From the Headland at Cumae

By John Peck b. 1941 John Peck

People expected that the evil would finally drain away.
—Aleksander Wat, My Century

Faded and baked here to a tawny grit,
spills of blood and seed from humanity
called from it for its crimes against mute earth
gully in footpaths, dribble down to the sea,
payment now and forever drawn from birth
through flesh’s sunny darkness. Light yeasts in it.

And if I find the slope to crumbled temples
of that light’s god dragging at me through heat,
shallow degrees of slant up to remnant stone,
then something more than burnt air, or the repeat
of weight known as time, pulls heavily in this zone,
something the bone brings, terrible through simple.

Phoibos, slayer at distances with shock,
sower of plague and arrower of healing,
tension of bright-dark beyond spanning, love
will not quite cast out evil while revealing
your fissionables. The raven was your dove.
Heavy isotopes hum with crickets in rock.

Neither woman nor man, my driver laughed
when his lights torched writhings down the far shoulder,
cross-dresser in the night beyond Naples, huge,
sinuous, crooning as we shot past. Life seems older
in its variant forms, drawn by the centrifuge
to the rim and swinging, swayed in time’s dream uncalfed.

For the vast thrower, shafter of quivering force,
sex was filigree in whoever served.
Pythoness, yes, wombed keeper of those coils
in the wet cellar where tongue darted and swerved.
But her own throat when it swelled with voice knew toils
past a man’s strength, torqued bulging from the source.

And that young man fitted with bone and thong
and membrane from his withers by his father
the maze molder, when he climbed into flame
itself in the high nucleus, dripped as slather
down the sky’s maw. Union there, with an aim
at the center, crisped on a central soundless gong,

sizzling from his overreach extended
back on itself and down, the soundless hurry
of the sea far below minutely riven,
trembling in place, diamonds in blue slurry
nowhere disturbed yet flecking everywhere, driven—
all this boy’s cry endlessly thin, suspended.

The sybil when at last her throat disgorged
its burdens rumbled like a pawing bull,
or the bull-fiend on Krete, and shrilly warbled.
Birds ride the bull’s hump in stone graphs, that full
barbarity at poise piercing now the garbled
clang of Ikaros, over us tensile and forged.

This is the crumbling whistle of shells and frags
in their close arc. Philosophy gets precise
when it turns practical. This in our background whir.
Archimedes, old Fermi in your eyes,
naked, ecstatic with theorems that assure
conclusion, your city falls, your hacked flesh sags.

There was a sprig which, if you bore it in hand
on landing here, your pilot drowned and your herald
crushed in the surf, would bend and seem to listen—
there was a branch that trailed her voice through imperiled
corridors to throats of the dead, and glistened,
then brought you back to your breath near shining sand.

And there was pelt from the solar scavenger,
its blond mane tossing with your workings, turning
catastrophe to triumph, lion crud
strewn now on waves, coat of the charger burning
obsidian cobalt platinum and mud
in craters of the shaker and avenger.

Eroded skull of this squat promontory,
nubbled shrine over cave by surf hypnotized
before deeps enameled with fire’s mosaic,
you are the structure lucid though pulverized
behind the logics, and the omens prosaic
in their spelling out, and the blaze of story.

Give me your light! I am the darkened thing
seeking it. Give me your fire and your cry!
But hood me from sulfurs she inhaled when she twisted
over the fissure, give me your hand from the sky
we have fallen into. Give, yes, what you insisted
she utter, rasped uncoilings of your spring!

And then release me to the animal
shy of speech yet steady in ecstasies,
your cousin the outsider’s gaze through life,
the drink of it down, and finally mind as frieze
eternally in metamorphic strife
released, sea stone and cloud infinitely small.

And there the migrant and his wanderers
may find the new land, and their future wars
may roll, exhausted in hissing foam, to sink
over the fish spines, and the blunderers
of fulfillment stare at samsaric wink
of ocean, stare and find sleep that dissolves the curse.

“From the Headland at Cumae” by John Peck from M and Other Poems. © 1996 by John Peck. Published by TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Source: M and other poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1996)

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Poet John Peck b. 1941

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects History & Politics, Social Commentaries, War & Conflict, Heroes & Patriotism, Arts & Sciences, Philosophy

Biography

Born in Pittsburgh, John Peck studied with Ivor Winters at Stanford and earned his PhD at Vanderbilt University, where he studied with poet-scholar Donald Davie, who was his advisor for his dissertation on Pound. Peck’s allusive, musically nuanced poetry shows clear traces of Pound, though Peck’s syntax is far more rounded and bridgelike than Pound’s cantilevered structure, and Peck’s ideas and metaphors tend to engage rather . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Social Commentaries, War & Conflict, Heroes & Patriotism, Arts & Sciences, Philosophy

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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