfinches, viaticum at each transit link.
    To Michnik, our exemplar, safety, who knows that the frightful
    consequence of freedom is false transformation.
    And so to Boethius, Ralegh, Gramsci, and Berrigan, grant philosophy
    as the lady due to each solitary: alchemy's soror
    in the singing booth wadded shut by power yet penetrable.

Ten years ago the above would have given me a major problem because I wouldn't have known most of the names and this would have intimidated me to such an extent that I would have stopped reading and walked away. This is one of my big worries about serious work because I'm guessing that the majority of poetry readers would feel the same way, falling into the 'this isn't for me' syndrome. The other problem that compounds the first is word choice, I fall over both viaticum and soror. However, I'm still of the view that all of this kind of material requires attention and part of paying attention involves finding out about words and names that aren't familiar. I also recognise that twenty years ago, those of us outside of academia would have had no opportunity to access this kind of information whereas now all of the above are reachable in seconds.

For what it's worth, until paying attention to the above, I didn't know that Ralegh had written philosophically, I didn't know that Constance Markievitz had been imprisoned but I knew who she was, I should have known but didn't that Bakhtin had been in prison and I had no idea at all about Michnik and Berrigan. I didn't know that 'viaticum' was latin for provisions nor did I know the exact meaning of soror although I guessed that it had something to do with alchemy.

I'm not going to go through these because readers should be encouraged to decide whether they can be bothered to find out for themselves. The one exception is what Adam Michnik might know. He was a Polish dissident who was imprisoned during the eighties for his activities with the Solidarity party. I don't know an enormous amount about recent Polish history except that, as with all eastern bloc nations after 1989, there was a whole range of quite Byzantine plots and counter-plots to do with the fate of ex-members of the communist government with many proclaiming that they had been promoting 'freedom' from within the system.

The alchemy parallel is also worth some thought, it turns out that soror may refer to the soror mystica which is one half of the pairing that works together to seek out the philosophers's stone. Boethius' tremendously influential Consolations of Philosophy consists of a dialogue between the author and Lady Philosophy. Knowing where these two references lead gives a greater richness to what initially appears to be 'just' a plea for succour for these hapless characters.

Lastly I want to highlight Peck's lyrical strength as he describes what these prisoners produce::

    Paper, scratchings and their backs bend, husks from piths
    rotting into dispersal, blind vegetables into soil,
    mineral glint into metal, all flaking off the spin
    of their horizons into the Great Bear, Centaur, and then
    the Hunter - through the air's whirled involvement
    procuring us meat and liquor, the rust of meteors
    staining the kiss of bread, our sulfur spilling    
    to seas where no trace is lost: up into ventral fins
    beating Anahata's rhythm, or into the cloud's body
    leaning above, trailing a lace rain over shoulders
    dozing among the near valleys, cold smoke on skin, on brain,
    to harbor there, silting portals, atlases, the new
    poisons and potencies, unforeseen, all yeasting
    into the epithuma, crud-burn in the ritual
    sacrificial vessel along the veins and hands, feeding
    flame we breathe out smokelessly, odor of the kind.

Now, I acknowledge that this is dense and contains a couple of obscurities (I define the obscure, usually, as stuff that I don't know anything about, this is obviously subjective) but it's also seriouly wonderful. I'm not overly fond of the idea of poetry as 'heightened' language but I'd make an exception for:

My argument with 'heightened' is that I'm not entirely clear what it might mean although I do acknowledge that poetry does some things with language in order to attain its purpose. As I said last time, the language in M is mostly made up of words that are familiar, the kind of words that we use in conversation but here they are given added depth and strength by the way in which they are used. The passage above exemplifies how word choice can create a more textured level of accuracy. I'd also like to add that I'd happily kill to have the ability to write anything near as good as this, even thought I'd probably add an s to 'involvement'.

As for the two obscurities, I was worried about 'epithuma' but the first link that I chose gave me two alternative definitions, both of which fit into the poem.

In conclusion, part 2 demonstrates that M is a serious piece of work written by an exceptionally gifted poet. I requires attention to get the most from it but even a cursory reading would demonstrate the quality within. I'm trying to be relatively conventional so it is likely that some thoughts on part 3 will follow in the next few weeks.