Peter Payack's poetry goes the distance by Catherine A. Salmons
KNOWLEDGE, By Peter Payack. Zoland Press, 109 pages, $11.95.
"I call myself a conceptual anarchist,"
says Cambridge poet Peter Payack, nearly spilling his coffee in enthusiasm as he fishes through the trinkets, collages, press
clippings, poems, and publications stuffed in his knapsack. There's an advertisement for his "star poems" (haiku
spelled out in electric lights attached to the wings of a pilot friend's Cessna 150 and emblazoned across the night sky
over Boston). There are poems he's published in a dizzying array of magazines, from Paris Review to Rolling
Stone to fringe science-fiction 'zines. There's his Boston Globe essay on running the Boston Marathon,
a feat he's accomplished for eight of the past nine years despite suffering from multiple sclerosis. "I'm sort
of eclectic," he grins -- a sweeping understatement.
Finally, he finds what he was looking for. The silver object
he places on the café table at Harvard Square's Algiers resembles a classic "railroad" pocket watch.
But inside, where the dial should be, is an infinitesimal replica of the circle of megaliths at Stonehenge. The little "heel
stone," he demonstrates, can be pointed due north, to "predict" eclipses and changes of season. "We've
sold about 20,000 of these at the Salisbury Museum at Stonehenge, in England," he explains. "This is what I mean
by `conceptual anarchy.' I try to break down real facts and ideas, and put them into new forms, new faces, and new techniques."
I'm amazed by the cleverness of the "Stonehenge Watch," the outrageous intelligence of its humor; it's
a poem you can hold in the palm of your hand, a three-dimensional Zen conundrum, the ultimate neo-dada gadget. It's also
a mini-metaphor for Payack's lifelong eccentric mission of trying to "lift poetry off the page" and insinuate
it playfully into daily life -- the same exuberant, subversive, slightly coy intellectual challenge that leaps from every
line of the poems in his new Blanket Knowledge.
Payack, 47, is best known locally as the founder, in 1976,
of Boston's "Phone-a-Poem" hotline. He is also a highly visible community activist, a medical miracle who flatly
defies his illness, a proud dad who coaches his sons' Pop Warner football team and helped start a girls' softball
league in Cambridge. All this is raw material for the charm and topical humor of his poems -- which are sometimes misread,
he laments, as "light verse." In fact, their approachable, "everyman" diction is camouflage for truly
serious content nourished by a rich vein of sources: his philosophy major's appreciation of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius,
and Nietzsche; his '60s student radical's flirtation with anarchist writers like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman;
his ongoing fascination with Zen. To open Blanket Knowledge is to embark on a philosophical wild ride designed to
shake loose all your assumptions and open your eyes to new ways of seeing the world.
Whether he writes in prose-like
blocks or deft two-line flourishes, Payack's innovation of form is that he borrows the rhetorical techniques of philosophy
to "argue" points that can't be rationalized -- creating a kind of self-reflexive, pseudo-dialectic that leads
nowhere and everywhere at once. He seems to hear an ethereal music in the rhythm of thought itself, the dance of logic as
it rattles around the human brain.
Some poems are parodies within parodies, like the two-line gem "Excessive
Expressive" (a play on a classic paradox that's baffled philosophers since Aristotle's day):
I was going to write a one-line poem
but now I've gone too far.
Others are dense, semi-serious
musings on the nature of the universe, spun out as single, logic-defying "if-then" propositions. Still others satirize
logic itself: "The Penis Question," for instance, features Payack's five-year old son reasoning through a series
of "syllogistic somersaults" in which he observes that his baby brother's penis is smaller than his own, which
in turn is smaller than his father's. Therefore, he concludes, "I bet Grandpa has the biggest penis in the whole
Whatever their specific rhetorical pose, all of Payack's poems are concerned with the same fundamental
questions, the same celebration of the human spirit, the irony that all our endless thinking leads back to the blissful illogic
of emotion. He is a poet of both compassion and mischief, who sees in satire, humor, or the "flash" of the Zen koan
a way of teaching by subversion. Whether on or off the page, he says, "I'm trying to put poetry where people are.
It's all the same continuum. A writer has to create his own reality."
I'm tempted to compare him to the
installation artist Christo, who's made the world his canvas by hanging curtains across a Colorado canyon and wrapping
Paris's Pont Neuf and Berlin's Reichstagsgebäude. But I suspect Payack would resist the analogy. After all, he's
made his feelings known in the following dishy two-liner:
All wrapped up