Wonder in an I/You World
Peter Gizzi, In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011. Wesleyan: Wesleyan University Press, 2014.
In Defense of Nothing selects poems from Gizzi’s major collections, Periplum and Other Poems (1992), Artificial Heart (1998), Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), The Outernationale (2007) and Threshold Songs(2011). What to make of a body of work that comfortably references Jasper Johns, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Vincent Van Gogh, Simone Weil, Jason Molina, Giacoma Balla, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others? What to make of a poetry that draws on the examples of William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Wallace Stevens, Jack Spicer, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Barbara Guest, John Wieners and further back, Percy Bysshe Shelley?
Gizzi’s poetry is usually not typically thought of “easy,” and for the most part, it makes serious demands upon the reader. In part, this is due to his preference for a poetic language that’s ambitious, highly unpredictable, committed to linguistic innovation, but also one that’s introspective and engaged with the larger world. Whether by design or accident, or some happy combination of the two, the arc of Gizzi’s career to date shows the result of bringing together a number of key American poetic traditions. In a review of The Outernationale some years ago, I wrote: “The Outernationale”thus marks a noteworthy turn in American poetry. In terms of poetic lineage, it represents a marriage of two distinct traditions—the Objectivist tradition of George Oppen that stresses the world in its thusness with the high Romantic tradition of Wallace Stevens that historically has stressed the transformative power of the imagination. Where the Objectivist tradition emphasizes poetry as revelation, the Romantic tradition emphasizes re-imagining the world. Put reductively, where the Objectivists like Oppen and Niedecker stressed the alterity of the world, a fullness and completeness that the poet might enter but not possess, the Romantic tradition, especially in the work of Stevens, stressed the magisterial and transformative capacity of the human imagination itself in re-envisioning the world. One of the signal achievements of The Outernationale is that it synthesizes the other-oriented tradition of the Objectivists with the I-oriented tradition of the late Romantics (Wallace Stevens but also John Ashbery). As poetic modes, revelation and re-making achieve a compelling synthesis in an idiom that unites wonder and conclusion in rich and unexpected ways.” I would still agree with this assessment, but would also note that in looking at selected work from all of Gizzi’s collections together, I’m not sure that it fully takes in the casual brilliance of the New York School’s revolutionary use of language and language play (Schulyer and Guest in particular) that we find there.
So the framework I’m suggesting for understanding Gizzi has its limitations—it doesn’t capture other influences such as Jack Spicer, or that of other poets outside the Anglo-American tradition—but it does, I think, describe some important aspects of his work. As is well known, the New York School of poets was heavily influenced by the work of contemporary painters, especially those breaking away from realism. Gizzi’s poetry likewise tends to eschew realism and often makes the materiality of language the subject of the poetry itself. The language his poems dwell on—often delight in—tend to regard language as the material out of which the poem is being created; that is, they tend to see language as the embodiment of consciousness. Take, for example, “Another Day on the Pilgrimage” in one of his earlier collections, Artificial Heart: “Tell me, can I say who or can I/say now? And will words awaken/the desire to know, to push open the nerve.” Or look at “The Outernationale” in the 2007 collection by that same name:
It is always raining
in pictures, inside
this feeling of mercy
or this writing along the edge
which is of course
writing about hope
if we could only open
to rewrite the software
down deep, the body
coming to, inside
this wooden structure
-archy, -ology, -ocracy.
This self-consciousness regarding language, the knack of making it self-reflexive, that is, making it turn back on itself as part of the performance of the poem, has been a common move in American poetry for some time now, but here it comes across as not an obligatory gesture, or a gimmick required by this or that poetic tribe, but part of a larger, sincere exploration of what it means to be human, what it means to be a language user in a world highly mediated by language, and hence part of an exploration of what it means to be a poet in the here-and-now. One of the things that’s distinctive about Gizzi’s work is that alongside this examination—”deconstruction”—of language there’s this very human sense of sincerity that sees language as responsible for various kinds of orders in society, indeed various kinds of knowledge. So the linguistic inspection above doesn’t seem ideologically-driven or prefabricated or evidence of an poetic affiliation, but as necessary and genuine. For me, this emphasis on authenticity and sincerity—key emphases among Objectivists like Oppen—is one of the ways in which that tradition continues in Gizzi’s work.
Gizzi’s interest in non-realistic modes of art, in other words, his interest in the full range of ways in which “the real” can be signified or evoked, his preference for the oblique, explains to a considerable extent his fondness for artists as different from one another as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Jasper Johns, Vincent Van Gogh and Giacoma Balla, all of whom signified the world, but evoked it in ways that rejected the mimicry of realism. “Overtakelessness,” Gizzi’s poem in Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), subtitled “after Albert Pinkham Ryder,” performs a modality similar to Ryder’s hazy, “poetic,” evocative landscapes, but in language rather than paint:
To speak inaudibly, the outside,
its blurred sentence foreshadowed,
indistinguishable as shining brass.
The room, the empty sky, beautiful
or golden bands burn because it is empty.
Without depth of field birds become primitive again.
Unstuck weeds float downstream
A thick complicating light.
Ryder’s painterly idiom with its emphasis on feeling and mood matches or exceeds realism’s power just as Gizzi’s diffuse but dramatic idiom does. Using realism as an artistic idiom requires that in some fundamental sense the artist—painter or poet—sees the world as “thus and so,” as knowable, as stable, and as fully capable of being signified. The evidence of Gizzi’s poetry suggests that he doesn’t share this confidence. “Periplum,” the title poem in the 1992 collection, frankly declares at the end of the poem “I’m at sea.” But it also says “never mind about the bewilderment.” Radical “bewilderment” not only means classic realism is a most unlikely method of representation for someone like Gizzi to turn to, but in his hands, it becomes a way of being that’s not merely negative but positive. His poetry, that is, often turns on exploring the question of what the world is, or what the self is—each question implying the other. This tentative posture towards experience displays skepticism that language, or any means of representation, can “sum up” experience. This posture, enormously productive for him early middle and late, becomes characteristic of his poetry:
If I could tell you this
or tell where this is
or where on a given map
this being is
then I would give it to you
though I will not name it
which would not serve
this being the unnamed force
the absolute unnamed this
of our experience together
Being bewildered by the world, by its beauty, cruelty and loss, becomes part of the territory Gizzi’s poetry explores: “But felt things exist in shadows, let us reflect./The darkness bears a shine as yet unpunished by clarity” (“Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures.”) Similarly, with language: being bewildered by the power, musicality, sound, strangeness and its sheer visual power is a recurring experience as one reads his work from collection to collection. The same is largely true of the presentation of the self that emerges in Gizzi’s poetry. The thing/being/force/body/memory/story/presence/absence we signify through the simple word “I” is presented in all its essential unknowability. Again and again, Gizzi returns to explore its mysteries, its fundamental strangeness.
This might all be pretty formulaic stuff, adequate but part of a large body of unremarkable postmodern poetry produced in the last three or four decades in the US, but for a several signal facts. First there’s the innovative language of his poetry, which is equally at home in a number of idioms: it can command a kind of introspective, philosophical idiom; it can deploy a scientific idiom; and it can draw on outré colloquialisms (I’ll put in this category his fondness for neologisms and arcane American diction). Very often, his poetry combines or hybridizes these idioms in interesting and unexpected ways. So his poetry works with different kinds of rhythms, different dramas, in the largest sense. But secondly, there’s a rare intimacy and tenderness to his poetry. It’s worth asking how it achieves this sense of intimacy. The last poem I quoted above is titled “Periplum VII (Valentine), ” from his first book provides a clue. The poem is, as its title indicates, a valentine, an address to a beloved. The sense of intimacy comes from the created sense of overhearing a private, intimate set of declarations by the speaker to his beloved. These declarations have a poignant quality, rooted in a chastened sense of what can be said or represented, but also, within those boundaries, there’s a tremendous sense of richness. This epistolary mode creates a speaker who addresses himself to an unnamed “you”—an I/you scenario—that becomes a defining genre in Gizzi’s poetry, one that is stretched and recreated in different ways. “It Was Raining in Delft” is another valentine with a self-reflexive turn:
A cornerstone. Marble pilings. Curbstones and brick.â€¨
I saw rooftops. The sun after a rain shower.
Liz, there are children in clumsy jackets. Cobblestones
and the sun now in a curbside pool.
I will call in an hour where you are sleeping. I’ve been walking
for 7 hrs on yr name day.
Dead, I am calling you now.
There are colonnades. Yellow wrappers in the square.
Just what you’d suspect: a market with flowers and matrons, handbags.
Beauty walks this world. It ages everything.
I am far and I am an animal and I am just another I-am poem,
a we-see poem, a they-love poem.
The green. All the different windows.
There is so much stone here. And grass. So beautiful each
translucent electric blade.
And the noise. Cheers folding into traffic. These things.
Things that have been already said many times:
leaf, zipper, sparrow, lintel, scarf, window shade.
“Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures,” from The Outernationale (2007) is a kind of letter to Vincent Van Gogh that quickly breaks down the border between the poet and the painter to the point that the speaker becomes a hybrid consciousness in which the two are not wholly separable:
Is this what you intended, Vincent
that we take our rest at the end of the grove
nestled into our portion beneath the bird’s migration
saying, who and how am I made better through struggle.
Or why am I inside this empty arboretum
this inward spiral of whoopass and vision the leafy vine twisting and choking the tree.
In dialogue with Van Gogh’s consciousness, Gizzi’s speaker’s consciousness finds itself in dialogue with the world and itself. Many of Gizzi’s poems work by sustaining this sense of being in dialogue with the self, or the world, and part of the drama is in how long the dialogue can be sustained with a language, a kind of force-field, that seems as if it will fly apart, but then somehow, it doesn’t and it instead acquires a sense of inevitability. See, for example, “A Textbook of Chivalry” in Artificial Heart (1998):
The earth is still tonight, without a breeze to compensate
for the mind’s emptiness. Imagination creates a mother
letting you go free amidst the enemy
because unwanted the cravings grow too, laughing
when promise fulfills its tiny shape. Never
is also part of the greater composition, looking away
at the toy horizon.
Who will die from happiness, knowing that their ungainly self
and the clumsy heart embraced? Dinner is never dinner
living in a bubble, the I sinks, I decline too
in this construction even and if only even as
the putative author
of these lines, this subject.
Other poems go further and so blur the boundary between the “you” and the “I” that clear- cut distinction becomes impossible. Which presumably is the point: Gizzi’s poetry yearns towards a deep sense of interconnectedness, impossible perhaps, but not out of sight, and from a certain perspective on what it means to be truly human, necessary.
With this hyper-awareness of poetry, of the material of poetry, of the address of poetry, with this intense awareness of the role of the reader in the poem, with the signifying power of poetry, with Gizzi’s highly aestheticized sense of beauty (although very catholic, embracing in Williams-esque fashion many things not always thought beautiful), it is perhaps surprising that Gizzi should title his selected works In Defense of Nothing. The title comes from a wonderful poem bearing the same title in Some Values of Landscape with Weather (2003):
I guess these trailers lined up in the lot off the highway will do.
I guess that crooked eucalyptus tree also.
I guess this highway will have to do and the cars
and the people in them on their way.
The present is always coming us to us, surrounding us.
It’s hard to imagine atoms, hard to imagine
hydrogen & oxygen binding, it’ll have to do.
This sky with its macular clouds also
and that electric tower to the left, one line broken free.
The poem, of course, references Shelley’s well-known essay “In Defense of Poetry” which famously argues that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” “In Defense of Nothing” seems, by contrast, to adopt the view that there is no need to defend poetry inasmuch as poetry is self-justifying. Poets are less “unacknowledged legislators of the world” than artists committed to nothing greater or less than the production of art. In some ways, Gizzi’s view of the place of poetry in the world seems less exalted than Shelley’s. Hence his emphasis on the ordinary and the everyday: “I guess these trailers lined up in their lot off the highway will do.” In one sense, though, his poetry is just continuing the Romantic project of making a poetry out of “ordinary” language that will do justice to experience. It’s a “make-do” world of trailers and highways rather than the sublimity of, say, Mt. Snowdon, but paradoxically, Gizzi’s poetry summons a poetry that’s no less visionary. It’s a different vision, but it has the power to penetrate the surface of experience to address some of the central questions of our time: what can be represented/communicated? What is contemporary consciousness like? What is beauty? What does history as its happening feel like? As a title, In Defense of Nothing underplays another point: that in its linguistic verve and ambition, in its ability to use that language to arrest the inner dynamic of our time–history in slow-mo as it were—Gizzi”s poetry is helping to reinvent what poetry can be, and do, in our time. I guess that’ll do.
Reviewed by Jon Thompson
Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and Free Verse Editions. His latest book, Landscape with Light, was published by Shearsman Books in September, 2014. More on him at www.jon-thompson.net