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.