Much by Joel Peckham
Review by Charles Farmer
Embracing memory can be a tricky task for the artist. For some, remembrance realizes itself in the comforting gaze of nostalgia and sentimentality. For others, reminiscence belts us as a reminder of something lost, the unrecoverable better days. In his poetry chapbook, Much (UnCollected Press, 2021), Joel Peckham offers a different way to negotiate with our histories: the past as proof of our resilience. Grounded in the lucid and the circumstantial, Peckham’s autobiographical work turns past and present anxieties into narratives of focus and survival. Much confronts eventualities and catastrophes with a hard-earned durability characterized by love and empathy.
Much opens with “On Hearing a Scream Outside My Window,” a poem driven by a theme typical of Peckham’s best work –an unwavering trust in human connection fueled by recollection,
the way the mind desperately pieces things together,
follow its tracks as it bends into the woods, imposing
xxxxxxpatterns, asking all the
Peckham, a Whitman devotee, finds common ground and kinship in the everyday and the extraordinary, in this instance, a cry that functions as both bridge and catharsis. On one hand, the scream conjures the memory of a great grandmother he never met, the relative:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… my sisters feared, who, in
her last years would spend thanksgiving screaming that
to kill her, tearing at her hair and weeping in terror as
xxxxxxeveryone shook their
heads, staring at their drinks–
Giving purpose to the noise of agony, Peckham “imagined and reimagined the voice” and, if only briefly, finds some insight into the mind of the great grandmother who has become the stuff of family lore.
The scream also recalls Peckham’s childhood spent listening to John Lennon records, whose wails are more than rock and roll theatrics. For Peckham, they are confirmation of the human condition, at times celebrating, pleading, suffering, or “harmonizing.” Lennon’s “voice split” is vitality manifested, universal, and prophetic:
it was all
for me and through me–those cries and those I hadn’t yet
or would make myself
in time. Years later.
In Peckham’s hands, cries are a sonic purge, “terror turned to beauty. This force / freed from the sun.”
Other recollections that sprinkle Much’s first half eclipse the typical slice-of-life narratives, exploring labor and reward, success and failure. “Redemption Center” celebrates the “simple return[s]” of youth, when heaven is an uncomplicated exchange of a day’s hard work for an afternoon at the movies. Elsewhere, the struggles of adulthood reveal themselves. A group of boys playing in the woods in “Trembling in the Water” are left to reckon with discovery of an abandoned pinstripe suit. What are the young men to make of a man who has given up? Perhaps he “walked out of / a bank or some / cubicle in one of the office parks,” or emerged, hands in the air, from a “breakdown / lane off 95,” and stripped himself of authority and responsibility. The reality of an adult’s defeat leaves the boys, “Ready / to bolt.” Other poems demonstrate a young person’s realization of class-consciousness. In “You don’t know shit about shit,” the speaker finds camaraderie with the boss’s sister. Together, they are “the dropout and the washout, and the trust fund kid,” both “starving for blood.”
The poem, “Pavement: Jack Coffey Landscaping and Tree Service, July 1989” juxtaposes “the fine, manicured green of the lawn” with a truck bed of “black tar sloughing and / calving like a glacier, the scrape of iron on iron, and curses echoing,” as a three-person crew toil during a suburban summer. The working day ends not only with the satisfaction of a job well done, but also with a “deep breath, breathing the poison in.”
Other poems find Peckham more political, but no less intimate. Peckham’s signature familiarity saves his poems from the relic status resigned to much of protest art. In “Jupiter, Desire, Hope,” he confronts the reckoning of COVID-era America. After years of “walking up the gang plank,” we are left to take shelter, “duck and cover,” and “adjust our masks.” “The debt [has] come due.” The poem continues:
Did you ever think this would happen in our
lifetime Rachel asks me as we adjust our masks and
xxxxxxcross the lot
to the grocery store Yes I hear myself respond
The poem “#naturalselection” tackles a country that reduces the substance abuse epidemic to bad statistics, and thinks that its casualties suffer a just-deserved fate as the “other”:
But the problem
is the gangs from Detroit and who cares, let those bastards
xxxxxshoot each other.
And let those druggies shoot themselves
up until they’re gone. Load the heroin and Fentanyl and
xxxxxxFuck the Narcan
anyway. It’s called natural selection.
Where War-on-Drug hardliners dictate with an either/or idea of justice, Peckham writes from the front-lines, giving names and a gentle humanity to the victims. Cool Chase, one of Peckham’s former student, “was beautiful in a quiet way that takes you / by surprise. He could reach you with his eyes without speaking,”
But he had
nerve pain and a limp. And maybe he was
a little too thin and sometimes he shook a bit like witch
xxxxxxgrass in the wind.
But that was just Cool Chase, holding back
And leaning in, and who knew anyone or anything
xxxxxxcould take you suddenly
that way before you knew what hit you.
The poem, “America: Love It or Leave It,” is Much’s most vicious piece, addressing the absurd, “You’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality that has haunted post-9/11 America. Using the metaphor of a one-sided, abusive relationship, Peckham presents the country as a bully,
xxxxxxin-his-navel kind of
love asking what’s for dinner
In a country that traffics in blind patriotism, “There is no out,” no rescue or retreat, just:
you and all you us and thems and either ors. And
I didn’t think so’s. Don’t you know by now it’s been a long,
xxxxxxlong time since
This thing we have, had anything to do with love.
Much’s anxieties culminate in the title piece, dedicated to Peckham’s son, Darius, at age eighteen. The poem undercuts the easy romanticism of idealized youth, presenting a litany of too-much-too-soon experiences that test the resilience of young men and women living under the canopy of near-catastrophe. Reflecting on his own youth, Peckham offers a childhood that wasn’t just baseball cards, rock and roll records, or candy bars; it was also Regan-era angst, abusive parents, coked-up teammates, suicide, AIDS, Russia, sex, and questions about sexuality. His was a world punctuated by overexposure, breaking points, and muted suffering: “How much we hid from each other and ourselves and hid ourselves from / each other.”
“Much” is poem driven by the parental instinct to nurture and protect, and while it can’t do the impossible—guarantee a child’s safety—it articulates the confusing and difficult dynamic between parents and children. Peckham understands that parents:
Didn’t know us at all. And
Back then we all thought that was what they wanted.
they were a little scared of us, how much we had to
xxxxxxxxxface, and how much we
needed and how confused we were, how much damage
In confronting the realities of youth, Peckham gives us poetry-as-survival-kit, a lived-to-tell voice of experience:
All that was coming, coming at us, all at once. That no
could protect us from. And maybe it was all
Peckham concludes with the celebratory “Wow! Signal: Dredging Light.” Here, exhilaration fuels an anticipation of “Summer / when everything sings and stings with its need to be uncontained, and penetrate the skin.” A Whitmanesque kinship sends Peckham, tasked with the chore of dredging a creek, beyond the here and now, “insisting I am / not confined in … this body or this creek.” In an instant, his shovel “is not a shovel but a dish, glittering with stars that are future and past at once, sending their messages of birth and burial.” From there, a fabric of continuity reveals itself:
somewhere on the burning
sand of an ever-expanding beach, unmodulated waves
xxxxxxthat might have come
from a light-house beacons somewhere in the
Somewhere in Ohio the astronomer shot through
with wonder stares at the signal he’s been waiting for
xxxxxxwithout hope and
desperate with need, works out the coordinates, searching
source of what he sees.
Back at the creek, Peckham implores the Old Gods to “sing the language of the sumac” and “play the notes in any sequence.” Grappling with memory, Much could end on a down note; however, “Wow!” finds Peckham alive, hopeful, transcendent, and untranslatable, “staggering / with light and heat.”
Much, along with Peckham’s other books, channels the sweeping, out-of-breath exuberance of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. At the same time, he deals in a reassuring tenderness that recalls Carl Sandburg. Understandably, any work published during the chaos and loss and COVID will be read as product of its circumstances. Yet Much transcends the trappings of topical art by re-imaging how we live with memory, not as a crutch, but as a resume. Here, a relationship with the past isn’t defined by what-ifs or senior yearbook superlatives; instead; it’s delicate dichotomy of thriving in the now and “letting go while holding to the line that links.”
Joel Peckham has published seven books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently God’s Bicycle and Body Memory. His newest collection, Bone bMusic, is forthcoming from SFA press in Spring 2021. His poems appeared recently in or are forthcoming in many journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal and many others. Currently, he is editing an anthology of ecstatic poetry for New Rivers Press, titled Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose.
Charlie Farmer is a Georgia poet and professor who loves his wife, Erin, his daughters, his friends, his cats, his students, his books, his LPs, and everything else a poet should love in life.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.