Issue 9: John Peck
Selection from CANTILENAfrom 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).