Sunday, September 03, 2006

John Peck: intransigence & absence

There are three poems missing from John Peck's collection Poems and Translations of Hí-Lö (Carcanet, 1991). The book as a whole is one of the most remarkable works of the last two decades, a collection of poems written in the voice, or thru the sensibility, of "a Chinese intern in psychosomatics who worked in Zurich during the 1980s and used his writing as a way of adapting to the West." It is a literary-historical commonplace to note how English-language modernism engages with Asian culture – most memorably perhaps in Pound's Cathay; in Poems and Translations, Peck attempts to imagine how his own culture – the West, and specifically a modernist, European West – might be conceived and reworked by a writer approaching it from an Asian perspective.

Peck is an intransigent, intellectual modernist in an era of various postmodernisms (perhaps his own variety of modernism is merely one of those "posts-," or perhaps we should follow Marjorie Perloff's lead and regard the "posts-" as manifestations of "late" modernism). On three occasions, however, his intellectual intransigence meets the immovable object of the literary estate: in short, he was refused permission to publish translations of two poems, & advised against publishing a 3rd. Peck's graceful responses to these imposed lacunae are indices of his verbal art:
Robert Walser: Snow

[The guardians of the Walser Estate, while not objecting in principle, instructed Hí-Lö that Walser's poetry is untranslatable. With Taoist fluidity he yielded. As one of these lines has it, there comes "the snow-white world that leaves me powerless". Some cavities in the wall there are, from which no horse can drink.]

Martin Heidegger: Evening on Reichenau

["Lake silver /scatters to dark shores": a mood captured on Walahfrid's monastery island in lower Lake Konstanz, intended for Heidegger's future wife, simply by virtue of being Englished moved the Heidegger Estate to consign it unread to the altar fires: carmina incinerata est. The ash-fringed remnant retrieved in Frankfurt preserves the light of day's end, fruit hanging weighty-weightless in the hand, "in the barrens / of a great simplicity".]

Bertolt Brecht: On Reading a Recent Greek Poet (Buckow Elegies)

[Who would have guessed that one unbudgeable piece of the Berlin Wall would read "The Brecht Estate"? This poem, from a cycle showing avowed Chinese influence, concerns the Trojans and their wall, and how doom induced them to fidget with bits of wood in their three-ply gates, "itsy-bitsy /pieces of wood, fussing with them". An endnote on this poem has been left in place, as memorial to a lesser fussing.]
My own copy of Poems and Translations, purchased at a second-hand bookstore while on a conference jaunt, has been inscribed by Peck to an American poet far more academically famous than him; various pages have been marked with Peck's careful, even finical corrections. Aside from some pencillings of my own, the book shows no other marks of having been read. "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."


Rodney Pybus said...

In your interesting post on John Peck's translation problems I'd like to point out (in the interests of accuracy rather than pedantry) that the Latin tag under Heidegger has run off the road. "Carmina incinerata est" in English would say "The poems is burnt up". It has to be either "Carmina incinerata sunt" or, in the singular, "Carmen incineraturm est". Just thought I'd mention it...

Rodney Pybus

zbigley said...

Ironic that M. Pybus's non-pedantic correction stumbles over a typo just at its triumphant conclusion.

"IncineratuRm" indeed.

Robin Huber said...

It's good to see that there are a few other people in the world who read John Peck. His works contain, to my mind, some of the most sublime passages ever written. It's hard to believe such a poet exists in the modern day and so few people have even heard his name.

Does anyone know if Peck teaches anywhere? I've found it impossible to get current, detailed biographical information on this poet.