Reviewed by Thomas Fink
In the aptly titled Threshold Songs, Peter Gizzi´s fifth book of poetry, just about every poem examines various forms of threshold and displays its status as a “song,” lyric utterance. At the beginning of the stanza-less, unpunctuated, three-page opening poem, “The Growing Edge,” Gizzi speaks of “a spike / in the air / a distant thrum / you call singing,” and he uses apostrophe to ask whether this pattern of communication can function for the addressee as well as the speaker:
and how many nights
this giganto, torn
tuned, I wonder if
you hear me
I mean I talk
to myself through you
you’re out there
tonight and so am I
for as long as
I talk to the air.
Can he achieve a rapprochement between the “torn” and his effort to “tune” song? If the fiction of apostrophe is a cover for self-talk, Gizzi would like to associate the “thrum” with a sign of the presence of those who have departed: “felt presences / behind the hole / in the day. . .” But, no matter how sincerely and intensely the poet works at “hectoring air,” he knows that each attempt to realize such an encounter has its own specific uncertainties unlike any previous ones: “I’ve not been here / before, my voice is / looking for a door / this offing light / reaching into maw.” Even in the imagination, the threshold of contact with the cherished dead (for example, his brother Michael and his mother, noted in the book’s dedication) depends on quality of voice or mental/optical “light” or kinesthetic/spatial factors. “Home,” which is supposed to be ultimately familiar, is caught in agitated recollections of fragments of disparate experiences that are exceedingly difficult to hold together: “I meet the whole / vortex of home / buckling inside / a deep sea while / flash lightning / birth storms / weather of pale / blinding life.” Vigorous, even violent processes of becoming and disappearance have a “blinding” effect for one who seeks perception of a whole essence and a deafening effect on the striving to hear a pure, unified presence. As lines from “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture” suggest, the experiencing of recollection creates a disjunction in the present: “I am alive today, alive not being alive // being with the lost ones and living lost within the lost hours / lost faces lost. . .”
Elegiac poetry addresses the problem of losing others, but anticipation of a different threshold, one’s own departure, requires other strategies. In “Analemma”—the title from astronomy implying a simultaneous multiplying of perspectives—Gizzi ponders how elements of family continuity may be a preparation for death, as well as something of emotional compensation:
That I came back to live
in the region both
my parents died into
that I will die into
if I have nothing else
I have this and
it’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it.
Formally similar to “The Growing Edge” but with slightly longer lines, “Analemma” plainly counsels temporal understanding and cultivation of the ability to face and accept mortality as reality. A shift in verb tenses underlines the connection of time pattern and this reality: “I can be [“these things”] / have been them / will be there, soon.” This poem presents awareness of the thresholds shared by self and family.
As opposed to those pieces primarily concerned with death, some of the poems in Threshold Songs respond to Emerson’s call in “Nature” and other essays for an immanent communion of individual perceiver and the natural world. “Hypostasis & New Year” at once probes fears that keep the speaker from attempting such an immersion and provides figures that bespeak this engagement: “For why am I afraid to sing / the fundamental shape of awe / . . . would this blade and this day free me to speak intransitive lack— // the vowels themselves free.” By assembling such acute descriptions as “the silvered back of the winter willow spear,” the poet sings “awe” in what might be judged a “fundamental shape,” but he worries, it seems, that the already tenuous ego will be further fragmented or even obliterated by nature’s sublime (terrifying) power: “these stars scattered as far as the I.” It is just as likely, though, that liberation from ego and absorption in nature will afford fulfillment.
For one situated at the threshold of immanence, the poet exhorts: “Hey, / you wanted throttle, / you wanted full bore. / Stay open to adventure. / Being awake is finally / a comprehensive joy.” The adjective “comprehensive” suggests both deepened perceptual understanding and expansive embrace of the natural and built environment: each “nimbus,” “every part-colored aura / on cars,” “every / tinge and flange,” and even “a bright patch over the roof on the jobsite singing itself.” Acknowledging that everyone has a “little” (not a grand) “force” and thus must “turtle” into threshold-crossing, Gizzi’s speaker exclaims: “And now that you’re here be brave. / Be everyway alive.”
Threshold Songs features two poems that are considerably longer than the others. The title of “Pinocchio’s Gnosis” humorously emphasizes what cannot be trusted about the character: his access to spiritual truth is thwarted by the growth of his nose when he lies. The text contains 22 justified prose-paragraphs, separated by stars, with varying numbers of sentences. In the first paragraph, physical manifestations signify the “wooden” Pinocchio’s crisis in attempting to sing a spiritual “song”: “The season falls into itself, cuts a notch in me. I become thinner. My heart splinters and a wooden sound invades the song, interrupts my ire.” Two paragraphs later, he seems to destroy Jiminy Cricket, emblem of his own conscience: “In my father’s house I killed a cricket with an old sole.” Death by stomping, however, is undermined by the pun on “old soul,” and this double meaning leads to the articulation of a poetics of mischief: “Funny how being dead troubles the word. I am trying to untie this sentence, to untidy the rooms where we live.” The trickster poet disrupts the “dead word” of politicians and mass media with “untidy” phrasing and narrative disjunctions, and so this reconstructed Pinocchio’s burgeoning proboscis may be comparable to Picasso’s notion of art as the lie that permits truth to emerge. In its own ways, this lie combats the duping and imaginative depletion of the world indicated in the seventh paragraph’s jostling of high Shakespearean sentence: “All the world’s a stooge. The secret and silent world worn from abuse and those surfaces abrading imagination.”
These disruptions through “untying” and “untidying” may disclose the material ground(ing) of language—“teasing lone from the lonely, bending the guy into guidebook”—but one version of this attitude, “If I decide to laugh all the time I’ll surely rid myself of tears,” can result in staleness, “yesterday’s plaything,” or the annoyance of “ceaseless chatter.” Another version presented in a few paragraphs involves nihilistic violence: a “fisherman” who “wanted a bride” instead got “a seal and. . . stamp” (two puns) before being “hit. . . with a sickle” and thrown “off a bridge.” This echoes punishment inflicted on Pinocchio for his transgressions: “It was a simple mallet. It spoke simply, whammo, blam, I understood perfectly. Its oscillations filled the darks in waves of blue, some green and felt like no other mallet in my life.” Ironically, “blue” and “green” recur with more positive connotations toward the end of the prose-poem.
Perhaps the darkest point of this emotionally varied text is the speaker’s appreciation of human existence’s pathetic vulnerability, of physical and temporal limitations: “What is a man but a paper miscellany, a bio furnace blowing coal, a waste treatment plant manufacturing bluster. . . .” Two paragraphs after this grim update of Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” speech, a pronoun shift “tags” a human being with the promise of destruction and states how, in a reversal of Pinocchio’s process of humanization, a person becomes a thing: “This body only lasts for so many days. It’s got a shelf life. It’s got time-lapse, time-based carbon life. There’s you and it and now you are it. That’s the paradigm.”
In paragraph 19, the “summery” encounter of singer and audience is posited as an implicit compensation for violence, cynicism, and melancholy contemplation of the fruitlessness of human endeavor in the face of mortality. But this escape remains subject to irony: “And so the singer cast a shadow. It was like every other shadow and so we were comforted. The song was summer itself. Green and a special blue went into all of us.” Does “the song” represent “summer,” or does the presence of summer render the song’s emotional effect redundant? Given the previous references to the two colors and possibly sinister phrase “went into,” we wonder what is “special” (as well as good or bad) about this infusion. Indeed, the audience turns out to be sweating, the “shadow” not quite providing shade from summer heat. Eventually, in the next paragraph, the singing’s allegedly positive effect—perhaps characterized by how listening to the Blues helps one work through suffering, how blue water can cleanse one, and how green signifies natural vitality and growth—wears off: “But enough of the singer and the special song of summer. We were tired of you, grew tired of these greens and blues, tired of the ray’s long sad decline. It bent way down and didn’t feel special anymore.”
Wallace Stevens, whose long poems like “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” pursue large abstract questions, declared that the supreme (poetic or aesthetic) fiction “must give pleasure,” but in order to keep doing so, it must change (and be abstract). Even if Gizzi might not call such a fiction supreme, he emphasizes change in the song—no less than candidate Obama in 2008—as his text draws to a close. Sounding Emersonian, the speaker encourages his audience to “take the long walk past shadows, alleys, and culverts. . . . Take the promise and transform the man. Look hard into the air.” Both singer and audience should engage in active interpretation and direct experience as they account for continual change. If two paragraphs earlier, the singer projected a representation of an experiential process (“shadow”), in this coda, the means of representation enables the singer to enter the field of the listeners’ reception:
The shadow cast a singer. It was like every other shadow and so we were comforted. But who would stay the same even if the ray’s report is the same. I am changing and you know about this too. The fuzz haloed with heat lines in a cartoon. I am summer the shadow the song and the solstice. Green and a special blue went into all of us.
Renewal is a reiterative process; it is best for “the ray’s report” to keep pace with change in the singer, audience, and environment. The final sentence, though a precise repetition of the one that appeared in the twentieth paragraph, now includes the significance that the colors’ special quality acquires value in its difference from prior “special” color infusions—that is, in its adaptation to the changing circumstances of those involved.
Thus, for Gizzi, who does not suppose that problems of existence and non-existence can be transcended, the verbal effort to locate each threshold is designed to “negotiate the present intensities / in the world and its apostrophes,” as he puts it in “History Is Made at Night,” the book’s other incisive long poem. “The world” in which Gizzi is immersed “is rising and crashing, / a crescendo all the time.”