Beyond the Given
Peter Gizzi, The Outernationale (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). 132 pp. $22.95
Presiding over The Outernationale, Peter Gizzi’s new collection of poems, is the central figure of the sun, the giver of light and the maker of the world—the source, ultimately, of revelation, whether natural or poetic. Gizzi’s world here is light filled: it is sun-struck, full of glitter, shiny objects, “bits of sun,” scintillating fragments, reflections of all kinds, sun-made shadows and things that shimmer with strange sheens to them. The Outernationale looks at a fallen world with a curiously detached, curiously compassionate eye, but it is still recognizably a world of brightness and possibility, a world of vistas and views, of silver winkings and wonder, a world Gizzi insists is still capable of self transformation.
The epigraph to the collection is from George Oppen:
I think there is no light in the world
but the world
And I think there is light
As in George Oppen’s poetry, in The Outernationale light is a central presence and a central metaphor. In each case, its value is that light makes seeing possible; in the most fundamental sense, it makes the world possible and at a physical level, it makes revelation possible. Light -as-revelation manifests the world as it is—whether that discovery becomes distinguished by recognition of beauty or failure. Gizzi’s poems emphasize the aesthetic dimension to light. Indeed, in its richness, light assumes a utopian force, prefiguring in its ineffable beauty the way the world could be. For Gizzi, when space is transformed by light, everything else falls away, except the vision. As Gizzi has it in “Scratch Ticket”:
the total vista bright
Let this and that begin
O wind remember the tune
Bird, enough of your trill.
While the dream is that of the self-sufficiency of “the total vista bright” the paradox is that light and language make that vision possible.
Throughout The Outernationale light signifies possibilities hovering at the edge of the known world. Where William Carlos Williams—George Oppen’s friend–saw the latent power of the mob in “At the Ballgame,” Gizzi’s vision of the same game acknowledges the potential of mob rule and mob law, but holds out the possibility of a recall to a better self. This passage is from “The Outernationale,” the collection’s title poem:
We find purpose
in the game and together,
this crucial passage given flight
when detail disappears into a crowd
that too quickly invested
and then discarded power.
Williams found a darker purpose in the game, and saw in the dynamics of the crowd and the players the insubstantiality of the border between the crowd and mob rule. Gizzi’s vision acknowledges that thin line, but emphasizes the whimsical nature of the crowd’s use of power. Gizzi’s tone is elegiac, not monitory and ultimately the poem ends with a question that recalls us to the possibility of self-transformation: “when I asked what happened/I meant what happened to us?” As in Oppen’s work, in The Outernationale, there is always a balancing between what is and what may be. There is, of course, no Outernationale on the map to go to. But it can be imagined, it can be held up and through language and vision and feeling rendered as an exemplary space. Its non-existence, then, is not a way of gesturing to its impossibility so much as an acknowledgement of the imperative to go there, to recreate reality in its own image.
The utopian impulse–“what may be”–depends to a large extent on faith, particularly the faith that can see beyond the present moment and its corrupt arrangements. For Gizzi, beauty—the beauty of a reality transfigured by vision and the beauty of language wrought to an exquisite state of expressive power—embodies the principle of utopian impulse. “Aubade and Beyond” concludes in this way:
Is this what we mean when we say it’s spring
and is this our ambition to stay true to the sky
to one another in early sun?
Everything seems to be falling in sheets today.
Sheets of glare and sheets of wind, paper
sheets and more, more sun, glint
near the monument. Such sheets in stone.
Or more transparently in “I Wanted the Screen Door of Summer”:
the table laid out our hopes laid out
I wanted the screen door of summer
a dew drop gazing ball
utopia bent and snapping.
There is no question that The Outernationale registers the failure and corruptions of America as a twenty-first century empire—but Gizzi’s touch here is light and avoids the leaden predictability of much leftish poetry. In the opening poem in the collection, “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me,” the point is casually made, dropped in almost parenthentically, and then is moved past in a manner reminiscent of Frank O’Hara and the New York School of poets:
If our loves are anointed with missiles
Apache fire, Tomahawks
did we follow the tablets the pilgrims suggested
If we ask that every song touch its origin
just once and the years engulfed
The fatal imbrication of love and violence in American life—the Pilgrim inheritance generally, is all the more powerful for being seen as simply part of the interlocking set of values that make up contemporary American culture. There is no need for polemical insistence. To the contrary: the texture of Gizzi’s poetry suggests the fateful ways in which love and violence have insinuated themselves into a way of life that still bears the imprint of the Pilgrim ways of seeing and behaving.
The larger import of “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me,” however, is not directly political—or apolitical for that matter. Rather the poem explores a question that is as old as poetry itself—the question of how to be adequate to the world, and its possibilities, in poetry. It is this challenge that presumably creates the conditions for panic. But if the speaker asserts a feeling of panic, the poem is remarkably self-possessed:
If today and today I am calling aloud
If I break into pieces of glitter on asphalt
bits of sun, the din
if tires whine of wet pavement
If we find we are still in motion
and have arrived in Zeno’s thought, like
if sunshine hits marble and the sea lights up
we might know we were loved, are loved
if flames and harvest, the enchanted plain
In explicitly calling aloud in this way, the poem establishes itself as something spoken, as something spoken to others. The effort is to see poetry as happening in a social context: to capture and communicate the threads of feeling and awareness that usually float out of grasp and to put them into a form that will do justice to their delicacy and complexity—a sort of postmodern Jamesian project in poetry. In the passage quoted above, existence is seen as contingent upon words and vision and the manifest beauty of the imagery is seen to be sufficient to itself—there is no “then” that follows on sequence’s anaphoric use of “if” clauses. Yet beauty is also held up as an instance, an imagined instance to be sure, of what is held out to be a better existence.
With this emphasis on poetry as a social act, something spoken by the poet to an audience, a question arises as to what to do with the recognitions made possible by poetry, what to do with vision and “things larger than understanding:
The day unbraids its pretty light
and I am here to see it
This must be all there is
right now in the world
There are things larger than understanding
Things we know cannot
be held in the mind
Appropriately, there is no pat answer, but the suggestion seems to be that poetry is uniquely capable of embodying a kind of knowledge that escapes understanding and there is seen to be an intrinsic social value in making this vision available to others. Paradoxically, Gizzi’s poetry envisions the world as absolute—as given—but also as conditional, made possible by our assumptions and acceptances. This recognition provides the ground for the utopian strain in The Outernationale inasmuch as the collection it suggests that what has been made by human choice can be remade in different directions, toward different ends. This is not automatic or guaranteed, but it is conditionally possible: “if speech can can free us.”
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. One short poem, “The Quest,” is illustrative:
It’s true, the horizon empties into
a throat, a vibrato escaping its orbit
in the form of a string
Pianissimo, I want you
Muted in the overall chromo
Begin again small wonder
building notes to touch the ground,
all is opening, diurnal, andante
All to tell you this thing
The world, also, could not be found.
The Outernationale not only performs this union of traditions or poetic modes in the poetry, but it also takes art—its fate—and the position of the artist as one of its chief subjects. If Gizzi draws on the Romantic tradition for its emphasis on the exemplary value of art, he also belongs to that tribe of poets that express a chastened sense of the power of knowledge as a means of fully understanding the world. As he declares in the title poem: “I would like/to expose doubt itself/ to open up/ the mechanics of want[…]” The limits of knowledge in art are stressed, not the omniscience of the artist or that of poetry itself. Doubt, feeling, vision and a (casually) ecstatic form of language instead are honored as the most reliable means of interpreting the layered, elusive nature of experience.
In this regard, it is not surprising that a number of poems take cinema and photography as their subjects—“Phantascope (1895),” “From a Cinematographer’s Letter,” “Lumiere” and “On What Became of Matthew Brady’s Battle Photographs.” Photography and cinema in particular are celebrated by Gizzi as spectacular art forms—forms that record experience in their idiosyncratic ways, but also hold out a vision of reality that experience can aspire to match in offering a sense of aesthetic richness, fulfillment and expressive completeness. The “world as it is” and “the world as it can be” are exemplified by two brilliant poems, “Protest Song” and “Lumiere.” First “Protest Song”:
This is not a declaration of love or song of war
not a tractate, autonym or apologia
This won’t help when the children are dying
no answer on the way to dust
Neither anthem to rally nor flag flutter
will bring back the dead, their ashes flying
This is not a bandage or hospital tent
nor relief or the rest after
Not a wreath, lilac, or laurel sprig
not a garden of earthly delights.
There are many reasons to admire this poem. I like it for the way it frankly recognizes the limits of art and poetry in particular: the protest song will not help “the children who are dying.” But I also admire its slyness in asserting that the world, and poetry about it, is not “ a garden of earthly delights”—thereby suggesting that they should be, and that this is the price we pay for organizing reality in unfree ways.
Compare that with “Lumiere,” a poem based on a one minute film made by David Lynch with a replica of an early motion picture camera:
2 shots fired off screen
3 peace officers in the field
a body of a young woman
some moviola music
the ticking of a clock
den with worried housewife
the image fades its borders
image pulsing with the clock
cut to bed of lilies
arbor and vine, swing, nymphs
smoke, the sound of beating wings
fire dissolves the frame white
Indeed. If one holds these two poems together in one’s mind, one is drawn to the similarities between them, not their differences. What is compelling is not merely the point that Gizzi’s sensibility can be wonderfully, lushly cinematic (or starkly so), although that is also true. The larger point made by The Outernationale is that reality itself is like the best cinema: it is richly textured, unpredictable, full of unspeakable pain and beauty. But also like cinema, reality itself is made, fashioned and created by the choices people make, the values they invest in and the assumptions that they go along with. And as Gizzi’s generous–and unpredictable–vision, and his inventive, mesmerizing language remind us, it can also be refashioned and remade.
Reviewed by Jon Thompson
Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.