Peter Gizzi, Now It’s Dark (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2020)
Stephen Rodefer told me a story once, about Amiri Baraka coming to teach a class at Buffalo in the 1960s. It’s a writing class, and he’s trying to explain to the students that a poem is made out of words. He points at a young woman who hasn’t spoken yet, and says gimme a word, and she hesitates and then says Light. He asks for another, and she says Grass. One more, he says, and she says Letter. Baraka writes it up on the chalkboard: Light / Grass / Letter. He turns to the class: ‘See? Better than Whitman.’
Peter Gizzi has been driving towards something like this distillation since at least Threshold Songs (2011). In that work he memorialised his mother, his close friend Robert Seydel, and his eldest brother the poet Michael Gizzi. The poems are pared down but spacious, as if he’s left a window open for the dead. In the vertigo of mourning the imagination works overtime, and the poems have a woozy bravado, a kind of glamour, but the economy is intimate and fragile. If I imagine his chalkboard I fill it with day, air, world, light, sky. Maybe dying. Some hinges: that, when, if, just. Gizzi presses on these words, leans his weight against them while various cacophonies and catastrophes howl and rattle around the stanzas. Words give support.
In Archeophonics (2016), he explored the idea of poetry as the recovery of lost sound. Poems become loss, forestall loss, prevent it, and accept it. In that book the threshold must be the eardrum; all he had to do was listen, and the strange ecstasy of the air would supply the questions and the answers both. The final image is one of reanimation:
to wake into
in my brain
You might catch traces of other poets. I hear W.S. Graham and Emily Dickinson rustle against each other. But the question that comes to rest ‘in my brain’ seems to rise from the stratum of the earth, striated like the sky at dusk. Everything comes alive, including – against the odds – the poet himself. It’s a shaky resurrection, but it’s a resurrection all the same. Like he says elsewhere in the same book: ‘Now fog says coffee, / that’ll bring you back. / To where?’
In Now It’s Dark, Gizzi’s latest, he’s brought back to the task of mourning. Written while caring for his terminally ill brother, Tom – a singer and songwriter – the poems here dwell in the voice, rather than the ear. As he puts it in the opening poem:
when I said voice
I meant the whole unholy grain of it,
it felt like paradise
(‘Speech Acts for a Dying World’)
Voice is textured; it has a grain like wood, or paper. And voice becomes part of the dynamic of care and memory:
When my brother could no longer speak
I said Tommy I got this
even if I don’t want this, I’ll sing for you.
(‘Now It’s Dark’)
Gizzi is interested in what kind of relationship a poem instigates. I’m tempted to say that his work is brotherly, that it has been brothered, but that’s not quite right. As Eileen Myles said of Archeophonics, ‘I’d call it girly. Even post gender.’ It’s something bigger than camaraderie, more severe and more playful both. If the poet is ‘sick with tradition and its weak signaling’ (‘Now It’s Dark’), maybe the poem emerges as a space where all is temporarily lateral. The placement is shoulder-to-shoulder. What I mean is that the work is always balancing rivalry and generosity, the give and take of language, sullen bonds of love indissoluble until the end.
The book is divided into four sections: 20 or so new poems, two long sequences, and a further mid-length poem to close with, ‘From This End of Sadness’. I keep getting thrown off-kilter, in a good way, by the middle sections of the book. The first long poem, ‘Marigold and Cable’, was written to accompany work by the composer Alex Cobb, and it’s a fantasia of ‘ghosting / florals alive / and singing’, full of trick rhymes and stretched-out echoes. It’s a busy and bustling poem, calling to mind Gizzi’s work from the mid-1990s like ‘Pierced’ and ‘Ledger Domain’, collected in Periplum (1998). This is poetry of colours and shapes, ambient shimmer and glow.
It wrongfoots me in part because Gizzi has been tending towards the Great American Songbook for some time now, writing lyric with a capital L. Even the title of the book sounds like a reply to Bob Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’, from Time Out of Mind (1997). I’ve often thought that if for Jack Spicer the poet is something like a car radio, tuning into signals from the outside, in Gizzi’s work there’s a jukebox in the corner of the room. It’s instructive to compare his poetry to the work of his late collaborator and friend, Kevin Killian, co-editor of Spicer’s collected poems. In Killian’s work, it feels like almost anything goes: your muse could be Kylie Minogue or Dario Argento, and the boundary between what’s inside the poem and outside the poem is extremely porous. If we wanted to fake up a family tree, we might say that this is Spicer’s irreverence, his scandal, his send-up. What Gizzi inherits is the hushed and prayer-like, another elegiac frequency and groove. They might be different kinds of séance, but they belong together.
But ‘Marigold and Cable’ crashes headlong into ‘Ship of State’, which begins like this:
I wandered all night with my corpse… passed over the scene… saw the rubble and war debris… I felt it… it was human… I sat next to the corpse… I kept vigil everywhere… it travelled with me… down streets… on walks… in coffee shops…
In the elegy for Tom quoted above, Gizzi writes ‘At least I’m writing and it makes a party in the dark. / A zombie feature that connects me to the undying.’ But this is more like German expressionism, each ellipsis a new tilt of the camera, seasick with chiaroscuro. All the colour of ‘Marigold and Cable’ is drained out; the relation proposed by elegy – where the speaker remains and the subject is gone – is thrown into disarray, because now everything and everyone is dead. This is a classic feature of melancholy, where it feels like parts of myself have died along with the person I’ve lost. But it’s also the threshold that poetry, of all the arts, is permitted to transgress: the real trick is to be both Orpheus and Eurydice at the same time, and Gizzi knows it.
Maybe it’s ‘Ship of State’ that he’s thinking of when he writes: ‘I was in the midst of death / When I wrote the poem of life. / I didn’t know.’ (‘Last Poem’). It’s counter-intuitive, but since he really goes there, out to ‘the extremes / where I / really lived’ (‘Inside Out Loud’) and manages also to come back, the poems seem to insist that it’s not wholly dark. In what I think is my favourite poem of the collection, ‘Sunshine’ – one of his casual little knock-outs – Gizzi writes:
Of what. Was wing.
Was bright all afternoon.
the crisp March
This sheaf of light.
It doesn’t help.
But he turns inwards, feels the blood in his veins, the sun on his body. There’s a magical stanza where he practically levitates:
Want to understand
the this in that,
want this, got that
and ran with it.
Here the lightness comes from the how the poetry turns around a handful of little words – what he calls elsewhere ‘A reclamation / in small things’ (‘Inside Out Loud’). In itself, it’s like a lesson about poetry: you wanted this, but you got that, and the only thing to do is carry it with you.
What I’m suggesting here is that contrary to the title, the poems stick it out in whatever light they can find. Either this is a sliver of optimism, or it’s the more troubling realisation that it could still get darker yet – like Edgar says in King Lear, ‘The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’’. I think this is the realisation that Gizzi works through in the final poem in the collection, ‘From This End of Sadness’. He states it plain:
To free fall into it.
It feels like winter,
the light overcast
and the day lit up
The poem stretches out, eight tender pages, and finds a way into renewal and consolation, via ‘the rotting trunk and pine needles / regenerating soil’. Decay is the possibility of fresh life and continuance, and it reconnects the poet to the world and the people and things in it.
I was reminded of Branka Arsić’s stunning recent work on Thoreau and grief, which explores his ideas about ‘the difference between how humans mourn and how nature mourns.’ She elaborates Thoreau’s belief that nature exists in a state of perpetual and impersonal grief – what she calls ‘unbound natural mourning’ – which contrasts with the temporally-experienced human grief, attached to specific people and located in the self. She quotes a letter from Thoreau to Emerson:
How plain that death is only the phenomenon of the individual or class – Nature does not recognise it, She finds her own again under new forms without loss … We are partial and selfish when we lament the death of the individual, unless our plaint be a paean to the departed soul, and we sigh as the wind sighs over the fields, which no shrub interprets into its private grief.
Two months earlier, Thoreau’s brother John had died in his arms of tetanus, and he’d developed psychosomatic lockjaw. He lost his voice and had to go to the woods to find it.
From the same scene, the same position, Gizzi offers his voice, holds it out, and lets it go. This is the tradition he belongs to. His elegy is public and open, ‘new forms without loss’, turning always towards the other where the work will come to rest.
 Thoreau to Emerson, March 11 1824. See Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2016), pp. 59-61.
Luke Roberts is the author of Home Radio (the87press, 2021), Glacial Decoys (Free Poetry, 2021), and other works of poetry and prose. He lives and works in London.