A review by Jackqueline Frost of Nico Peck’s The Pyrrhiad (Dirty Swan Projects).
The first full-length title from San Francisco’s Dirty Swan Projects is a slim collection called The Pyrrhiad (2014). First appearing as a chapbook from Trafficker Press, Nico Peck’s verse story of the red god Pyrrha is a minimalist meditation on the peregrinations of selfhood and conflict, now fully executed. And just as with the Iliad, we “begin with Pyrrha’s Rage,” but hir “anger conduit,” interrupts the story of Achilles, and his Iliad, by throwing into question a virility so foundational several millennia of heroes are based on it. From the opening pages, Peck draws the reader with them into a realm of productive doubt: perhaps Achilles’ historic anger isn’t cis. Pyrrha’s desire, too, is not Achilles’, and hir beloved is not his, the darling boy Patroclus whose murder seals Achilles’ fate: glory qua death and the notorious campaign on Troy. It would be easy enough to say Peck’s The Pyrrhiad is a queering of the already rather queer Homeric epic, but what exactly is ‘this Queer Iliad’ shorthand for?
Pyrrah launches “the city back-STABBED,” and moves between Ocean Beach and Red Hill, hir place of libation and hir “self-imposed exile.” Xe ponders “piercing offenses…Our government. Our alarm sounders,” and fantasizes both vengeance and peace. Pyrrha’s rage is contained by the city and its adjacent waters: San Francisco’s uncanny transformation—its hills and radio towers, its docks, and even its Pacific are submitted to a neo-classical pastiche of ships, stars and selkies, all of it baptized by anger. The text’s architectonic schism supplies both a world of air and activity, as well as a chthonos of feeling, formalized in the footnote:
a tamed singing lion
we suck each other
and neglect our bees
must rage (2) produce war?
“ (2) xe rages against the violence at the very root of thought as solid
xe rages against the violence that resides in the experience of the self as solid
xe rages against the violence that dwells in the heart as victimization
xe rages against the violence that enacts superior / inferior
xe rages against the violence that lives in fear as hate
xe rages against the violence that is depression
xe rages against the violence that sleeps as entitlement
xe rages all night hir red hot rage until the sun rises on Red Hill and xe is still angry.”
Pyrrha’s longing for hir beloved, ever disposed, ever aberrant or diaphanous like Helen, is rendered with a difficult, but necessary faithfulness, “Lest fear be my tyrant.” Here we see best Peck’s agile vacillation between humor and lyric vulnerability, hir “rusty” “gentials,” and almost parodic prayers. But Pyrrha’s life is edged by others: “homophonic men in eiderdown gowns,” “old men in flat caps at bus stops,” “police come round ask questions, sticks and guns on belts in heroin Clarion alley.” And because hir city is full of so much terrible antiquity and “sweet compliance,” we are moved to ask how strong is Pyrrha’s peace? What can it do? With what are we charged, since “divine assistance” is “wild and hung”? How do we stop from collapsing “red on red in darkness”? What in our anger is brave and sacred, and therefore in need of protection? Is the self of this world able to wield both a “peace pact handkerchief” and “reckless imperious wings”?
Always already arranged, the moment of existing un-reconciled in a scene of objects, such that “They say, “it” and ask, “What are you?”’ It is Peck’s dazzling hermeneutics that engage the social determination of gender as the problem of entering “the world as anything without being everything else. ” Perhaps the queerness of Peck’s Pyrrhiad lies precisely in the political stakes of asking, “what now / now what,” in the context of a situation shot through with the fear of being and loving and being loved. There is no easy resolution for a city besieged, and for the days and years of a life there, for a hero who is lonely and at times miserable, meaning alive. But Peck’s visionary ethics—their ability to hold close the question of how to survive all this anger, how to make a life inside of it—is here crucially illuminated; as is their insight to reach across the ages, to less modern sensibilities, always with care and with daring, the way any great poet touches all the others through the shared vocation of devising orphic explanations of the earth in their own time. As Peck writes through the elegant, strong and common medium of Pyrrha:
and so the living carve a trench in mud
fill it with milk
speak across the milky gash
to the dead
Jackqueline Frost is the author of The Antidote (Compline) and two chapbooks, You Have the Eyes of a Martyr (O’clock Press) and Young Americans (Solar Luxuriance and Defector, UK edition). She lives in Ithaca, New York, where, she schemes with friends towards the realization of the feminist commune.