John Peck's Red Strawberry Leaf: Selected Poems 1994-2001 arrived in the mail a couple of days ago, and while I've yet to give it the attention it deserves, I can already tell this much: this will be a book that matters to me. It is also a selection that puts Peck's work in a new light.
I've had a running argument with Peck ever since I started writing about his work with a review of his Collected Shorter Poems six years ago. At that time I'd maintained that Peck, despite what he'd told me, was essentially a Poundian modernist. Several years of reading and re-reading have led me to reverse my position and admit that Peck knew more about his poetry than I did. I also maintained, in that article and elsewhere, that Peck was a poet whose importance was matched only by his inacessibility. Red Strawberry Leaf leads me to believe I was wrong there too, as far as inacessibility ws concerned -- wrong enough to merit a bit of a recantation.
The poems of Peck's new book pick up on a tendency I'd noticed in the poems that closed his previous collection of new work, M and Other Poems: they do away with some of the more obscure and arcane intertextualities, or at any rate they present their erudition in a manner that allows you to pick up what you need from context, rather than from a nearby copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is not to say that Peck is writing Life Studies. Rather, he's writing in a mode that melds the personal and the intertextual, that shows hiss erudition for what it is: something so internalized that it is lived on the pulses of his own experience.
In one poem, "Walter Benjamin's Hope for the Best," I catch what I think may be a barb aimed at the kind of critic who has labeled Peck a retro-modernist (as I've done at least twice, with the somewhat lamentable phrase "modernist after modernism"). Peck writes:
Stamped arriere-garde? Display the date of franking and say,
Whether Peck was once more of a Poundian than he is now (as these lines imply), or whether, as I'm coming to suspect, the more accessible, more personal Peck was there all along, remains to be seen. But I'm done with second-guessing John Peck's self-assessments, at least for now.
His book, which makes an excellent introduction for readers who don't yet know his work, is available here.