Reviewed by Graham Foust
On my first trip to southern California, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and saw two retrospective exhibits, one featuring the work of Robert Smithson, the other drawings by Ed Ruscha. What struck me most about these shows was how well they fit together; the qualities of one artist bled into the other and felt at home there. Smithson’s work, which for me has always had an air of high seriousness about it, somehow became cartoonish and hilarious--the Hotel Planeque slideshow, for instance, would hardly be out of place in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. On the other side of the museum, Ruscha’s gunpowders, chocolates, and pastels felt like mirror-coated rocks pouring out of a dumptruck and into the adjacent bins of my left and right brain. Humor hadn’t seemed so profoundly playful to me--so seriously funny--in years.
If the sensibilities of these two contemporaries were somehow fused together and instructed to write poems, that compound mind might look and feel something like the mind of Peter Gizzi, a writer who strikes me as an at-once tense and casual excavator of the causal and sensual. Watch how Gizzi’s small poem “In Defense of Nothing” fuses Smithson’s high-flying earthwork and Ruscha’s ground-bound skywriting:
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 up 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.
This poem’s first line wouldn’t be out of place in one of Ruscha’s mid-seventies works on paper (one that might hang between “I Was Gasping for Contact” and “Honey, I Twisted through More Damn Traffic Today”), while the last almost seems like it’s been culled from the text of Smithson’s 1967 essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic.”
We might expect poetry in and of the age of Windows to be a little buggy, and it’s perhaps fitting that it takes three tries or titles--three turns of Gizzi’s key--to get this volume started. The book’s first section, “Forensics,” consists of one long poem entitled “A History of the Lyric,” which is itself composed of six individually titled sections, the first of which, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”--and we’re off! (is this on?)--initiates the book’s automobile-as-planetarium theme by cruising the reader through days and nights, past mountains and owls, and under electricities and skies of various stars and stripes. In the poem’s title section, Gizzi writes: “Don’t trade on this high tone // for silence, rather lumen chatter / recalling the better part of majesty.” The better part of “majesty” is “jest,” and while it’s fair to say (and no doubt obvious) that the poem’s tone might originate from Jack Spicer’s down-to-Mars “lowghost,” majesty’s remainder-letters remind us that there’s a bit of Allen Ginsberg’s King of May here, too. To wit, the poem’s coda’s last lines:
When the end was near
I picked up for a moment, joy
came into my voice
Hurry up it sang
in skiffs and shafts
Selah in silver tones
When the day broke open
I became myself
standing next to a door
In my dream, you were alive
Like much of Ginsberg’s work, “A History of the Lyric” is at ease with the personal--that which Spicer deemed “the big lie”--and yet its final lines turn away from the reality to which any history aspires. The speaker fucks with us by way of a new spin on the old Doors’ title “Alive, She Cried” in the uncontrollable and overdetermined space of a dream, a space where our minds are simultaneously at their best and worst, their truest and most fictional.
To prepare for L.A., I’d been listening to great records about cars, among them DJ Shadow’s 2002 album The Private Press, which opens and closes with a sample of one Novella Johnson, who is cutting/writing a record/letter to a man Shadow’s listeners can know only as Lester. In the first sample, her voice rises from scratchy vinyl and noodling music to say the following (reproduced here to the best of my abilities) about her recent vacation by car:
451 Commercial Avenue
September 9th, 1951
I’m sorry I didn’t write before and because this record wasn’t sent which I intended doing before this. Everything went wrong. Tonight, we got together and kept the kids up and decided to have a little fun making this record. But of course, coming up, we didn’t have any trouble, we had a lot of fun. Momma slept all the way, and I didn’t get tired driving, was overanxious. We got in about 12:45, got to Richmond, woke the family up. There are so many things I could say but I just can’t get them together . . . I’ll let you hear from somebody else.
The relative scarcity of both personal letters and vinyl records in our new century (not to mention the sheer odd-ness of a letter sent by record) combines with Novella’s teary, trailing, and yet somehow matter-of-fact voice to evoke a daft--one might even say spastic--melancholy. Indeed, Shadow’s entire record, with its constant mention of automobiles (“Mashin’ on the Motorway,” “Blood on the Motorway”), dissed connections (“Walkie Talkie,” “Giving Up the Ghost”), and discontent (“Fixed Income,” “You Can’t Go Home Again”), seems to insist that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going. While its effects are certainly beautiful and pleasurable, the record never allows its listeners to escape the dark and masterful strangeness; as is the case with some of the Beach Boys records, the shadows that Shadow’s ghostly America casts prove to be more powerful than the sun that makes them possible.
Lyric poetry is a private press of sorts--a single human voice speaking to no one in particular, and yet somehow making public his or her persona. One year after the release of Shadow’s record, we find one of lyric poetry’s most deft practitioners down in the dumps and sampling (from Wallace Stevens’ dump no less!), as he stitches together one of the funkiest and most fortifying collections of our new and often dumbstruck century:
Isn’t it great here
just now dying along with azaleas, trilliums,
myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox?
It’s good to be a ghost in America,
light flooding in at this moment
of never coming back to the same person
who knew certain things, certain people,
shafts of light entering a kitchen
at the end of an age of never coming back now.
Here, in what I take to be the centerpiece of his third full-length collection of poems, Peter Gizzi offers up a recitation of resuscitation (a “Revival”) even as that poem’s first line discourages such an activity by way of its speaker’s declaration that “It’s good to be dead in America.” I, for one, have come to expect such contradictions and conundrums from Gizzi, and I always find them delightful, baffling, more than a little scary, and completely relevant to our continuously changing and challenging present. In a time when our various values are being debated, reinvented, upheld, fought for, and/or totally misunderstood, Some Values of Landscape and Weather breathes the rather old craft of poetry into our new formations of life with uncanny candor and skill. Despite--or perhaps because of--his status as one of the most prominent “indie” poets of the last decade, Gizzi is an entirely “major” figure; that today’s academies (or at least Wesleyan University Press) have opened their doors to him bodes well for poetry’s future.