The hurts of wanting the impossible

A review of 'Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners'

Photo of John Wieners (right) by Allen Ginsberg.

Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners

Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners

John Wieners

Wave Books 2015, 196 pages, $22.00, ISBN 978-1940696195

Shortly after the sad news of her death, I went to a screening of Chantal Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie.[1] 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.”[2]   

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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.

1. No Home Movie, directed by Chantal Akerman, Icarus Films, 2015.

2. John Wieners, Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Seattle: Wave Books, 2015), 34.

3. Raymond Foye, “John Wieners: A Day in the Life.”

4. Andrea Brady, “Making Use of this Pain: The John Wieners Archives,” Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry 36, no. 1 (2010): 131–179.

5. Rene Ricard, Rene Ricard 19791980 (New York: Dia Books, 1979), 65.


Dreams of relation in Amish Trivedi's 'Sound/Chest'

Photo of Amish Trivedi by Jenn Trivedi.



Amish Trivedi

Coven Press 2015, 80 pages, $15, ISBN 978-0692346260

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.”[1] 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
sprocket holes
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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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
you’ve witnessed
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” [45]) or that a threat can be met with defiance instead of melancholy (“Whatever they’re / wanting, we’re not / smelting” [25]). 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
don’t atrophy
because we ignore them
but because we get used to them —
we’re alright with their
starvation. (22)

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)


1. Amish Trivedi, Sound/Chest (Birmingham, AL: Coven Press, 2015), 47.

2. Henry Fowler, qtd. in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., ed. Jeremy Butterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 163.

3. Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 99.

[Objects] in motion

A review of Frédéric Forte's 'Minute-Operas'

Photo of Frédéric Forte (right) by Margarita Saad Plasticienne.



Frédéric Forte

Burning Deck 2015, 136 pages, $14, ISBN 978-1936194186

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.

Phase one

“one ear is not enough”[1]
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]
  Distant (13)

What do Forte’s operas
or signify?

“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.
For eyes.

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.”[2]

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.]
Stack them.
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.

Phase 2

“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
saying something.

“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 —
missing now
for how long?]

Each day a new poem fills a new page.
The show goes on forever.

“the machine concerned” (104)
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?
of fragments?

“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.

the void


the void
used (117)

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:

First words:
: Evil. (7)

                   there is just this line, this verse / and then another one / another one /
                   another (127)

1. Frédéric Forte, Minute-Operas, trans. Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2015), 6.

2. Carl Andre, qtd. in Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010 (New York: Dia:Beacon 2014), exhibition catalog.

Getting to know nothing

A review of Peter Gizzi's 'In Defense of Nothing'

Photo of Peter Gizzi by Robert Seydel.

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011

Peter Gizzi

University of Wesleyan Press 2015, 244 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-0819575647

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.

A field of the invisible

A review of Christina Olivares's 'No Map of the Earth Includes Stars'

Images courtesy of Marsh Hawk Press and Christina Olivares.

No Map of the Earth Includes Stars

No Map of the Earth Includes Stars

Christina Olivares

Marsh Hawk Press 2015, 98 pages, $15.00, ISBN 0990666905

“Burnt Code,” the opening poem of Christina Olivares’s debut collection, No Map of the Earth Includes Stars, startles in the intimacy of its address: “You devote years to / listening to, interpreting, misinterpreting code.”[1] Here, Olivares’s speaker addresses her father, who is losing himself to schizophrenia. In a long series of poems in the book’s first section, “Petition,” her speaker imparts her memories, recent and long past, and those of her father, to whom the poems adhere in ways he cannot adhere to his own life.

“Petition” occupies all but the book’s final pages, and takes the speaker’s father’s schizophrenia as the locus of its ongoing second-person address, retreating to the speaker’s childhood in moments and expanding in others to map the speaker’s loss in a larger arc: “Studies show that paranoid and religious phenomenology in schizophrenic clinical presentation is substantially increased in Afro-Caribbean male immigrant population / reasons unknown” (22). The final section, “Other Lives,”moves around similar themes, in the presence of the intimate force of “Petition.”

As Olivares’s poems attempt to map the loss of the speaker’s father, they work to build a set of family narratives. In 2010, Olivares received a grant from the Jerome Foundation to conduct research in Cuba on the practice of Santería and to learn more about the context of her family history that brought members of her family to the US in the mid-1960s. The series of poems that extends from Olivares’s research appears within “Petition” and addresses Babalu Aye, an orisha, or spirit, often invoked in Santería to remedy illness and strongly associated with exile and death.

“Babalu Aye” is often translated as “Lord of the Earth.”[2] The earth that the book’s title maps is the domain of Babalu Aye, and its poems feel like a space of prayer that records what has been and honors people who are dead to make sense of how they died. Images of bodies take the shape of the celestial and the elemental — sky and earth, but also stars and sea — as Olivares negotiates the competing scales of an elegy that’s also a family history and wonders at larger cultural narratives, all while trying to locate the speaker within its scalar shifts.

In “Teaching the Map,” Olivares writes: “the map does not demonstrate well the bigness / Of the world” (73), and it’s this same map, in this same poem, that fails to chart both earth and stars in the book’s title. No map can contain everything, but in the poems each map and each body occasions thoughts toward totality. Olivares echoes Audre Lorde, whose poem “Coal” begins: “I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside. / There are many kinds of open.”[3] The self emerges here, whole from the earth, as a metonym for blackness, the earth opening and the self opening, where the earth is the site of the exchange between individuals and collectives, as it can be for Olivares.

And yet, from her book’s title, we know that the earth doesn’t house everything we might need to see. A map of stars is dissonant with a map of the earth. In “Petitioning Babalu Aye,” Olivares charts schizophrenia as an emptiness that it is possible to encode: “You were a map of stars, drawn all over again. / You a field of the invisible. Things would be drawn into you” (48). Drawing a schizophrenic mind makes a map as it subsumes a map’s surface. Olivares locates in stars the relentless shift of a surface that belies unknowable space beyond. Elements of the speaker’s father appear on a map, but they can’t be shown in all their contours. No degree of care will fully chart them.

Even so, stars absorbed in “a field of the invisible” can help make a map, even if it must be reconciled with others. Olivares shares these celestial models with June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights,” which includes the lines: “I wanted to go / there by myself thinking about God / or thinking / about children or thinking about the world / all of it / disclosed by the stars and the silence.”[4] Jordan’s stars disclose the private work of thinking that is ratified as it’s shared with them. Stars work for Olivares to model schizophrenia as a gulf between people, the disease opening the speaker’s father to a violent, private world, where his turn to that world opens in the speaker an unfamiliar way of being alive.

A map allows disconnected groups of people to share an experience of space. A map that redraws itself makes that experience impossible, as does a map of the earth, if what you need to navigate are stars and sky. Olivares’s book is strongest when it sets the impossibility of a map that fits an entire picture against its desire to map, whether the loss of the speaker’s father, the threads of her childhood and his, or the larger set of the families of Afro-Caribbean male immigrants who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia in unusually high numbers.

To be useful, a map must be a partial guide, selecting a portion of space and showing a set of its features. In Olivares’s poems “the map” of “Teaching the Map” meets the “no map” of the book’s title, and as it does, the desire to know all of a family history encounters the speaker’s search for peace and the impossibility of recovering every lost story, every contour of how her father disappeared.

The sea in Olivares’s poems also lends form to loss. The book opens with the lines: “Scans show progress in the left temporal lobe. Denial of illness. Disordered thoughts, / made up words. System central to your nervous. I hold your dis-ease, a handful of burnt / threads. Threads made of sea” (3). The sea reappears in other poems, holding disease. In “Sea Claims the Temporary Prophet”:

A sea
taken root
explodes from your skull
wet splitting

was from is.

You stand
inside those white walls, swaying. (26)

The sea takes the shape of the disease, and also contains a collective sense of loss, as in “Why I Went,” where: “The sea is a body that holds / all of what we were forced to / unbecome. Hidden in her / mouths, a wept, wild singing” (43). The poems give great attention to what’s hidden and do wonderful work with silence as they consider the forms a body takes as it moves toward death. The page of the poem “Dictation: Papa Medicated with Thorazine” is left blank under its title. The disease is one kind of trauma, but its treatment is another.

Olivares shifts between lyric characterizations of schizophrenia and declarative statements about how the illness morphs in “Petitioning Babalu Aye,” where she writes: “There is no satisfying or accounting for the daughter’s desire to see with the father’s / unseeing eyes” (52). The poems work to find homologies between memorializing and petitioning the orisha, and the disease, the speaker’s father, and the speaker herself, a petition for a daughter’s desire, as well as for the father she knows she is losing.

In her poems, Olivares’s speaker accounts for her father’s decline with patience and grace, attuning herself to the gorgeous moments with him that she’s offered. In “You Hear Singing on the El Train,” in the same poem that marks the “onset of what / the doctors call paranoid / schizophrenia,” Olivares follows the new attentions of the disease as she evaluates them, and she offers us a tremendous intimacy. We’re there when the speaker says to her father: “you are arrested / by the radiance of every single thing” (16)

1. Christina Olivares, No Map of the Earth Includes Stars (Marsh Hawk Press, 2015), 5.

2. Larry Rohter, “Musical Dialogue Beyond Embargoes,” The New York Times,March 11, 2011.

3. Audre Lorde, “Coal” in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997).

4. June Jordan, “Poem about My Rights” in Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005).