Issue 9: John Peck

Selection from CANTILENA

from Book 2,  DENARIUS   

Multiples of a decad spiral the climb,

ten proliferating the diaphanous-

gritty dirt-close stone

of the old diggers. Such my heading

in pig ignorance, it now ghosts Katahdin-like

through fog or hangs bead-blue and tiny

past Plum Island sword grass. In the Mess, we feel hungry

only after gorging—even without Zarathustra

lugged in our kits: Now I hear wolves,

I must be famished. God the lesion and with it                                      

the balm if brewed end to end in ventricles,

out along blue lanes of the forearm

the all-mother of craziness and might

with the fluid zag of hawk tailing pheasant

through July’s high boudoir, past the pin’s point

as it homes. With one sound the sphere vanishes.

The climb is into the mountain:

that tip from the ghost Miwok tribe, cousins

to sherpas whose names I trip over: Tenzing Norgay,

Tashi Tenzing, Jamling Tenzing Norgay,                                              

Nawang Gombu: four dragonflies tail to nose

on the clothesline as forty nations contest

their debt packages, two hearts parrying, pausing,

yours, venturer, with mine. One clearing

with metal hook-eyes bracketing its yawn,

wind swaying the razory white sag,

glinting wings high-wiring it

where I see that the grip I’ve maintained for fifty years

has turned my hands to chalk

trickling rippled crevasses to blue water.                                             


What opens then bright, what closes then darkness? Thus

the Tian Wen riddled on our star,

through portages over three kingdoms as across

the Ninth Ward weeks afloat waiting for bus fare.

Maugham had his British doctor on the Yangtze

nail shut the well head against cholera,

then herd them upriver from the corpse field.

His cold wife warmed to him. He was gone in the next outbreak.

Swooning marsh grass the standards,

wind-torn melt-ponds the advance.                                         

Round tremendum out ahead of the column,

the button that slips every hole, neutron furnace

self-buoyed in the unbounded:

pretending to flare up then sink black, you prop

an unsleeping eye. Though life be

a wax fizz in your spasms, I rear images

at the same tempo as Pisanello

along clammy scaffolds at Avignon,

doing paladins who linger past the renegade                            

papas, epaulet and breastplate                                                              

breaching as gold from the wash of mind: plumes

and the gear gone, hanks of leather and stirrup

crackled to tortoise legs cantilevering

their hold on the walls. Or they buoy as armored isles,

and I am the sea’s now. 

Vines redden a slope but no gleaners climb,

the far nestles within the near, deeps have spread

to serve as the underside of glare,

ease me out of this harness.                                                          

As well a goat song backed with blear silver

for tracking trampoleenings of the waterbug:

skating on his folding lawn chair, he presses it in

like a can opener, holding all six thumbs

down the fret board of his string bass,

to destroy one city wide-eyed, then save another self-blinded,

Oedipus snared, agile on fouled heels,

Colonnus his two-worlded pond face.

From below, skeletal umbrella in sun flood,

rainbow feet dimpling iron filings of fate                                             

through tears. On stilts hobbling, soaring,

the sagax picks and mucks his way across wisdom.

A mirrored pine spears rust mulls, thinking cloud,

its medicine the press of sliding dimensions.

I reach for my sketch of a bronze raised hand

to rebalance: Rome has pudged out its fingers,

sprouted mouse and lizard from the thumb’s hip,

set finch’s head at pulse point and the garter’s phallus

uncoiling up the palm’s thigh,                                                                

tortoise inching the hand’s heel toward Hermes

atop pinky and ring finger, flames from the others.

It is hard to maintain right size when auguries

explode the clock, to rest palm in lap and float

on the aorta’s far drum, and yet

Ave, ave, this is your one chance now

to do all of us again, even at the pace

of hot metal sluicing, though not in a botched pour

into sand, no: right root, Vale, belovèd.                                                  


Sent his assistant

with his own gnarled staff

to lay it on the dead face.

But no breath came.

And so down the misty coast he reared himself as wide fire

flushing the Smokies, Berkshires, Presidentials,

spilling across Appalachia into the plains,

to press his bright hands onto its cold palms,

his mouth onto its mouth,

shin upon shin, and his eyes onto its mort lids.                              

Finally a smoldering sparked in it somewhere.

And that was the first day.

And he went down again into muck and magma

and paced there, treading the placental hours.

Then climbed back and threw the door open

and flung himself anew

onto the limp form, mouth to mouth, splaying his weight

out to every edge of it,

down Pittsburgh gullies, over rumples past Omaha.

It wheezed and sneezed seven times,                                                

it was the same and not the same, go tell its mother:

our Syrian policeman, our Egyptian screw.

And that was the last time that he would work that trick,

there were no more such templates in El’s warehouse.

When chi and the void took up carving seacoasts,

they knew the crumbling outcome. Yet flame shoots straight up,

sic transit Elisha, sic transit what the white dogwood kindles

and the pink dogwood flares.

Straw bale, hay bale: both let us breathe,

but only one drops the seed.                                        

John Peck is a freelance editor and Jungian analyst in Higganum, Connecticut, USA. His recent books: Collected Shorter Poems (Carcanet and Northwestern U. P., 1999/2003), Red Strawberry Leaf and Contradance (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005 & 2011), and I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems (Shearsman, Bristol, 2012).