On Rae Armantrout's 'Just Saying'
Rae Armantrout’s 2013 book Just Saying, a phrase that calls into question the veracity of what we say, think, and feel to be the case, or a phrase used to offload the force of an insult, suggests a motif of our inability or refusal to render our systems of thinking and believing in convincing terms. To be sure, the poems are varied in their address, circling around domestic concerns, mortality, social codes, product placement, forms of transactions, and systems of belief. One of the moves that Armantrout makes so well is to channel the many-tongued voicings of the clichéd-chorus. In the cacophonous, hyper-mediated Internet age, in the postrecession capitalism of America, in the images reflected back to us from the culture industry, Armantrout’s poems take on the bricolage of heterogeneous language acts and recast them to render new systems of meaning. It is in this recasting that poetry can be thought of as an instrument to not only document our present conditions on the ground, but to refigure those conditions, to see them anew.
Armantrout’s poems are characteristically short, and usually advance through precise, almost Dickinsonian lines, where prolixity is skillfully trimmed down to reveal taut and muscular lines and stanzas: minimal words, maximum weight. But unlike Dickinson, Armantrout works in sections, either numbered or broken by an asterisk. The effect, while multiple, is often to destabilize the poem and allow it to disrupt expectations of a coherent, discrete speaking subject. The instability always feels generative, constantly allowing for surprising correspondences.
To cast another metaphor, Armantrout’s poems perform like miniature dragnets, dredging the sediment of our personal and collective social constructs out into the open, where they are assembled and made to speak in disjunctive tongues. In this way, Armantrout's many-voiced approach reveals a rigorous poetic practice of allowing voices, images, ideas, to play out in constant tension and counterpoint.
This productive tension is delivered through the use of sections or breaks, allowing for a word, idea, subject, sense, feeling to be explored through shifting angles of report and inquiry. This move, through repetition, almost develops an argument, as if to say: we are going to see what will happen by taking a look at this phenomenon, by changing the terrain and language practices around which it is understood. This gesture highlights, in a way, how knowledge or ways of knowing is partial. It is one side of the story, but within the stories, language emerges as a form of power, as a mechanism for framing. As Armantrout understands, language comes before us; we are at the mercy of what’s available. In the penultimate poem of the book, “Hymn,” we read:
To put one over
One is everywhere
into branching again
“Glory be to him,”
that can’t quite dissolve
Collapse on cue.
Praise Sisyphus. (100)
The opening of the poem imagines, abstractly and in a slightly mocking tone, the act or the proposition of being deceived. We might surmise this opening comment suggests the hymn as a song of devotion and praise to a God. A hymn is both thing and action, generally sung in unison by a congregation of fellow believers. In a way, the first section of Armantrout’s “Hymn” presents a thesis on the hymn as a thing, something passed down through generations, as mass deception masked in the third-person singular of one. The following sections echo, extend, and refocus this thesis, recasting the action or thing in new terms. We move from the general to the concrete, as if the poem were making an argument. And within this movement, the poem asks the reader to consider the singular as a more extensive, all-pervading phenomenon which I read as a kind of critique of almost unconscious repetition on both an individual and collective level, as in the last line of the poem: “Praise Sisyphus.” In a sense, the poem sees in repetitive performance a form of control: this act, whether the singing of a hymn or some other collective act, represents a larger activity of following consensus, as in the line “Collapse on cue.” But it’s the form of the poem that enables the reader to participate in the process of making meaning. The jump-cut effect of the section breaks asks the reader to stop and consider the parts in relation to the whole.
Armantrout’s sections, whether numbered or indicated by an asterisk, produce what I call a trampoline effect. That is, instead of my eyes descending down the page, breaks in the continuity of the poems send me back, as if the stanzas were playing tricks on my eyes. There’s a way to quickly read Armantrout’s poems, but something gets lost without constant attention. Her moves are slithery, oblique at times, and at other moments, the phrasing comes at a deceptively simple angle that delights, producing a dance for the intellect.
In the poem “Subdivision,” the first section reads: “In a horror movie / the dead eat the living; / while in reality / the living eat the dead” (31). This kind of role reversal, namely, horror film as a genre, follows a narrative formula, while in “reality,” this formula is reversed. The pairing, while simplistic, carries a depth of suggestion. The language is almost deadpan and reportorial, and on a basic level, the pairing of horror films with reality suggests a subdivision of pleasure and human behavior, or perhaps more subtly, human behavior as pleasure. We accept both as “natural” in their environments: what’s more, our pleasure in eating the dead takes on an eerie, blissful lack of awareness of the impact of such choices. Sure, we consume the dead as a matter of sustenance, but we often neglect to consider how the dead are bound to larger ecological systems. To see animals as merely dead for our own gastronomic pleasure highlights how we subdivide reality into parts. And we do this without much logical defense other than “it’s my right to eat whatever I want.” The last two sections of “Subdivision” read:
To matter (verb)
is to be
matter is that
You’ve been living
in a false
one composed of
This poem is characteristic for how it moves from the opening report on horror movies and reality to a play on the word “matter” — as something or someone that carries weight or significance — to how matter is the very material that constructs the world. The third section further extends the notion of subdivision by having the reader focus on a “you” being addressed. This “you” seems to have mistakenly been living without influence, but the poem suggests that we think of the preposition “of” as necessarily highlighting our adherence to parts of the world, whether they are persons, objects, or ideas. The poem ends with a comment on the assertion that “one composed of / ‘of,’” is “extensively subdivided.” We are told, in an open way given the lack of punctuation, that being subdivided is a quality that balances us, or at least gives us the appearance of balance. Any precise Armantrout poem allows us time and space to see words and ideas deconstructed so that the familiar can be reseen.
In 2001, Wesleyan University Press inaugurated its commitment as the home of Rae Armantrout’s twenty-first-century work Veil: New and Selected Poems, the first helping of Armantrout under the wonderful editorship of Wesleyan over the years. (They’ve also brought us the engaging work of Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Kamau Brathwaite, Ed Roberson, Jack Spicer, and Brenda Coultas, among many notable others.) Veil marked, in a way, a poetic proliferation that has been followed by Up to Speed (2004), Next Life (2007), Versed (2009), Moneyshot (2011), and 2013’s Just Saying. (Itself was published in early 2015.)
It feels almost necessary (like a fresh breath of air) to have before me a new Rae Armantrout book every couple of years. Her work feels vital. It shows the workings of a mind willing to grapple with and recalibrate the bewildering experience of living in our young twenty-first century. I know this is a large claim, but it’s the breadth, seriousness, and intensity of her work that holds a reader. As a reader, I’m put in acute proximity with a mind that tells us in Just Saying: “I don’t like / the option / of zero wiggle room” (90). To the open eye and ear, the poems offer an intelligent cadence. Her poems are precisely sounded on the page, as in the poem “New Intelligence”: “Stars / are the campfires / of exiles. // Language exists / to pull things / close” (91). Here, we’re invited to imagine language as an instrument to put the world more under our nose. These stanzas bridge the distant and near. By bringing the earthly to bear on the ever more knowable sky above us, Armantrout also seems to suggest that the distant is often in a state of banishment; the distant object is distant precisely because it was coerced or persuaded. But language, and hence the poem, is a vehicle that enables new connections, and perhaps more to the point, reflexive action.
Armantrout’s poems are intimately aware that language is inherited, used, displaced, internalized, monitored, misappropriated, bound to the commonplace, and rendered a mass of dividing cells from which we fashion our experiences or define the experiences of others. Her poems are lyrics strained through a cheesecloth saturated with institutional and other kinds of jargon. Her poem, “Elements Of Blank,” reads in full:
You’re not selling the product
You’re selling commitment.
Somehow we know that the cover girl has just lifted her
head, looked into the lens by accident. Her light eyes
are those of a lion raising its head from a carcass. (Her
tousled blond hair reinforces this effect.) A moment ago,
it seems, she was absorbed in something all-consuming,
draining. Clearly, her gaze only appears to take us in.
Get them to opt out
of what’s available
apart from the experience
of our product.
To take flight is to make a decision which can’t be rescinded.
That in itself is enough to inspire fear. But it isn’t wise to show
weakness. Now our fate is bound by momentum to that of the
people around us, people we did not choose, would not have
chosen. We await the beverage tray. When it comes, we will
once again have a number of options. (49)
This poem, in a way, is representative of the shifting voices in Armantrout’s work. I hear a professor in an Introduction to Advertising course lay the groundwork for the inner workings of the formula for product placement. Another voice, perhaps a professor in a cultural studies department, unpacks the phenomenon of appearances in contemporary advertising photography. Elsewhere, I hear an advertising executive address her fleet of foot soldiers, getting them on board with the idea that an image of experience is finally what sells products. In this move, I hear the echo of a product not as object but as commitment. Suddenly, rhetoric merges. And finally, in the last section, I hear, say, a panel of life coaches discussing air travel as a hackneyed metaphor for stepping inside a situation outside one’s control. Within this experience, which it would be wise to bear, suddenly appear choices to counter the inalterable. “Make the best of the situation” emerges as an available cliché.
This confluence of voices, woven together and then dispersed, becomes a working laboratory for exploring experience as mediated by rhetoric and ways of doing business. At their best, Armantrout’s poems present identity in a similar way that we choose products in the market. From her title poem, “Just Saying”: “What I write / I write instead / of ivy” (11). What we’re left with is one choice instead of, or in place of, another. Within these choices, we’re hardly cognizant of how our opinions and actions make fluid, logical sense, much less offering a passionate defense of them.
A review of 'Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners'
Shortly after the sad news of her death, I went to a screening of Chantal Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie. The woman who introduced the film assured us — twice — that Akerman’s work is “unsentimental.” I considered the value of her insisting on this as on screen Akerman’s camera sat fixed upon her aged mother reminiscing, doing chores, and towards the end trying to eat a meal — with the help of a condescending nurse — in the grip of an unsettlingly deep and chronic cough. At night, Akerman picks up the camera and seems to careen through her dying mother’s dark apartment, audibly sobbing in the space we share with her behind the frame. The moment is raw, certainly, and that adjective starts to reach for its habitual partner: unsentimental, which is the name we give to that which does not seek to falsify or exaggerate feeling. And yet feeling is often an unequal proposition, and its supposed exaggeration may be experienced by one party and not by the other who finds in it, instead, a readymade accusation or parting shot. The person who calls a feeling “exaggerated” may be precisely that person who doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by our deep feeling. Often this person would like to know just what is up with you and your mother, anyway (but try to understand Akerman being subsumed with grief for her own). Often you are standing outside this person’s house, calling their phone, or just at home with the knowledge that, as John Wieners writes in “A poem for movie goers,” “My lover’s thoughts are not / of me at all.”
Wieners is not a sentimental poet, but the poet of sentiment and its exiles. Again and again in his poems, the speaker imagines loves lost, loves elsewhere. His “Sickness” begins haunted: “I know now heard speak in the night / voices of dead loves past, // whispered instructions over electric air / confined or chained” (63). The poet treads carefully:
Do not tamper with the message there.
Do not let silent, secret reaches of the heart
invade you here
kept at bay long enough but he is
gone who would protect you from them.
Radical vulnerability. He follows it, several lines later, with spooky calm:
Cool wind blows in an open window,
I am happy being alone.
It seems time going down an eternal staircase
wound up at ease with me.
Wind and winding and winding up, in these lines, all talk about recurrence. Nothing stays dead, certainly not in the world of feeling. Longing and renunciation aren’t states we can occupy once and for all; they vie:
I want only the mystery of your arms around me.
Dont worry about eating my food.
Single strand of light falling on his bare shoulder
In the closet.
Won’t you come and see me again,
The dragon lies on its side. (64)
Is the dragon the lover, promising to be docile if he receives this much-desired visit? Or is it the guardian of the world’s treasure, that will only permit our desires to be fulfilled when it takes the occasional nap (even the force of prohibition dozes sometimes)? It’s not clear — as it isn’t clear whether “his bare shoulder” belongs to the “you” who is being asked to come over. The poem is layered with memories and fantasies, selves and others in this and different times. They might or might not coincide, but the poet, here, is resigned and open. “Dont worry about eating my food” — there couldn’t be a sweeter permission. Sentimental moods keep the phone company in business.
Wieners is also wicked: “I fingered his wedding ring / as I blew him” (72). And an imp. In a piece from 1988, Wieners’s friend and executor Raymond Foye tells the story of eating dinner with Wieners and Simon Pettet:
Simon and I opened our fortune cookies: “Gather all information that could be remotely apropos,” mine said. “You will soon be honored for contributing your time and skill to a worthy cause,” read Simon. “What does yours say, John?” we asked eagerly. “I ate it,” he replied.
Easy prophecy is easily swallowed. He’s deadpan. In “The Lanterns Along the Wall” (a statement of poetics Wieners wrote for a class of his friend Robert Creeley’s), Wieners speaks of the magic with which poetry can fill emptiness and solitude with beauty and “tranquillity.” Of that magic, he writes, “There are no other forms as far as ultimately I am concerned. No drunkenness can equal purity. Or, other forms, simple address to the prime force of love. Love, not in the sense of kindness or patience, but sometimes trespassed sensual energy” (183–4). Not in the sense of kindness or patience, no! An economy including “sometimes trespassed sensual energy” is characteristic of this poet who adjusts and conjures, stands in shadows, gets sick in his room, “running the most beautiful blue water / in the sink / vomiting strawberry and green” (40).
Sure, Boston sucks, and we all hate it. But I love to think of this moment, when it’s enough of a small town that Wieners can happen to see his mother “talking to strange men on the subway” (59):
doesn’t see me when she gets on
at Washington Street
but I hide in a booth at the side
and watch her worried, strained face —
the few years she has got left.
Until at South Station
I lean over and say:
I’ve been watching you since you got on.
She says in an artificial
voice: Oh, for Heaven’s sake!
as if heaven cared.
I can hear her saying it, with that touch of the “artificial” that draws forth boys/sons to wonder forever if, when their mothers play at being scandalized, they conceal — and perhaps wish to be seen concealing — a knowingness about desire that will also never, ever be explicitly acknowledged. Hence the delight in catching her unawares, and creating for an instant a scene in which the pair stand outside the roles of mother and son. It can’t last: the remainder of the poem “My Mother” reads:
But I love her in the underground
and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
talking together between the wire grates of a cage.
“One man over” isn’t much of a displacement — but enough, in this case, to see clearly the cage through whose grate communication (the most intimate? the least?) is fated to pass.
It’s fun to sit on the subway in New York and read this new Wieners collection with its one-word title, black on cream: Supplication. Wave Books’s austere design suits poems that have been sacred to me since I was handed them as talismans, years ago, by poet friends. How much recognition do we want someone whose true home is “underground” to get? Underground because he chose Boston, lyricism, and a courtly remove. And more, because he chooses perdition: “Damned and cursed before the world / That is what I want to be.” Poet and critic Andrea Brady, in her work on the poet’s archive, quotes Foye: “Nobody had ever seen anyone throw themselves into the abyss the way John did.” Why does a person throw himself into the abyss? Why does a person take heroin? And then write of it, “But I don’t advise it for the young, or for / anyone but me. My eyes are blue” (75). Two lines that manage to be all at once knowing, greedy, arrogant, assertive of a special power and also, to my ear, aware of the hollowness of that assertion (it’s arbitrary and comes too readily to hand). Drugs are for escape, they’re for posturing, they’re for denaturing the visible. But in the case of this poet of loneliness, they are also a way to “collapse in a heap on the bed of the world” (75). Denied our lives, we seek oblivion, and hope that beyond or through it we might be permitted to alter the order that foreclosed our true existence from the outset. Collapsing, dissolving: we have been taught to act, but Wieners knows it’s better, instead, to beg — to be convincing, under extreme pressure, by manifesting preferable alternatives with the allure of a mirage. He chooses supplication.
The editors of this volume — Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst — provide much interesting new material while also preserving the best from Foye’s earlier selection. Dewhurst is working on a biography and a complete poems. There is more scholarship underway, and more of Wieners’s journals — full of poems themselves — and letters coming out, particularly through the efforts of the CUNY Lost and Found series. It all seems of a piece, a lifelong project at the scale of a life. Wieners intersected with many poets, but the sense of him, biographically and in these idiosyncratically compact lyric poems ripe with indeterminacy, is solitary and original. His sexuality (vibrant but also vexed by the mores of the times), his clarity somehow heightened by a real experience of mental dissolution, and his tenderness remind me of James Schuyler. His independence and his mysticism recall David Rattray. And with another outsider, Rene Ricard (who called Wieners his mother), he shares naughtiness and woundedness and — at least in poetry — fearlessness. “Now I stay away from the bad / neighborhoods where I lived. / The bad blocks of the heart,” writes Ricard. And Wieners: “For me now the new: / the unturned tricks / of the trade. The place / of the heart where man / is afraid to go” (15). Our freaky, funny underground mother, may we often cross his path.
3. Raymond Foye, “John Wieners: A Day in the Life.”
Dreams of relation in Amish Trivedi's 'Sound/Chest'
Sound/Chest begins with a find and a flood. In the basement of the University of Iowa library in 2008, Amish Trivedi discovered an old card catalog and was arrested by its remnant labels. Severed from the content they once organized, the paired words and numbers of the catalog have become the titles of poems that attempt to reanimate lost relationships of sense. The speaker of Sound/Chest feels their way around a disaster whose personal blur sometimes sharpens in a collective phrase, and then simple terms rise, like the storm water that filled the library basement later that summer, with displacing force.
Poem to poem, links between title and text emerge with ordinary logic. “Divorce/Manage 1712,” for instance, opens with a “sinking [that] needs / an exit sign” and closes on the kitchen floor with “the / imprint of your textured / vinyl on my skull.” But the world the book denotes is surreal. In declarative grammar that highlights disjunctive sense, Trivedi cuts across the informative logic of the “custom filmstrip collection” to which a librarian guesses the labels may once have belonged. The filmstrip, Trivedi reminds us, “is that archaic bit of grade school technology that required the teacher to assign a student to turn a knob when the supplemental audio urged her to do so” (76). In the book version of this made-for-school-movie, however,
The scattered frames
remind you that I put
in my head
so you could
turn forward at
the beeps. (32)
Thus stylized, the speaker takes obvious steps forward only to parry back: “I never / would have left and / become eggs” (52) they promise, or, “I was / going to be dead when I grew up” (58).
In this alternate reality, veins become antifreeze, and tongues and furniture form part of a graveyard landscape whose bone-solidity both floats in and weighs down the book’s buoyancy. “I am / the denial I wish to be in / the world,” the speaker tells us (74). The best indicator of the denial Sound/Chest wishes for is in the punctuation that extends its funhouse mirror logic. The colon peppers these pages, appearing in three-quarters of the poems. In a book written, as Trivedi says in his afterword, to “manufacture” the relationships that once held together “such a diverse set of ideas” (76), the colon makes a fascinating mark. Originally functioning as the middleweight member of what grammarians explained as a hierarchy of pause — semicolon one beat, colon two, and period three — the colon’s usage has narrowed over the centuries. By 1926, Henry Fowler explained that it “ha[d] acquired a special function, that of delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words; it is a substitute for such verbal harbingers as viz., scil., that is to say, i.e.,etc.” The colon introduces lists or phrases that explain the preceding portion of a sentence, the independent clause on which those lists and phrases always remain dependent. Trivedi’s almost obsessive use of the colon enacts a fantasy of opening the catalog drawers and seeing exactly what was in the missing collection, what “goods” the relic labels “invoice.” He plays an inventive game with the floating terms, but the folding grammar betrays a desire to end the game, to determine the definitive relationship between each card and its lost item.
Sound/Chest dreams of connecting its bookended terms back to the structure of the wooden catalogue, now surplused. After the library flood, this fantasy is especially potent. But as the actual storm of 2008 seeps into poetic language — “The / headwaters are around me and / I kind of like it” (74) — the specific event is also diluted in a discourse of greater loss. The tension between the labeling colon and the book’s other omnipresent glyph — the slash — situates its anxiety in that other floating form of our information age, the cloud. In the context of the catalog, the slash takes the space of a range the collection will fill in — “Delivery [to] Commodity 1710” contained herein. Trivedi narrates almost-clear plotlines that link, in the case of this title, the “slow nitrates of Easter” (18) to the scene where a fatted consumer society splits into riot. But the slash that relates his titular terms also links each poem and the whole project of relation to the URL addresses of the Internet, to the promise that its pathways are immune to flood and fade and won’t let our collections be lost.
In the poem “Attention/Paranoia 1746,” the half-assertion, half-hope that “our regret / cannot find us when we hide in / the frame” (68) invites us into the archaic filmstrip technology and, deeper, into the contemporary data technology that media theorist Tung-Hui Hu says is governed by a “bunker mentality.” The cloud, Hu argues, “has made disaster recovery readily available, in part by making disaster constantly imaginable.” The reeling images whose water Trivedi promises “will / not drown me as I am of / this flood” (74) rehearse a dynamic that Hu shows is structured by paranoia and melancholy, as everything must be protected against a loss that already orders the reality it has not yet entered.
The lyric “I” of Sound/Chest is by turns paranoid and oppressive, cataloging their own condition while sniping at an interlocking “you”:
… I don’t imagine
my disease. Even
in profile your stare
is nothing new. (64)
But in moments when the language turns third-person plural, the poems can feel bright and large, discovering with something like delight either the absurdity of the bunker (“We / pretended not to see each other but / it turned out she was thousands of miles / away anyways” ) or that a threat can be met with defiance instead of melancholy (“Whatever they’re / wanting, we’re not / smelting” ). Even when they animate the violence of wreckage and riot, these plural projections deflect the introspective angles that elsewhere pawn individual scenes off as dreamy but dissatisfying publics, as when the poem “Cord/Fuel 1699” draws on its energy sources to transform a “dandy need girl / [into] — garden end idyl” (72).
Trivedi draws attention to the book’s surreal rise, spelling out his commitment to treat language with “levity, as it is always light with us” (76). But Sound/Chest is at its best when it shines through private globes of meaning with a different kind of lightness, illuminating the public grid that a disaster like a flood can reveal by submerging. Hu’s and Trivedi’s very different texts on the relationships that we build around data share a common concern with this grid. As the metaphors of the cloud privatize us into users with individual caches of information, Hu argues, “the lived knowledge essential for imagining and discussing public space has begun to atrophy” (147). A term Trivedi uses more than once in his poems, “atrophy” links the disuse of the catalog to a similar insight, inevitably punctuated:
… I am unable
to see these ascensions
in another way: our muscles
because we ignore them
but because we get used to them —
we’re alright with their
Starvation that seems like consumption, wasting that seems like using — these contradictions activate the slash’s other function, as the “or” that makes us choose one label instead of another. Rupturing denotative relations, Sound/Chest theorizes the almost unthinkable alternative to what Hu calls “a neoliberal fantasy about user participation that is so widespread and so ambient as to be universal” (145). As Trivedi puts it in “Ritual/Abstinence 1736” (a poem whose infrastructure of universe, highway, and drains uncannily sketches the cloud that Hu shows is grafted on the interstate and analogous to the sewers):
… The grates were
holding the streets together, I’m
pretty sure. I don’t follow (14)
A review of Frédéric Forte's 'Minute-Operas'
Frédéric Forte’s mad, methodical Minute-Operas is broken into two parts: phase one, January–October 2001, and phase two, February–December 2002. Each phase is itself broken into five twelve-page sections.
“one ear is not enough”
You approach the book. It is lying on a table, it is slumping against other books and you feel the need to straighten its curve in your hands, it is buzzing beneath a pile of magazines and bills, it is where you left it, the room constructed around the book, a book of rooms and voices.
You approach the book perhaps as you would a theater and you hear the audience buzzing, buzzing
[You can hear the
Strange call of music]
What do Forte’s operas
“emptiness enters” (18)
Poems are objects. Poems are physical things.
I think they make noise if you let them:
Our fingers on the paper.
Forte’s stage directions there in the wings, marginalia that intrudes on the text, become, often as not, the text, written for unseen actors.
Our eyes move from word to word, white to white, spanning spaces without words, defined by words or their absence, our eyes move across the stage.
We trace with our fingers the routes our eyes take.
In this way the poem and the reader
are in motion.
“and the extreme points” (30)
How many ways there are to build a space within space. I visited Dia:Beacon in New York recently. Once a Nabisco box-printing factory, the Dia in its enormity and light provides examples: build a space with threads, like Fred Sandback, or build a space with light, like Dan Flavin, or build a space with space, like Carl Andre.
Rather than cut into material, Andre began to consider the material itself as the cut, the cut in space. “Place is the finite domain of one or more cuts into space.”
Andre used precut squares of metal, he used hay bales, he used firebricks, timber blocks, all elements, simple replicable elements. Now start thinking about it. Now put it in a room.
(wood and sacrificial materials) (31)
A page is the finite domain of one or more cuts into space.
Move the words around
like blocks of wood. Like a stage
“this pyramid this pyramid” (42)
What are these words, Forte? Overheard conversations, perhaps. The voices in the crowd, the backstage managers fretting, old shredded scripts. A eulogy, barely begun, daybook fragments, old songs or nursery rhymes, some Oulipian instruction manual/poem generator (batteries not included).
Standard words. [But: All in translation, French to English.]
[Standard antics: Words running into each other, slapstick style; crumbling over each other; letters piled upon letters, squirming and twitching; words connected by lines; words swollen with font, with italics, with drama, humor, sorrow.]
Standard pages. [No details on recycled content of paper.]
Standard colors. [Black and white, save for the cover.]
Think at them.
“during the time of the poem’s construction” (54)
Or now, this is collage? This is Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning? This is erasure and the bits of eraser on the studio floor?
Some of these poems could be framed/could be pinned to the wall. Pithed, wriggling.
No — we’re looking for something more contemporary, more digital, more now: Each space (defined by a three-inch vertical line on every page) is about the size of my palm, the size of a smartphone screen. Of course!: the poem as app. Tap twice on the screen, as a conductor might use his baton on the stand: What blooms? Silence. Waiting.
We are waiting.
The crowd stirs, faces illumined by the ghostly phone glow.
“a system of folding screens” (68)
Forte’s screens, stages, scenes. We might be anywhere. We might be fantastically lost.
In the dark of the performance space (in the dark of the reading experience) we, restless, grope along the walls for a door: the vertical line is a hinge! each poem doubling as doorway.
Doors into the space beneath the space, a passage into the next page, between pages, catwalks, hidden ways behind and beneath the great rooms:
the whispers of the crowd now. Someone’s
“but how much does your head now weigh” (80)
We choose our own adventure throughout,
words mixing with words, tumbling over each other, aching
with quiet, with the strain
of finding meaning, then drunk at the afterparty.
experience time as it passes. (89)
A buzzing. A rubbing: the silence of eraser-flakes snowing on the floor.
“atom after atom after atom meaning” (92)Pick up the book and begin turning it around, upside down, these movements are called reading
The poem and the reader (and the eyes) in motion.
I thought that the room grew up around the book. But the more I read, the more I see the book swallowing the room entire.
[And me: I put another finger to the (texture of the) text, but the tension of the paper gives way, and I slip through
— ripples sent across the typography, amplified, milky, shuddering —
for how long?]
Each day a new poem fills a new page.
The show goes on forever.
“the machine concerned” (104)
Minute-Operas rattles to life, cranking out words or signs or glyphs or jangled lines or hand-drawn squiggles or empty rectangles or applause. Lean in: every word is a string of gestures, every letterform some flourish, some weather, an ox head or a woodpecker’s peak. (Language began in image, began in poetry.)
You don’t create space necessarily to make sense of space.
You don’t enter a room to understand the room.
It is a place to go and suddenly
there we are,
I have walked these rooms for hours, in the changing light of the skylit galleries, Flavin’s buzzing light, opening the door from each to each uncertain space, all being born at the moment of discovery. I’ve nearly been crushed under block towers of words (poems), tripped or been caught, as in a spider’s spun web, by Sandback’s multicolor thread: imagine building a space out of thread!
What is the structural integrity of words you know well?
“what will happen on the train” (116)
We are all strangers, even after this time together. But in these rooms we are familiar, our tongues tapping along the inside of our mouths, soft familiar palate, the tips of our teeth, the smooth cool backs of our teeth, breath drawn from space into space, then given back, shared.
We approach the book. It is where we left it, somewhere on the desk, under these bills, notebooks, birthday cards from our good sons, we approach the book,
we must haul ourselves out of it first, we must pull the desk and everything else from its depths buzzing, buzzing
And quiet [this is what we’re waiting for]
Something’s about to begin — something’s always about to begin:
Overture: Evil. (7)
there is just this line, this verse / and then another one / another one /
2. Carl Andre, qtd. in Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010 (New York: Dia:Beacon 2014), exhibition catalog.
A review of Peter Gizzi's 'In Defense of Nothing'
Book by book, Peter Gizzi has made propulsive advances in style and range. Poems sprawl longer, blaze forth brighter in rich fluidities of argument, bare riddling surfaces of ever-more-intricate logic and sound, and all the while offer readers fuller, faster, more enterable poetic experiences. Meanwhile, the gradual emergence of an authorial alter-ego in these poems — an obdurate speaker grounded in quotidian observation, prone to political outbursts, romantic — this signature persona becomes, for the reader, a companionable figure.
One of the signal pleasures of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011 is that it offers a chance to take stock of Gizzi’s remarkable growth as a lyric poet during those years. Troubling Gizzi’s career arc is the cultivation of a certain inelegance. The everyman-speaker-avatar is one example, more on display in recent poems. Also providing grit in the oyster shell, so to speak, are too-pithy maxims (“The heart of poetry is a hollow man / a heteronym”), ominous platitudes (“and revolution, well, revolution is everything”), and the occasional smarmy assumption (“Who hasn’t found themselves / praying in an awkward room”). By risking or embracing sentimentality, Gizzi lays claim to lyric ground shunned by contemporaries more spooked by the Foucauldian “death of the author.”
Keats wrote already at an ironic remove from the effete Goth he ventriloquized in “Ode to a Nightingale.” For Gizzi, speaker and argument are artificial, too. That Gizzi irrigates and makes blossom a poetic model still most associated with second-generation Romantics is remarkable.
Gizzi’s deliberate artificiality, his “too-muchness” if you will, is artfully managed. The reader is never asked to suspend disbelief. Instead, she may submit — willingly, irrationally — to a hyperreal lyric experience. These poems blend poetic cadence with familiar affective contents. Readers of In Defense of Nothing can fall under the sway of an unlikely, awkward speaker and enjoy strange pleasures.
Gizzi’s early poems may come across as proofs — elegant demonstrations of novel syntax and musicianship. I am reminded of George Oppen’s meta-riffing on modernist forms in his first collection, Discrete Series (1934). In Gizzi’s early books, too, a calculated distance from form and theme is telegraphed in poems that remix modernist tropes. In Gizzi’s second collection, Artificial Heart, the title of the poem “Will Call” might suggest tickets held at a box office, or a promise that the speaker (or someone else) will return a phone call, or Emily Dickinson’s gnomic tomb inscription (“CALLED BACK”). In another poem, the speaker asserts, “Silence is what we make / of eyes, trees and growing vine,” and it’s unclear if the reader will profit by attempting to parse this definition of silence. The axiomatic proposition “Silence is” is collaged onto a generic description of human and plant biology, an unusual splice typical for this poet.
In Gizzi’s hands the modernist lyric is taken apart like an engine or rifle. The components of Williams’s “machine made out of words,” taken separately, don’t stand for much. But Gizzi retrofits such pieces, drawing attention to the least among them.
Consider the instructions that constitute the opening lines of Gizzi’s marvelous poem “Blue Peter,” originally included in Periplum (1992):
To describe a logic of sight
pull the surface onto target and
arrive at zero aperture. Then
fluctuate to a face, reproduced
in serial format, superimposed
upon marginal pedestrians
traversing a polarity of earth.
Through a hypnotic series of doublings, Gizzi transforms a logical proof into a kind of spell inducing dizziness. How can one separate the “surface” of the target from the target? Is a zero a tiny opening, or is its hole closed and hence no longer an “aperture?”
Gizzi dedicated “Blue Peter” to Jasper Johns, and it makes sense to consider the poem in terms of Johns’s target paintings, where part of the point is that Johns is not only making targets, but also making paintings of targets, and also making paintings about targets. There are telling parallels between the art practices of Johns and Gizzi. Johns’s early paintings are not only about the signs they literally manifest (flags, maps, targets, etc.), but through their highly worked surfaces, they both comment upon and resituate signs.
Likewise, Gizzi’s early poems appear to stand at a reflexive distance from their themes. They gesture toward their status as fictions, as poems, in order to refocus the reader on an act of interpretation and recuperation that is both belated (reading a lyric poem in this day and age) and also, just possibly, primary (experiencing a poem directly, authentically).
One gets the sense that Gizzi’s astonishing acumen for identifying, remaking, and refitting existing avant-garde tropes, in the early poems, is put into service of any number of proscriptions and rules about making new poetry; for example, not repeating existing moves. This can result, occasionally, in poems that feel chilly, poems that don’t throw a bone to the reader who would prefer to settle on one interpretation or another.
With 2003’s Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Gizzi introduces the brawny, richly musical perorations that represent his most ambitious work to date. The title poem is a good example. The first lines, with a nod to Canto I of the Inferno, introduce a speaker who gestures toward a community of listeners:
In the middle of our lives we walked
single file into winter’s steely pavilion.
The moss’s greening, winningly,
made our footfalls pavane in their silver light.
To be out on a Tuesday with Liberty,
her bright flash stinging.
I followed willingly, she sang
haltingly, and I kept closer
to navigate her coo and whisper.
To enter this poem is like absently eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers and suddenly being riveted by the certainty that one’s life may depend on its meaning. Gizzi splits open Dante’s lone spiritual sickness so that it belongs to everybody, the great cohort of those who listen. Thematic materials are deployed with such skill and speed that the topicality of the poem, its significant references to contemporary politics, is kept subordinate to the poem’s music. In poems like these Gizzi manages to resurrect a lyric speaker of sorts, an identifiable and resonant yet mainly generic double and preceptor. The thematic elements of the long poems never quite add up, but the animating illusion of a central speaker makes them feel whole.
Some Values of Landscape and Weather also sees the introduction, in earnest, of the representative authorial persona, or “Gizzi”-figure. You can glimpse it in “Lessons in Darkness,” with the poet as ordinary suburban pedestrian:
You know, here a dumpster
there a Dane. On the street
I see birds, bricks, clouds
I see a friend getting into her car
I see myself in the puzzle I see.
Or in the moving “Revival,” in which, for a moment, the activities of the lyricist reading and making poems come to seem pointless:
I was talking about rending, reading, rewriting
what is seen. Put the book down and look into the day.
I want an art that can say how I am feeling
if I am feeling blue sky unrolling a coronation rug
unto the bare toe of a peasant girl …
A reluctant ambivalence about the ends of poetry is disrupted by the striking image of sky, rug, and peasant-girl toe. But this uncertainty about the uses of poetry catches up with Gizzi in other poems. If Gizzi insists on including inelegant or quotidian details as well as hieratic ones, it seems partly because he is paying tribute to real but dispiritingly small realities, and partly because his attentions to the mundane provide a gateway for readers entering a poetic space with room for substantial varieties of experience. If you can’t have it all, you can have some of everything, Gizzi seems to suggest.
The Outernationale (2007) sees Gizzi complicating the maximal longer poem which has become his trademark. Particularly fascinating examples, here, are “A Panic that Can Still Come Upon Me,” “Beacon,” “Homer’s Anger,” and the longer poem titled “The Outernationale.” Also included are short lyrics which refine and make more resonant Gizzi’s work with powerfully concentrated forms, imbuing them, for readers, with a more potent felt charge. Threshhold Songs (2011) represents an especial flowering of this kind of short lyric, one in which threads of deeply unnerving personal losses and grief are formed into affecting melodies that become more than the sum of their private sources, and indeed stand as rare examples of truly popular song in recent lyric poetry.
But it is in the longer poems, I think, that Gizzi reaches his maximal artistry. In particular, “Homer’s Anger,” from The Outernationale, builds on the kind of relentless, questing tradition of the beat howl, rumblings which may have identified themselves as the cry of freedom in extremis. The sixth part of “Homer’s Anger” concludes:
Do you know what I mean
when I said anger is not emotion?
When everyone is stolen
I will begin in rain.
Not to be wrong
but uncertain, to want
more than this sentence.
If I say darkness is still
when it falls, understand
I am moving toward you.
Here is a poetic that begins with a radical rebuilding of the modernist lyric and never loses its obsession with this undead tradition. Nevertheless, Gizzi’s work has moved toward a recuperation of the Romantic project, proffering a speaker as straw man and stylized avatar. This poet begins with formulae and witty critique, and develops into a master of powerful argument who makes music through play upon resonantly traditional themes. One’s sense of speaker and reader is never stable in these poems. Indeed, the poet’s troubling of these categories refreshes them in his recent poetry. If Gizzi would purport to defend “nothing,” as the title of this Selected suggests, it is perhaps the “nothing” that, in Auden’s formula, poetry makes happen.
Perhaps even more, this Selected is testament to an engagement with the “nothing” Socrates had in mind when he declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.” For Gizzi, a willingness to edge close to nothingness, nonsense, and awkwardness pays rich dividends in poems that resonate well beyond paraphrase. The product of immersion in arcane traditions of poetic making, this book contains beautifully pieced-together lyrics that are, at their best, endlessly beguiling. This well-edited Selected should give new readers an excellent chance to tune in.