April 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987-2011 by Peter Gizzi

Peter Gizzi's stature on the national poetry scene has steadily risen since his early poetry days editing o•blék: a journal of language arts, a rather infamously known small press poetry journal published from 1987-1993. Those years took Gizzi from his stomping grounds 'round Brown University on up to SUNY Buffalo, where he undertook his PhD focusing upon poet Jack Spicer's lectures, which were at the time much heard of but little known outside of some minimal published selections. He then went on to teach in the San Francisco Bay Area, most notably at UC Santa Cruz, where I first became acquainted with his work and presence at various events.

After publication of The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, to which he contributed a stellar essay of original research into Spicer's poetics, Gizzi hooked up with Kevin Killian and they've since edited and published My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, with further volumes of Spicer material promised. Along the way Gizzi has consistently published austere gems of his own poetry -- chapbooks and full collections -- with publishers both large and small. In Defense of Nothing Selected Poems 1987-2011 finally offers a comprehensive gathering of Gizzi's poems spanning his entire published output to date.

I often have arguments with friends and compatriots about poetic lineages. How you can see a William Carlos Williams lineage, for instance, reflected in the evident fact of the example set by Philip Whalen as it surfaces in the work of Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley. Of course, all arguments of this kind are overblown and ultimately amount to little more than so much blustery ruckus-raising squabbles over a few drinks. However, I'll go ahead and argue that among so-called big names of twentieth-century American poets, Wallace Stevens holds a well-chiseled vein of influence setting his own mark apart from, say, William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein, among so many others. To my own ears, John Ashbery is the quintessential poet continuing on in a Grand Stevens tradition to which Peter Gizzi is the most promising addition of late.

Gizzi, thankfully, expands the tradition. Cranking open the can, as it were, allowing more of the personal, and a looser experimental line to squeak through. He plunges mercilessly into the epistemological matters that lie at the heart of the tradition. In "Hypostasis & New Year":

Hey shadow world when a thing comes back
come back unseen but felt and no longer itself what then
what silver world mirrors tarnished lenses
what fortune what fate
and the forms not themselves but only itself the sky
by water and wind shaken

I am born in silvered dark
Of what am I to see these things between myself and nothing
between the curtain and the stain
between the hypostatic scenes of breathing
and becoming the thing I see
are they not the same

Stevens always sounds like Stevens. Similarly, Ashbery by this point in his own development and the general climate of the poetry scene -- which his own work has played an undeniably central role in developing -- has reached the point of always sounding like Ashbery (although, hasn't he always?). Gizzi, likewise, proves remarkably identifiable as Gizzi. A singularly recognizable tone is pervasive throughout his poems, whether asserting "I am not a poet" ("Poem for John Wieners") or "the heart of poetry is fatigue" ("Pierced"), while blandly yet forthrightly stating "Winter's the thing." ("Edgar Poe"), his poetic discourses remain markedly his own. His is a cerebral embrace of the text as literal sounding board for furthering his understanding of identity: "but the mind of a page is the form of a body / the one we touch, the one that makes laws" ("Pierced").

A not-so-secret trick of the trade among poets is the rule that a good poem often proves itself just as readable backwards as well as forwards. It shouldn't matter whether you begin at the beginning or the end. Each line holds enough resonant weight of its own equally against the line previous as well as the next to come. Gizzi's "Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures" serves as a lively demonstration of the point. From what is at once both the opening and closing line, "is this what you intended, Vincent" every line moves progressively/retrogressively closer to the middle lines of the poem, which present a mirrored contusive image: "the gnarled cut stumps tearing the sky, eating the sun." The range and abundance of exemplar long poems by Gizzi such as this prove his formal mastery again and again.

Gizzi holds forth on his own terms. Messages are everywhere, "now that you're here be brave. / Be everyway alive" ("Tiny Blast"), yet they're never obnoxiously thrust forward distracting from the poem itself, never found to be overly present. Similarly, the physical body remains inextricable from the text, "There is my body and the idea of my body / the surf breaking and the picture of a wave" ("A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me"), while never taken up as slogan or badge defining identity-based poetics. His images arrive as matching set pieces, truth-evaluations gathered from out a consciousness which remains unmoored in its explorations. Questions come with undervalued surprise and confirmation: "Is there world? / Are they still calling it that?" ("Bardo"). As does advice: "Take it another way. Tune / the sad song and praise life." ("History is Made at Night").

I was surprised to find Gizzi's "Masters of the Canto Jondo", which first appeared in Fence and was later collected in Some Values in Landscape and Weather, excluded here. A poem in multiple parts, it so lucidly celebrates the exquisite regard within which Gizzi holds his predecessors and poetic tradition(s) from which he emerges that I expected to find it included. For this is Gizzi at his best:

What will they sing, say of our words. Shaping dust,
a room out of air, an empty room, a room
whose breeze is only song, a body when no one sees it.

Simple alliterative light technical play, via repetition of words and phrases, moves the reader easily through these lines, widening acoustical sound corridors and thus opening space for roomy contemplation. This opening out into a too easily overlooked depth is one of Gizzi's trademarks, which is perhaps never more so clearly revealed than here.

Regardless of this particular exclusion, In Defense of Nothing Selected Poems 1987-2011 splendidly champions Gizzi as a major force in the ever-expanding vastness of the poetry world. His well-earned spot as an integral influential force of our time is thus firmly staked out.

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987-2011 by Peter Gizzi
ISBN: 978-0819574305
244 pages