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John Peck's M, Chapter III

To recap, M is subtitled "A Poem in Ten Chapters and One Thousand Lines". I've recently written about chapters I and II and now intend to pay some readerly attention to chapter III. The first two cover a lot of varied ground and the third appears to do the same although there are some references that have thus far alluded me.

In recent correspondence, John has written: " Yet how else is one to get to ground, if not by trusting oneself to stop, wait, make inventory, dig, recompute, and then rise again to the encounter? It's the only honest way. David Jones might liken it to the debriefing given by a party out on reconnoiter." This succinctly reflects what arduity tries to promote and encourage, a readerly practice that I've lazily referred to as 'paying attention'.

I think I'm currently just about at the making inventory stage with Capter III and what follows might enable me to do some digging as well. I've previously extolled John's ability as a nature/landscape poet and this is confirmed here:


Such air feeds no outburst, cascade, or whelming surge:
along hair of the forearm a wheatfield submits
to a current which thrummingly that blown gold harbours.
Standing while fleeting, unreconstructible wave
brightly unbroken across moulding rock, yet
all of that sweep, were it refeatured as one stream
would be the aware companion of stony mind. And it is,
that mind one stratum in the store of mind,
asleep in it what stirs in the grass and wakes in us.

Like all serious work, this appears to take us in several directions at once without wasting a single word. Starting with the wheatfield, its submission to the wind creates an image of gentle rippling that most of us will be familiar with but there's also this idea of energy/electricity that gives a different 'sense' altogether. The wind is referred to as a 'current' which can refer to:

The first three and the last of these are peraps the most perinent here but it's probably as well to keep the others in mind for the rest of the chapter. There's also 'surge','thrum' and 'wave' all of which share at least some of the same connotations. I'm taking the blown gold to be the visual effect of a field of wheat which is said to hold or give shelter to this current. This thrumming needs some more attention because it appears to point in both directions. In my head, a thrum is the noise made by an electicity generator or whatever goes on in a sub-station which would obviously 'fit' with current. Closer inspection however reveals that it is the holding/sheltering/harbouring done by the field which is said to thrum- isn't it?

This is where some digging proves to be useful, it turns out that there are a number of other definitions for thrum and that two of these, albeit classed as obscure are " to compress, condense" and "to press or crowd in; to cram" which begin to make a bit more sense, especially with the holding referred to above.

The 'wave' can / might be a sea wave, the action of the wheat or, to my non-scientific brain, a pulse of energy or matter. Hesitantly, I'm taking the latter two as what is intended within the natural features because it is the only way that I can make progress of being refeatured and this companion of 'stony mind'. I'd be much more comfortable if this wave that can't be rebuilt echoed the impossibility of stepping in the same river twice but the chapter contiues in the science direction. Other multiple possibilities are 'moulding' and 'stony'. The first might suggest that the rock has the effect on bringing mould to its surroundings or that the rock is becoming covered in mould or that the rock is involved in shaping this wave. With regard to the first two, some rocks on the shoreline do get covered in a variety of different things (limpets, algae, seaweed etc.)

As for the science 'direction', the later lines are concerned with the detection of muons, of weirdness and masslessness which would suggest to me that we are in the realm of the subatomic and the quantum rather than Newtonian, common sense, science. The turning of a wave into a stream sounds as if this might relate to something quantum but I'm struggling to reconcile this with this then becoming an 'aware companion'. A quick glance at Wikipedia on light reveals that, at the quantum end of things, light can be both a wave and a particle:

Eventually the modern theory of quantum mechanics came to picture light as (in some sense) both a particle and a wave, and (in another sense), as a phenomenon which is neither a particle nor a wave (which actually are macroscopic phenomena, such as baseballs or ocean waves). Instead, modern physics sees light as something that can be described sometimes with mathematics appropriate to one type of macroscopic metaphor (particles), and sometimes another macroscopic metaphor (water waves), but is actually something that cannot be fully imagined.

Part of me wants to stop right here and delve into the oddness of something that cannot be fully imagined but that would get in our way. What Peck may be saying here is something about a wave of light which then becomes (or also is) a stream of particles and these become this 'aware' companion. We don't normally describe minds as being 'stony' which further complicates the trickiness of this particular noun. A stony mind may be one which is difficult to explore or traverse, it may be one that it resistant to external stimuli or one that is hard and rigid. The OED tells me that stony is also a verb which can mean to "stupefy with noise or with a shock to the mind or feelings, benumb the faculties of (a person); to confound, amaze". On the other hand, it does say on the back cover that John has been a practising Jungian analyst so I m,ight need to plunge into analytical psychology.

The final element that we probably need to take note of is the geological- the actions of the waves and the use of 'stratum' which relates, as far as I am aware, primarily to a layer of rock.

We now come to the Alvina problem which I'm nowhere near resolving. I usually get over obscurities these days by means of the increasingly useful interweb, which is always useful in providing baseline information and, usually, some additional context. With Chapter III it has provided help with Project Amanda, Chitra and Anjura (see below) but I am totally stumped, for the moment by her part in the poem, the nearest I can come to thus far is Alvina Houghton who is a character in D H Lawrence's The Lost Girl. So, either this is very obscure indeed or I have yet to make sense of the Lawrence connection.

Perhaps the most direct part of III relates to the detection of muons:


Down a three-mile hole in the Antartic ice,
hangs a photosensitive cable catching muons,
bluish spinoffs from collisions with neutrinos
which pierce everything, save for that handful
lighting up the gameboard of transparent matter,

It later becomes apparent that this refers to 'AMANDA' which is an acronym for the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array which ran from 1996 to 2009. A muon is an elementary particle that, for reasons that I don't understand, can penetrate far into matter and can thus be detected thousands of metres below ground. AMANDA deployed 677 optical modules (sensors) suspended from 19 cables at depths of 1500-1900 metres. The array made use of photomultiplier tubes as sensors but I don't yet understand (at all) what might be meant by the gameboard of the last line.

This is followed by direct reference to Chitra and Arjuna, the two main characters in Tagore's play, Chitra which is apparently based on a story from Mahabharata this is part of this passage:


Yet the matchless came there: Chitra saw Arjuna,
loved him, and despaired of herself. Blue light
cut at her soul and severed her grip on the sprung bow.

Of course, being completely ignorant of both these works, this could also be a reference to the original rather than the play, something else for the inventory to follow through. The blue light also echoes the muon passage which has; "bursts of violence in blue flashes bleeping faintly / along the cold strings" which is probably significant.

We now move on to things Russian and the Italic Problem. In my limited experience, most contemporary poets use this particular device for either emphasis or to indicate that the text is a quotation but Peck closes this chapter with a long italicised passage that seems to be more of a summary than either of these, We're now with Konstantin Levin, a landowner in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:. There are also fields of wheat in what is described as 'Levin's Dream':


This showing stopped in a breath, in a gathering of the blade
arcing before the legs, body counterweighting
steel we had never used with strength before but swung now
in long strokes. And the hands were both ours or no one's.

A further confession, I haven't read any of Tolstoy's fiction but I did (inexplicably) read his letters about thirty years ago. So, yet again I'm reliant on Wikipedia's summary which describes Levin as a conflicted figure who dithers (a lot) about most things but does work alongside his serfs, hence the above. There are previous wielders of the scythe in poetry, Marvell's Mower poems and Wordsworth's The Solitary Reaper spring to mind and all of these describe a time when agricultural change is taking place. This may need further consideration.

Chaper III ends with the dream turning more personal which may perhaps reflect Levin's feelings for Kitty who first rejected but later married him.

The initial inventory from Chapter III would appear to be lengthy and wide-ranging:

All of these will need some further digging on the next reconnoitre.