Reviewed by Anthony Hawley
In “Deus ex Machina,” one of the many outstanding poems from Peter Gizzi’s Periplum, the poet makes the following declaration:
I will compare knowing and saying
and tell of such coordinates
that run together to the river replete with its ghosts
in this instance of talk.
If read as a kind of ars poetica, these lines indicate exactly what Gizzi makes it his business to do in Periplum: craft a new and personal geography. And, fortunately, Salt Publishing’s recent reissue of Gizzi’s Periplum, Music for Films, and Hours of the Book again provides the reader with a copy of the poet’s valuable atlas. Periplum and Other Poems 1987-1992 brings together all of Gizzi’s poetry outside of Artificial Heart (Burning Deck, 1998) and Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan, 2003), and represents the poet’s humorous and sorrowful lyric, sometimes nonchalant, often seriously concerned with fashioning a unique map of the real. Here, in his excellent early work, Gizzi plots the “coordinates” of the seen and unseen, attempting to reconcile the sticky relationship between “ghosts” and “talk.”
First published by Avec Books in 1992, Periplum takes a youthful, surreptitious, but likewise sincere attitude towards its subjects. A very real current of grief runs throughout the poems in Periplum, a grief that both mourns and feeds on absence, on the gaping land that the book attempts to map: “And there are fissures too small and / too many, everywhere, to find.” Tension between what can and can’t be apprehended runs throughout this book. Consider the following section of “Mise en Scène,” which begins with a literal mapping of space:
The shortest distance between
two points is around the world
and commerce is a word we can
appropriate to use here, but more
than this it is our achievement
of evening silence. A scarf
billowing, draped upon a door latch
in fragrant air. Vulnerable is
another word to attach to this
opening, a vivisection I fill
with eyelash teeth.
Here, the reader gets the impression that dissemination of self and self-knowledge threaten speaker and personal pronouns alike. Only the “achievement / of evening silence” can compensate for the very public and publicized world (“commerce”), and the poem becomes a kind of anthem for the vanquished. But if these songs sing allegiance they do so to an interior, to “the music in our night space” from these later lines in “Mise en Scène,” or to the “inescapable cant of the axis/heart” that Gizzi elsewhere mentions:
. . . Although
there was no piano to state the theme
there is music in our night space.
Breath making skin upon ribs taut.
That the formal alphabet of silence
(with or without a future) reveals
a language of the spine and sphinx
of wrists and ankles.
Perhaps in this loud climate, a poetic rendering can only be accomplished by writing an “alphabet of silence.” Or perhaps any other kind of alphabet besides a silent one would be inadequate for these times. In either case, what strikes the reader is that the alphabet is directly related to the flesh: “the formal alphabet of silence / . . .reveals a language of the spine and sphinx / of wrists and ankles.” In Periplum, as Gizzi maps, charts, and graphs anew, weary of trusting others’ prefabricated divisions, he turns to the body to help him accomplish his re-mapping, “for body is an instrument.” The landscape of the book privileges intimate scenes and addresses that plot the points for a phenomenology in a fractured, untrustworthy environ, where the speaker and the spoken to often dissolve into each other.
Formally, the long, thirty-plus-page sequence of brief, highly compressed lyric in Music for Films (published the same year as Periplum, this time by Paradigm Press) offers another sort of reading experience than Periplum does. But the two books’ conceits are not dissimilar:
silence within lives
the teeming meaning gleaned
from a broken tongue
I was telling the real
as approach of
had your mouth
As with Periplum, Gizzi is still “telling the real,” though perhaps in a more “broken” manner. While Periplum often displays an absence, Music for Films enacts it. The syntactical compression, almost Zukofskian, makes for an Objectivist blending of body and space, in which the distinction between foreground and background dissolves and lines like those above appear a single “thing.” Interestingly the “+” sign that so frequently divides passages in Salt’s “Music for Films” didn’t appear anywhere in the original Paradigm Press volume. The latter’s lack of a divisive sign further enacted the blending of figures and ideas. The new volume, however, forces a pause that dramatically alters the experience of the book. The reader is forced to stop after “I was telling the real” before proceeding to “as approach of”--a strange, if not significant, alteration.
Much of Gizzi’s work takes its cue from Spicer, and Gizzi is, of course, a great reader of Spicer. Nowhere is Spicer’s Letters to Lorca felt more than when reading the line “I was telling the real.” When Spicer writes, “I want to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste,” the reader can trace an almost direct line between Gizzi and Spicer. Both poets are trying to fashion “live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits . . . a collage of the real.” Gizzi also sometimes reproduces the self-deriding tone so characteristic of Spicer’s poems. However, he is at his best when combining this tone with a kind of New York School levity, and in this way, he differs from Spicer. Take, for example, the following lines from “Life Continues”:
The world happens at your doorstep. There is no method to
decipher the day. The birds and the bees are both moving geometric patterns. To connect one plain with another horizon. There are doors everywhere we walk and occasionally stumble upon a carcass, which now is only a frame--the door is ajar. This place once marked by an exit. Today it is a wall. Where is the magician of openings?
To question the infinite is an inarticulate gnarl, better to blur at the humidity of touching. Love, I stopped by to pitch some woo, we walked to town in Chinese shoes. There are doors into which we can enter, to move through this room, indecision and terror.
What has always struck me about this poem, and many of Gizzi’s, is his ability to put forth serious concerns about meaning production while not taking himself too seriously. To me, the first paragraph is so thought-filled it seems about to burst. But the strangely beautiful and funny second paragraph rescues the first from preciousness. Thus the poet can get away with “question[ing] the infinite” as long as he remains self-aware and aware of his “gnarl” and returns to “the humidity of touching,” itself enough of a “blur,” or as Gizzi says in “Mise en Scène,” a “sphinx.”
In “Poem for John Wieners,” from “Other Poems,” the third and final section of the Salt volume, Gizzi makes one of his strongest cases for the poet’s orphic role:
I am not a poet
because I live in the actual world
where fear divides light
I have no protection against
the real evils and money
which is the world
where most lives are spent
Much of the poem’s strength lies in the choice to use comparatively relaxed syntax and casual diction to convey so revelatory a message. That the poet is bound--bound to reality--comes as no surprise. But the very dichotomy in Gizzi’s work between having to “tell the real” and not being a poet because “I live in the actual world” makes the work intriguing beyond its years. We are lucky to have it available again.