Chapter IV of John Peck's M.

It seems more than a while ago that I've written about John Peck so yesterday I looked at pt. 4 of M and was taken aback by the beauty of these lines. Now, this adjective doesn't come easily to these pages, it's overused, means to many things, is stupidly subjective and more than a bit whimsical. Nevertheless, this was the first word that came into my world-weary head when I'd finished reading. I read it again to find a more accurate / meaningful adjective but still came up with the 'b' word.

This isn't to suggest that I don't get some visceral pleasure from verse, that I read serious work as some kind of mental exercise. I read in the hope of the Point Well Made and the well-turned phrase. I read in order to be involved with the Poem rather than as its recipient. John's work isn't the most accessible on the planet but his work carries a great deal of lyrical (another done to death adjective) strength.

The other readerly need that I have is to be impressed. I write and perform my own material, I've done this for the last forty five years so I know both how hard it is to achieve value when making serious work. I've also read enough to know that the vast amount of contemporary work, of any sort, is dismally mediocre.

As the sidebar shows, I've written about the first three parts of 'M' in recognition of the importance of this work and of the things it has to say. The same apply to pt. 4 but with this kind of heightened readerly pleasure thrown into the mix. Before getting on to the nature of the content I want to give a couple of examples re poetic beauty:

and then below at noon, the same workings, surface
hinting everywhere at movement while holding fast
in the moulded diaphane of our orb flowing away.


The date-palm upward soarings of Karnak, the Corinthian
emanation from a god's porch, lay nascent here.
Part womb, part bricolage, seed of an abstract angel.

With regard to the first of these, it might be argued that 'diaphane' is unreasonably obscure but 'transparency' disrupts the flow and it shouldn't take the reader to move from the noun to 'diaphanous'. Apart from that, the last line does compression and precision very well indeed and forms a perfect closure to what precedes it. There's also the two pairs of matching syllables ('oh' and 'ai') which is, in this instance, display a very high level of technical flair. The surface that is hinting everywhere is the surface of the ocean and the workings are the interplay between the sun and the sea. So, we have this apparent paradox of moving and being held fast which relates to the tidal movements and the flickerings of living things and objects beneath the waves. However, this also makes a kind of sense because the seas don't part, they do maintain a surface or cohesion whilst below all manner of activity takes place.

Karnak appears in the first section and here these three lines say very many things at once in a quite beautiful way. Karnak is this huge Egyptian temple complex, pharaohs were treated as gods, there are columns. I'm taking some of what's going on to refer to the eventual collapse of Egyptian civilization and the advent of the Greeks as the major power in the Mediterranean- this is, of course, an entirely provisional guess which may be overturned by subsequent readings. The last line, if this is the case, does both compression and precision very well indeed.

A few lines later there is: 'on the headland / at Samothrace, shattered also and cleansed, leaned that / figurehead, veed wings of the costly hybrid, Victory' which is most likely a statue commemorating a Macedonian naval victory. The statue was found in Samothrace's extensive temple complex.

We now need a quick diversion into the Difficulty Problem. There is a commonly held view amongst the literati that giving the reader too much work to do is a bad thing and that poets who produce less amenable work are guilty of some kind of elitism. This is mixed up with the view that we read poetry in a quest for meaning and that this very slippery term should be reasonably clear. I held the first of these views for most of my adult life, poetry that contains obscure words, foreign phrases and allusions to the classics more than offended my auto-didact and class sensibilities. This is no longer the case, although I still retain a distaste for the foreign phrase, I'm much more concerned with the level of sustained involvement that I can get from a work and thus how much of a reciprocal relationship I can have with the words on the page. One of my objectives with the arduity project is to try and encourage those, like me, who are put off by the apparent verbal density of serious work.

To return to the above, the idea of an abstract angel is a prime example of an opportunity for readerly involvement. These aren't two words that normally go together. Angels are (usually) heaven-dwelling servants of God and one of their functions is to bring messages/commands/warnings from God to us mortals. One of the most significant messages was that given to Mary about her pregnancy and the forthcoming birth of Christ. So, this ties in with 'nascent' and 'womb' but this angel is an abstract angel and this particular adjective is trickier and more ambivalent than most.

To my way of thinking, 'abstract' as an adjective is something mental, something that doesn't have a tangible physical form and a reduction of something to produce its essence or major ingredients. Karnak was a complex of temples and other buildings, spanning two millennia from the Middle Kingdom right through to the Ptolemaic (Greek) period. So the assumption of Greek power is an abstract, something mental rather than physical and the Greeks were the founders and developers of abstract thought which has since had immense importance for Western society as a whole

It might also be argued that 'bricolage' is a little tricky but does seem to be better, more precise, than mixture, jumble, melange, clutter, the less obscure but also less accurate alternatives that spring immediately to mind.

A final note, the columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall had 134 columns which appear to foreshadow or anticipate the Corinthian style.

We now come to a passage that signals the seriousness and the eloquence of our poet's intention(s):

Into estuaries past unguents of the mills, into the stream
where Dalai Lama pours powders of the stripped mandala.

To him the sixth-and-thirtieth of those thirty-six just Jews
unknown and unknowing whose lives are what save us
in the legend and to the hidden Muslim aware 
of Mohammed who was aware too of him hidden away
hearing is a special vocation. They have already heard
and forgotten, their job so preoccupying them
with its detail work, its piecemeal work, its weight
that they need no second announcement. That would be absurd,
the first one no longer in hearing and the next,
as next, inconceivable. But the hum, that they hear.
Like the disoriented whales, but unlike them
in being exactly and anonymously aimed home,
they respond by moving and move by keeping still.

I have no idea what the hidden Muslim refers to but I have discovered that the thirty-six Jews are a group of 'righteous men' that are alive in the world in every generation, the world exists because of them and they are the privileged few who see the 'Divine Presence'. As with all strands of religious thought, this has many different interpretations and possible significances in contemporary Jewish mysticism and folklore but this does seem to be the basis of these.

So, the above begins to acquire some more sense especially as it culminates in this moving by stillness idea which is present in most religions and mysticisms and also features reasonably frequently in poetry. I have to admit that I'm biased against this particular idea because Eliot used it in an empty but manipulative fashion in The Four Quartets and because it's become a bit of a cliché. In this instance, given the nature of the thirty-six this seems more appropriate, less annoying. The whales referred to are humpback whales and are previously described as intent on stranding themselves, there's also the way in which the whales hear this 'hum'.

One of my most glaring readerly faults is the failure to pay attention to epigrams and on this occasion it turns out that this has been a bigger mistake than usual. This is from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations;

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.

Another confession; I've always intended to read Aurelius but have never quite made a start. Epigrams are intended to 'frame' and/or contextualise the poem and the above would appear to underline M's concerns about the natural world and concerning mysticism. The idea of 'everything in view' is one that reverberates across all cultures and retains its power and strength even in this particularly material age. The above strikes a chord in me because it finds echoes in the later work of Alfred North Whitehead with his prioritisation of process and connectedness. So, unlike 'moving and stillness', I don't see this as mysticism but more as materialist common sense.

To return to Chapter IV, what increasing attention brings is a deeper understanding of the extent of engagement that M has within its lines. I'm using this particular noun to denote both a sense of active negotiation and a multi-faceted relationship with the world in the now and our cultural past. This sets off in the reader (me) a kind of cascade of comparisons with my own negotiations and relationships. This particular kind of provocation is probably the main reason that I attend to poetry and this particular sequence provides ample opportunity for thoughtful comparison.

The most striking example in IV is a concern with hearing and sound as a kind of emanation. The main sound is the hum of the whales but there is also:

The hum by then had become pervasive, interior
and placeless. The ear, now a gong, hung still while the whole sang.

and this from the penultimate stanza;

But Salve: it is evening.
Closed on itself, the eye
spins its slow fire, the highway
hums like a rubbed string.

My current creative work is concerned with the way things sound, especially the difference in effect between reading with the eye and reading out loud. This exploration of vocal sound(s) is obviously far-removed from the significances that Peck explores here but it does give me the opportunity to reconsider the use of vocalised sounds, rather than spoken words, as a means of expression. Of further interest there's the 'still' / 'sang' juxtaposition and the figure of the sun-as-eye which seems to be a continuation of previous chapters.

All in all, IV is the most satisfying chapter thus far. Of course this might be because I'm only now beginning to see what might be going on in the sequence but its combination of beauty and depth indicates a poet and a work of very rare talent indeed.