Home » Reviews » Cantilena – one book in four spans

Cantilena – one book in four spans by John Peck (Shearsman Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Claire Crowther

The epigraph to John Peck’s poem, Cantilena, is a quote from Kafka’s story of capital punishment, From the Penal Colony. It describes a machine whose glass teeth take twelve hours to inscribe the words of judgment bloodily and fatally onto the body of the condemned. The process is exalted as enlightening by the administrating officer. Cantilena reflects such problematic behaviour, not least through reader awareness of a somewhat painful literary experience: the poem is 324 pages long, each page is a canto heavy with text, there is unremitting intellectual depth, and it needs much rereading. If you read it, your exhaustion might be rewarded with a sort of masochistic joy.

Who is John Peck? Though supported by British publishers, few in Britain seem aware of his work. He was born in Pittsburgh USA, wrote a PhD thesis on Ezra Pound, has written ten previous collections, has been a university teacher and a Jungian analyst. He has pointed out: ‘Nor does the scope [of Cantilena] derive only from a broad disciplinary reach, the kind exemplified beginning nearly seventy-five years ago by Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung, for the thematic scope is impersonal, though it does embrace an examen de conscience: impersonal in that gravity has long been at work on metaphysics, condensing a steady rain of falling bodies from the heaven of ideas into the human psyche.’

That sort of gravity addresses the psychological need to negotiate multifarious data crowding our head space and reading a lengthy poem like Cantilena encourages the personal curation of knowledge; Peck has spent his professional life practicing it. He has presumably read Jung’s commentary on a long English poem by George Ripley (1415-1490) also called Cantilena. It is said to be the first English poem on alchemy. Canto 50 of the third section of Peck’s Cantilena blends war and science in an alchemy of participles:


                        The point was to win –

grabbing after a fire that seared retina

swart with effulgence, a sinterizing same

against same, opposition

all the keener for that – a fathering masher

launching the stretch limo of mortality

into zero gravity, orgasmic worm splendor.

A rumble sustained inside attraction itself

hard against the boundary, alchemists

calculating a discus throw from the salvator mundi

to a savior working the power reaches of atoms,

bronze plowing earth, Adam’s grunting exhale into

reunion. John Paul Vann

barreled his pistol jeep down Vietnam’s back roads

believing he could map the void zones

in his bosses’ outlook, Emerson wired

the circuit breakers past overload, cartography

and mystic welds their double-column bookkeeping

for enlarging a shared darkness

through jumped-up light.                                


As befits its concerns, there is a heavy quality to such dependent clause-building. Peck is an intellectualizing poet in Frankenstein mode. The canto is filmic and expresses the horror of the epigraph. But dictionaries define ‘cantilena’ as ‘the part carrying the melody in a composition’ or ‘a vocal or instrumental passage of sustained lyricism’. It translates simply, from Italian, as ‘song’. Within epic proportions, Peck is a lyrical poet, conductor of cadence-softened sweeps of unstanzaed lines. Musicality eases the reader along and perhaps Peck’s ‘plaiting’ of accentual and syllabic lines into free verse strengthens the reader’s ‘mental ear’, in Jeremy Prynne’s phrase, to cope with the flow of ideas:


Thus this poem lays out spans at 6s & 7s with themselves

because I count cadence

to push past my own glottal stoppage—

(canto 55, section two)


Through this verbal forest dance melodious phrases as well as syntactical surprises. Here is the first section of canto 68, section four:


The immense releasing courage of caring hands,

two-way pulses on through,

something returns, but nothing wills that, palms outward,

thus in the ikon the lost horses

of stonemason martyrs Florus and Laurus

return to the pond

their dead owners gentling them, they gulping

from a second sky lips curled, arcs widening and crossing

through cloud resuming its blinding face

on the calm there.


Canto 85a, section four, ponders the poetics of music, further involving the reader, and exemplifying the self-reflective capacity of a long poem:


85a / wave

[ The sound is fading away, it is of five sounds, freedom

the sound is fading away, it is of five sound

and what this Ojibway song accomplishes

is beyond analysis (Winters). Thus

the mind in it eludes us, or waits on ahead.

Three sounds reach me, they are of crossings:

one sound is flowing away, it curls window-high, Florence

in flood, a gondola on patrol

One sound shushes and melts, it is of two, four, eight sounds,

panthers in tidal sands, the pre-dawn.

One sound is coming apart, it is forty sounds, black freedom,

a tinkling shower, shattered skylight littering

see-through runes: Odin pats his flipped coat collar, satisfied

that the night over Svalbard will see

not Walton pushing his men across ice, but trooped hazes.

That the expeditionary bones, pitted like Gravneset Glacier,

will teem with the horde’s heat.

That my tinkling defenestration will grant me fresh air

by decapitating my Alpha

and threading on past Zed, in inky cold prior to defilements

and following the hunt. Storm light, all unsent for.

For images are to be flayed,

their meat eaten, their skins cured and worn,

even zeroed and oned and made current.]   


Peck certainly flays his images, through more than one canto, and his meanings, too. His word for section, ‘span’, is an example. Each section is a span in the sense of a bridge between parts, extending over, or spanning, time, within and outside the twentieth century. And ‘span’ has a narrative quality, which induces a sense of full reach, as in ‘lifespan’. Here is one canto of many in Cantilena’s roll call of heroes:


Helen Nearing took her violin to Europe,

Krishnamurti proposed to her on the boat back,

but she went for Scott the Professor, who went after our life-ways

with masonry hammer. Fired out of his chair,

he built their stone house beneath Stratton, lecturing

cross-country to workers, not cowering then,

in age raising stone rooms two states closer to sunrise.

What have we not heard and ignored?

The blue poops of the galleons bobbed at Lisbon

behind the useless breakwater, the auroras

of a shaken winter unroll their snap and flash.

Nearing hauls water in a steel pail.

The structure of aluminum rays out

into the bauxite and copper steals in East Timor,

the slaughter lists for Jakarta sear in the siroccos of Iraq

laced with dust uranium, children’s cancer wards

stripped of meds usable as weapons

Nor would Nearing have stepped clear of this giddy winefat,

shirt and overhauls stained with his own red.

Scrolls of the Northern Lights ripple at the pail’s brim,

now haematose, now key lime,

sloshing the pole of inaccessibility

lodged in plain sight. I would rather not

have seen any of it, but I cannot forget.       (Canto 66, section one)


There is a nursery lilt to the first three lines. Helen Nearing, a previously unmentioned character, was a real and formidable woman whose husband is introduced in line three along with his life’s work of raising awareness of destructive norms. That work, though peaceful, is imaged violently. Indeed, Cantilena offers a disquisition on violence, as its epigraph suggests. To make words act out the experience being communicated, Peck has Scott ‘fired out of his chair’ in line four, a Humpty-Dumptyish phrase cleverly enjambed to hold the reader back from its literal meaning just for a second. Then, nursery stuff over, line five allows biography a more adult rhythm. With the bomb metaphor, goes the reminder that sackings, in life and in the lexicon, are military while the Nearings’ steel pail, in line twelve, used in their self-sufficient lifestyle, relates aurally to the loss of wealth from other countries and consequent physical suffering. Thus the meanings of our lives are interrelated and nuanced.  


There are two reflective sentences strung among the story lines in this canto. The first carries the book-long enquiry: ‘What have we not heard and ignored?’  That question is addressed by the last two lines: ‘I would rather not / have seen any of it, but I cannot forget’. Peck is an intellectual witness to good behaviour as it responds to bad. Or vice versa. Clive Wilmer has said of Peck’s work: ‘One is not told what to think. One is invited to re-experience the world.’  The invite is there yet Peck’s thorough examination of the Nearings’ tribe, formed of Cantilena’s many independent-minded naysayers, force the poem to moral conclusions. There is vignette after vignette of those who have lived and died for others, for free speech, against fascism. This is the polemic of a postwar truth committee, balancing selection and inclusion, powering through this long poem.


But there is no ‘them and us’ in Peck’s poetry. ‘We share a self with others,’ he says and those others include, at the very least, our dead forebears. Peck’s personal narrative focuses on his father, Clarence Peck, who was an engineer:


Through old pasture road to a siding for tilt hoppers,

at four peering from pillows in the front seat,

with Father the furnace wizard pointing as slag ruptures

to orange, cinnabar, shiny black.

Such are the antipodes of my pastorals:

untended meadows soon to be parceled,

and disheveled powers seeking repose, as if

setting building stones next to the dead sans inscriptions.   (canto 60, section one)


Clarence appears as magus and alchemist and is subject to Peck’s usual technique of shining meaning on events through juxtaposition. Paul Dirac, for example, a scientist who refused to join the Manhattan Project, is linked to Clarence, whose work was linked to that development of the nuclear bomb:


Dirac thought he might separate U-23

from heavier U-238 either by spinning them

or varying temperature however

slightly across the chamber. That last bit overlaps

with my Father’s process engineering

for a long second then dissolves…                              (canto 7, section two)


If you have gathered that Peck is hard to read, that’s not wholly true. It is not a radical read, technically speaking. Seemingly discursive, lateral and drowning in invisible parentheses, in fact this is a maze designed with everyday readers in mind, and a cool place to get lost. And Cantilena is not just a breathtakingly long run of cantos either. It’s organized, in four sections, each a rich compost of data: politics, art, climate change, for example. Humans are evolved polymaths. Peck’s references are so extensive that, were he to include notes alongside text (as does that other North American elder statesman of political poetry, admired by Peck, Peter Dale Scott) each page would be swamped. I think, myself, that notes would be worth the stuffing of white space, especially if placed below the text, though Cantilena would then be a book of encyclopaedic style and, probably, size. But, while their selection would provide another kind of text with which to read Peck’s mind, perhaps the editing decision to let this magnum opus stand on its lines is sensible. There are benefits to stumbling incessantly as you read: you rush to Google and lose yourself for happy hours adding to your personal vast library. Thus Peck offers an old-fashioned liberal education, for which I thank him. [Note to the publisher: this book would be easier for readers if it were issued as an e-book; Kindle provides instant Wikipedia and dictionary as well as a facility to search the text.]


Peck has asked the rhetorical question: ‘What justifies 324 one-page cantos? I could pardon myself by saying that nearly twenty years of finished drafts supplied a near majority of the total.’ For this poet, then, a long poem is hard labour, a life sentence in the sense of a life calling. Peck includes himself in the text from line one [‘My paper-covered half pillar / near the door to hold letters…’] and as both scourger and scourged:


Thus in obligation to the separated,

impossibly I would narrate the undeniable

in what they might have denied to the end, inscrutable

in some part even to themselves,

as Hoffman suffered the hurt

of both not hearing

and nearly going unheard. Saving hurt!          (Canto 55, section two)


Due to the inevitable feeling of ignorance that comes from being given an overload of information, Cantilena enforces that norm of intellectual experience in the digital age, shamed confusion. Yet this endless witnessing to our problematic species, the sheer weight of pages, forces us not only to admit ‘I didn’t know’ but to say, more importantly for the future, ‘I don’t know.’ Civilized behaviour starts with just this painful acknowledgment.

Join our mailing list

Your email: