Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Peter Gizzi, Now It’s Dark
Wesleyan University Press, 2020, $15.95

In “The Apostle’s Grudge at the Persistence of Poetry” (Ironwood 14:2 [1986]), a relatively early essay on the poetry of Jack Spicer, Ross Feld makes the following crucial observation: “That we try to write poetry for the first time, he [Spicer] could appreciate as a cosmic joke. That we write it a second and third time, that we persist in doing so, was in the end too bitter a jest even for him. He bore the persistence, the repeatability of poetry, a great resentment.” As the editor of Spicer’s collected poems and of his collected essays, Peter Gizzi has no doubt read Feld’s piece. More to the point, as one of Spicer’s most direct and important poetic heirs, Gizzi has taken this bitter knowledge to heart. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest volume of poetry, Now It’s Dark. Like Spicer, Gizzi has intermittently written a kind of meta-poetry, a poetry that reflects upon the possibility—and impossibility—of lyric utterance, given the belief that poems come from the “outside,” from the spooks, the Martians, and that writing poetry is ultimately an experience of “dictation.” Spicer struggles to avoid what he famously calls “the big lie of the personal,” or as Feld puts it, “the fervid vehemence of an art-making person.” Gizzi is a less vehement poet than Spicer; there is a gentle quality to his work even when he feels pushed to the extreme by the demands of his calling. And make no mistake, Gizzi sees poetry as nothing other than a calling, which is why he returns doggedly to the task, letting us know that he’s back at it again. The result is often disturbing, more than often beautiful, and always deeply moving.

Now It’s Dark is divided into four sections: Lyric, Garland, Nocturne, and Coda. The first section in particular (hence its title) explores those contradictions inherent in writing poetry again. Gizzi has always been a self-consciously lyric poet. He comes of age during that period when lyric self-expression and the concomitant notion of interiority is being interrogated, not only by critical theorists and by the language poets, but by an older generation of poets, including Ashbery, Creeley, and Spicer himself. As Gizzi puts it quite directly in his new book,

The collapse
of interiority
in my time.
In my time
I was a
a ghost
hungry for
selfhood. (“Inside Out Loud,” 35)

One of my favorite earlier Gizzi sequences is called A History of the Lyric, from Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), a wonderfully haphazard meditation, full of “beetles and boojum / specimen jars decorated // with walkingsticks, water striders / and luna moths // a treatise on rotating spheres.” “To think I have written this poem before,” the poet notes. Now, years later, as part of that history, Gizzi is much less easygoing:

when I said work
and meant lyric

when I thought I was done
with the poem as a vehicle
to understand violence

when I thought I was done
with the high-toned
shitty world

done with the voice and
its constituent pap (5)

This is from “Speech Acts for a Dying World,” the first poem in Now It’s Dark, and it’s a killer—I wish I could quote it in its entirety. If one of the poet’s tasks is to help us “understand violence,” a violence that is never-ending, then he must enter fully, again and again, into “the voice and / its constituent pap,” speaking from “the high-toned / shitty world” that is the place of the poem. (Spicer to Ginsberg in his last poem: “At least we both know how shitty the world is.”) Because “the beautiful / is too much to carry” (4), Gizzi keeps repeating the phrase “I thought I was done”—knowing full well that he’s not.

Gizzi’s dedication to a poetics of dictation leads him to re-enact a similar agon to that of Spicer, based on an ineluctable paradox: the more the poet seeks to escape lyrical self-expression and become a vehicle for the outside, the more the outside demands a painfully personal song. Gizzi may believe that he “was stuffing for a chair, / a doll” (Every Day I Want to Fly My Kite,” 11), but he learns instead that “the poem wanted me in pain writing this” (“The Present Is Constant Elegy,” 16). Note the titles of the two poems I just quoted: the poet is in a perpetual present because the poetic condition is ongoing, a condition in which, more often than not, “Writing / is one thing. / Pain is / the same thing” (“Inside Out Loud,” 36). Nevertheless, for Gizzi, dictation remains the fundamental procedure—perhaps the only procedure—for writing poetry: “when the word / is too large / but cannot / contain it, / hear ghost, / sing air” (“Marigold & Cable,” 79).

“I was down with materialism but wanted mystery” (“Now It’s Dark,” 21): I want to suggest that one way to read Gizzi is as a religious, and specifically, a sacrificial poet. Here I must carefully distinguish between sacrificial and confessional, because Gizzi is definitely not a confessional poet as we have come to understand that term. He is quite reticent in expressing details of his personal life. Even at his most emotionally intense, there is a quiet in his words that borders on religious silence. It isn’t Gizzi the “person” or even the “voice” that is sacrificial: it is the poem. However rich the language in Now It’s Dark—and at times it is rich indeed—it also has a distinctly ascetic quality. There is a sense of the poem placing itself upon an altar, of giving itself to a god. What god? Poetry. From “Ship of State,” a sequence in the form of prose paragraphs, each consisting of sentences or phrases trailing off in ellipses:

some people survive battle… some their childhood… some survive nothing…
some children are forever lost in their bodies… wave upon wave… voices…
sound effects… phantasmagoria… there is no return… only the idea… there
is no return only narrative… to survive is to… (94)

Fragments that could lead to poignant lyric poems end up going nowhere, but in their condition as fragments, they suffice. The narrative is that there is no narrative; all that remains is the “corpse” that appears, accompanying the poet throughout this sequence, since, as Gizzi tells us, “I wrote to speak to my autopsy…” (93).

If Gizzi’s poetry at its darkest seems to constitute an autopsy, he can still declare that “At least I’m writing and it makes a party in the dark. / A zombie feature that connects me to the undying” (19). Zombie-like, the dead are always with us, which is to say that they are undying. The deep feeling of loss that permeates so much of the work results in elegy. Sometimes this elegiac writing has a political inflection:

Got to be with
the peoples who
said no, and
then said yes.

The art of
the collective
as it collapses
into a poem. (“Sunshine,” 52-53)

Sometimes there is sorrow for the natural world:

The world is close today
and elegy is my tonic.
I recast language in hope
of recovering the red oak
my neighbors felled.
It lived over a hundred years, glowing. (“Now It’s Dark,” 31)

Above all else, there is the loss of Gizzi’s brother, the singer/songwriter Tom Gizzi (1952-2018), to whom the book is dedicated:

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.
When my brother had no voice there was only the couch and a wooden floor
the ceiling and the TV with nothing blaring. (“Now It’s Dark,” 18)

Is a poetry of dictation inevitably elegiac? Reading Now It’s Dark, I am led to answer in the affirmative. As in another recent review, I am reminded of Harold Bloom’s insistence that our literature is that of the Evening Land (Abendland), which means that with some exceptions, it is certainly elegiac. And I think too of the opening of Robert Hass’s great “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” In one of Gizzi’s nice turns to the vernacular, he ruefully observes that “I’m into the way / the technology of an I / is filled with the dead” (105). This comes from the last poem in the book, the heartbreaking “From This End of Sadness.” If the “I,” the speaking subject, is a construction, or, if you will, a “technology,” then it is a technology, a way of being—and of doing—based on human relationships. It is premised on love, and therefore, inevitably, on loss. Here are the final lines of the poem:

Blur with me
when I am sick
of dying,
fearful of failing
the song I love.

Be with me
whenever I sit
wasting days.

Comfort the hours. (108)

There is an echo here of one of the great poems of the Evening Land, Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Be near me when my light is low,
   When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
   And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

In those moments when our light is low, when with Gizzi we say we are “fearful of failing / the song I love,” in the moments when we most fear dying, it is the dead we call upon for aid. Gizzi has learned this lesson beautifully, and is here to remind us of it.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 2/13/2021 at 12:00 PM