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This review is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.

Watching the Materials john peck, Contradance (University of Chicago Press) £11.50

The cover of Peck's Contradance depicts the figures of two dancers, as if folded from the paper of 'a poster advertising a 1987 exhibition' bearing the image of a 'nineteenth-century artist's rendering of an Etruscan woman dancing'. The sense is the multiple and ongoing reworking of an idea across time (from Etruscan times, to the nineteenth century, to 1987, to now) and culture (from ancient Italy, to the exhibition in Cologne, to the Japan of origami, to here). The notion of continual drawing-in and manipulation of widely various material, as a kind of dancing across text (Contradance, we think), is one which underwrites Peck's formidable resourcefulness. His ability to refer so widely, to source and make real use of material gathered from throughout history, is what comes to precipitate both the strengths and the weaknesses of this collection.

At his best, Peck can make truly astonishing metaphorical strides, yoking together an enormous span of ideas. This principle is perhaps best illustrated by 'Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons...', which makes incredible use of its twenty-eight short lines. After an unexceptional start, the poem abruptly mentions Chernobyl before going on to say 'We call it matter, dubbing it / stuff - all which fosters surprise when wraths / burst neutrally, keenly, from it'; our subject, however temporarily, seems to be the way in which enormous (nuclear) energy is contained in the apparently inert stuff of matter. The lift-off in the poem, though, comes in the final lines, ...


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