To everyone who asks me about the above I use ‘magnificent’ which seems to encapsulate my feelings. Having done this for a few months I now realise that I don’t entirely know what I mean. This isn’t unusual, I throw out many adjectives (serious, important, honest, clunky, naff, dishonest etc.) that are gestures rather than anything precise. This doesn’t bother me but my use of the m word is a new one and it’s the only one that will do and I’m going to try and explain why. I think that the quality I’m describing is equivalent to the ‘virtue’ that Arthur embodies in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, that combination of masterful ability, courage and compassion with more than a little excellence thrown in.
With regard to the work(s), it needs to be pointed out that it’s Very Long Indeed with four sequences, the first three containing 70 ish, and the last one containing 121, thirty, or thereabouts, line poems. It’s not a drive-by read, it has its obscurities and expresses complex ideas which require serious attention. The verbal content also has more than a degree of bigness that I hope to demonstrate below.
The good news for the understandably daunted it that there’s a helpful blurb on the back that quotes from the foreword by Nate Klug which, for all kinds of reasons, I have yet to read. I’ll get to the blurb shortly but first I want to explain my choice of example. This particular poem isn’t especially typical nor is it one of the best but it does seem to contain most of those elements which combine to form magnificence. I thought about producing extracts from several poems to give a more comprehensive ‘flavour’ of What Might be Going on but rejected that because bits would detract from the way a whole poem ‘works’.
This, then, is poem 37 from the first section:
Sokurov has filmed farewell to Europa at the Winter Palace in the Hermitage, his tall fool from the eighteenth century, a diplomat in black, no lace, catching aromas from the Dutch Masters, and at the ball whirling in mazurkas with plumed partners after which applause for the orchestra and exit down both wings of the great stairs, bemedaled sashes, the gartered stream of the dead in living flood, sideburned Pushkin there, dixit. Pushpin! The jab going in with feeling, for anything that was an object has become a relation drawn out and lingering, for sale yet ungraspable. John Marriner at Ani was on its track too, sealing candle gleam over chant at young Gagik's coronation beneath the dome's hole, rain misting rubble. Yet it won't do, staging these reviews - don't ask us what we are screening, ask us how, if we are lucky, we look past. For then the knife hangs, no one moves, and yet Gretchen must not die. Dismantling this, untying the fly, unlacing Smoking Joe Frazier's eight-ounce gloves, are stipulated for philosophers from here on out. Tapping for air in the fished-out nose cone: punch through to her! White embroidery on the furze, the same on the inch's window, and I have that hostage to warm and salve for an hour. Late weirds the crow Great, Spate, I shall be loud among the loud but slur among her sands, and crowd to the plunge between them, and cleanse, and begin to gnaw.
To get the obscurities out of the way, there is a very detailed website about Ani which also provides details of Marriner’s visit to Ani, once the capital of Armenia, in 1967 which was recorded in his Trebizon and Beyond (1969) which is, in part, the story of his quest to locate the Golden Fleece. Gagik I was the king of Armenia from 989 to about 1018.
Perhaps even more obscure is ‘dixit’ which the OED gives as; “An utterance (quoted as) already given” which is apparently from the Latin for ‘he has said’.
Having some familiarity with Peck’s previous work, I guessed that this particular Gretchen belongs to Goethe and this is confirmed except that it alludes to the dialogue between Mephistopheles and Faust in Pushkin’s Scene from Faust.
I’m taking it that Pushkin isn’t obscure but some might not be familiar with Sokurov’s The Russian Ark from 2002 which follows a man/ghost in black who walks round what was the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, making various encounters on the way.
Smokin’ Joe is the least obscure, world champion heavyweight boxer who famously lost his title to Muhammad Ali in the seventies, which, to this child of the fifties and sixties, seems like only yesterday.
Before we proceed, it might be helpful to note that the blurb has “Cantilena is one of our only major long poems to address climate change” and “its performance of a kind of imaginative magic – what Peck calls ‘undersensing'”.
It seems to me that this poem is centred on Europa and Gretchen and our eyes wide open rush to planetary death. These are Big Themes, I may well be overeading but saying goodbye to Europe does signal the end of the Enlightenment Project and its distinctly odd hotchpotch of values. The figure of Gretchen as the model of innocence and the ‘pact’ made with Mephistopheles might also carry something of the fatal trade-off between technical and industrial progress and the consequent destruction of the rock on which we live. This is one of the aspects that I’m thinking of as Big, I’m not sure that ‘climate change’ is the appropriate phrase because it sounds fairly innocuous and technical rather than the destruction that has already started. There’s wider concerns going on here, the nature of evil, the debate as to the price of progress and the role of the Enlightenment. The poem can be read as an elegy, starting with Sokurov’s farewell and ending with the crow and the cleansing and quite primitive consumption.
On the other hand, this may well be entirely wrong, one of my frequent mistaken stabs in the dark. Peck may instead be referring to the ongoing disintegration of the post war European project and making use of one of our finest contemporary filmists and one of the Enlightenment’s greatest literary works. Or as something else that I haven’t thought of.
I know next to nothing about Pushkin, I have tried and failed to attend to Eugene Onegin and haven’t read any Goethe since my youth. I am however a bit of a fan of Sokurov, I admit to watching The Ark more for its technical prowess rather than the content. I’m much more fond of the Moloch, Taurus, the Sun sequence which ends with Faust which many cognoscenti consider his finest work to date. The increasingly essential Wikipedia article on the latter quotes the latter’s producer: ” a film that can introduce the Russian mentality into European culture; to promote integration between Russian and European culture” and that it ” reflects Sokurov’s enduring attempts to understand man and his inner forces” which would seem to undermine the farewell gesture that appears to be alluded to her. My interest in the other films is about the issue of endings, especially The Sun which is about the fate of Emperor Hirohito at the end of the Second World War.
We now come to the poem as poem and the reasons for my enthusiasm. When reading it aloud it becomes clear that, apart from ‘dixit’ that this is a thing that works at every level, that it demands a specific manner of reading which feels natural but is packed with technical elan. This produces something that feels completely unforced and natural but (I speak as a practitioner) takes enormous skill and effort to produce. It may be my unfamiliarity/ignorance but I stumble vocally over ‘dixit’ because, if it refers to Faust being an utterance that’s repeated by both Sokurov and Goethe, it feels a bit superfluous.
In terms of technique, I’d point out the stress patterns throughout but especially from ‘John Marriner’ down to ‘misting rubble’ which is full of music whilst carrying a provocative jab in the eye- all that remains of Ani, once a great and strategically city, are ruins.
We now come to this weirding crow. The OED gives ” To assign to (a person) as his fate; to apportion as one’s destiny or lot.” which seems, together with the three rhymes, to encapsulate our current plight. The question facing all of us is whether or not humanity’s collective demise is already inevitable and all we can do is prolong the decline or we can halt it. Whichever of these turns out to be accurate, we are sleepwalking out was to imminent catastrophe, I am of the former view and that mourning and grief appear to be my only response.
Bigness is an important element in the Magnificence Virtue and it is on display here in a number of different ways. Europe is physically huge, stretching from the Urals to Iceland and it’s also mentally huge too, keeping within itself a story of long rises alternating with an equally long fall. For the last 400 years a story of bloodshed and ruthless exploitation has underpinned incredible scientific and industrial growth which now be coming to an end. In many ways this progress has been made to the detriment of the planet and the natural systems that support us. Planetary degradation is and will remain the biggest crisis affecting us all and here it’s tackled head on. Apart from this exposition, there’s also more than a degree of intellectual depth going on, perhaps best epitomised by ‘…for anything that was an object / has become a relation drawn out and lingering, for sale / yet ungraspable.” Being a little paranoid, this could be seen as a disparaging barb in the direction of us misunderstood relativists or towards the finer points of Marxian theory. If the first is the case and one of the signs of the Decline of the West is this transformation of solid things then I would like to observe that it may be that this particular form of positivist secularity has got us into our current mess and that objects don’t (ever) exist in splendid isolation. The value of this part of the poem is that the point is made without either scorn or bile, unlike some of our other Serious Poets.
Ths slightly lesser Bigness comes with what philosophers need to do in the future- the laces quip is taken from John the Baptist’s description of himself not being fit to fasten Christ’s sandals but may also infer the disarming of the severe damage we do to each other and to the planet. I’m taking the fly to be the lure used by fishermen to attract their prey. The ‘task’ would therefore seem to be to remove the fatal allure of a shiny bright temptation and to pacify ourselves. By doing these we might dismantle the knife mechanism that threatens Gretchen. This would seem to throw up the role of philosophy in contemporary society and whether philosophy leads or follows global developments. It can be argued that the Industrial Revolution and all that went with it was much more ‘about’ the development of the steam engine than the work of Kant or Hegel. These issues are complex and don’t have easy resolutions but they need to be thought about especially when our public life seems to be engaged in a hell-for-leather race to the bottom.
I’m not of the view that poetry has any kind of Privileged Position with regard to truth but I do think that it is exceptionally good at compression and precision. By this I mean expressing complicated stuff with very few words and doing it accurately. This doesn’t mean that the views expressed are necessarily correct or true. My other entirely personal marker is whether or not I could achieve the same effect on the page. In this instance I recognise that I can’t and never will be able to achieve this level of technical accomplishment.
Finally, there are many, many poems of this quality in Cantilena and I know I’m going to be provoked and inspired by most of them. As ever, the above is an entirely subjective and probably inept attempt at saying what I mean and how I feel.
Cantilena is available from Shearsman Books at the ludicrously low price of 15 quid. You really do need to buy it.