How surfaces can be tweaked and spun
A review of 'New Depths of Deadpan'
Although I haven’t read it since I was fifteen, I vividly remember how the hero of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a human being raised among Martians, was able to mentally take hold of anything — a bad guy, an ashtray, a car — and effortlessly turn it out of existence, so that it was “ninety degrees from everything else.” I had forgotten all about this until I was reminded of it on almost every page of Michael Gizzi’s New Depths of Deadpan. Lines begin someplace intelligible and just — turn, until they seem to be perpendicular to everything in existence. “These here blew in from the French / Revolution to stack up over this canary yellow hum cover” (29) Gizzi writes, or, “A popular corrective to self-focusing // would be love, and your beloved // a tugboat with a dab of Cornish hysteria” (62).
Photo of Michael Gizzi by Steve Evans.
These are poems that find true wit, not in Pope’s formulation of “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” but in expressing what ne’er, e’er, e’er was thought, and with style. Whether or not a reader agrees that these poems are witty will depend on whether or not she enjoys thinking such singular thoughts and having them light up new terrain in the brain. Gizzi deserves readers who do, because he is a funny and smart and pleasurable writer — and he needs them, because these poems are demanding, in a low-key, “Hey, it’s all right there on the surface” way. The demands being made aren’t so much intellectual as gustatory. You don’t need a degree to get lines like “Would you believe a cicerone in his cups under a claudicated anvil fixin’ to fulgurate a lunch loaf?” (29) But you do need to be open to the possibility that you can be funny without telling a joke. Also: to the possibility that stupidity, in the hands of smart people, can be smarter than your average Difficult Poet. Also: you need ears. This isn’t the kind of writing that sets out to investigate, say, the phenomenology of being; it’s more like it sets out to inseminate the phenomenal glee of beans.
New Depths of Deadpan is deeply concerned with what’s on the surface — what we seem to see, what we think we hear — and with how surfaces can be tweaked and spun. Maybe new depths are just new lows with better PR, you know? Either way, Gizzi can stoop. “Samsonite had balls as big as the Carrier Dome” (41) is pretty snort-worthy, but most of Gizzi’s quips are in a quieter register: “Who has time for space?” for example, or “A cow cut into calves” (44). Your dad’s puns, with their tidy zing, aren’t really what Gizzi’s after, though; he’s more interested in the pun as a mode of thought. And if the principle of punning is to hear harmony in incongruity and exploit it for yuks, Gizzi’s mind seeks out the cracked note within that harmony.
The book’s opener gets at all of these concerns and others:
A reflection blinds a gardening correspondent. Shade requires a
starting point. The elementary particle makes to leave and its
Aliens write in puns we now know are curly fries. Drive-up
windows make this clear.
War with its lights out eschews imagination. All our buds lost
their heads in the flower of their youth.
So we got this apartment on Jockey Street. They used to race
But we’re not going to jaw about Ovid or the rosy steps of mother,
her microscopic brand of honey. We expect you to understand.
See you over the next hill. (11)
Rae Armantrout says in an interview in Reconfigurations that the poetry in her (highly segmented) poems lies in the way the sections relate to one another. Similarly, the poetry in Gizzi’s poems often resides in the shifts in affect, the abrupt movement from tone to tone. “The Deep” begins with a set of flat, textbooky assertions that purport to be factual. In a few terse, prose-like stanzas, it goes from that dubious objectivity to serious silliness (“Aliens write in puns we now know are curly fries”) to something that might in fact be pretty deep (“War with its lights out eschews imagination”), which is capitalized upon by being followed by a classically deadpan half-elegy-half-execrable-pun (“All our buds lost their heads in the flower of their youth”).
This gives way to what reads at once like autobiography and the setup for a lame joke — “So we got this apartment on Jockey Street.” Of course, it pays off: “They used to race houses there.” Ba-dum-ching! There’s a moment of self-correction — “But we’re not going to jaw about” — that doesn’t quite follow (were we even thinking about jawing about Ovid?). Next, the poem veers suddenly into a mysterious gorgeousness: “Ovid or the rosy steps of mother, her microscopic brand of honey.” Then the real self-correction occurs, when this new take on a retrograde impulse, beauty for beauty’s sake, is violently stifled by one of our most debased idioms, the language of corporate appeasement. The underlying menace of the anonymous appeaser is made scarily apparent here: it’s not “We thank you for your understanding,” but “We expect you to understand.”
The poem closes with a little Ashberyan nothing: “See you over the next hill.” It’s an ambiguous gesture, an outstretched hand that at once invites the reader and keeps her at bay: I’ll meet you there, but I won’t go with you. Please keep reading, but figure it out for yourself. That same confusing near-distance is enacted in the poem’s pronouns, too, as the initially distant third-person narration is displaced by a number of first-person plurals: the We of shared knowledge, then of clique, of family, of interlocutors, and of the faceless We of big business. The poem finally ends on a note of apparent comfort: I, the Poet, am talking to You, the Reader, in a folksy manner, and assuring you that we are in this together. Which doesn’t comfort so well when we realize it means We are in this together, so long as we stay apart.
No one has ever successfully explained to me why it is that certain techniques are more palatable in visual art than in writing. A painting is apprehended in an instant, I am told, while a poem unfolds over time. A book requires literacy; a drawing demands only eyes. “Gary, my sponge, toddles beneath a happenstance of ugh” is composed of semantic units that cannot help but signify, so that you have meaning and meanings and meaninglessness and texture and sound, whereas [insert squiggle here] simply is. And so on.
But these explanations don’t satisfy. I imagine that if something gives you pleasure in one medium, it will give you pleasure in another. New Depths of Deadpan raises this question for me over and over because I find the compositional strategies that drive it sometimes exasperating, yet they’re the same strategies that generate a lot of my favorite art and music. When describing his own work, Gizzi speaks of his connection to “the spontaneous immediacy of jazz” and to making use of techniques “from the plastic arts: collaboration, improvisation, juxtaposition, etc.” So why is it that I can be so easily compelled and charmed by, I don’t know, a gold cigar band glued to a blue ticket stub on a backdrop of scrawled-on Peanuts strips or whatever, but when confronted with something like
Please join us in the Drowning Room, reconstructed in this rarefied
May the man with the blue hair come too? Life is unbearable without
Growth rings and tear drinking are pattern languages. She’d like
to give birth to food. She tried speaking to spareribs, but who
really lives in her forehead? (37)
I get to twiddling my thumbs and muttering “Come off it, already!” Sure, I like the materials well enough, but the arrangement fails to engage me. Isn’t this running on the same gas as my hypothetical artwork? And yet isn’t it nowhere near as charming?
Fortunately, the book has range, and every time its sharp turns and violent juxtapositions cause it to feel rickety, you come across a sturdily framed poem, some relatively coherent scenario or set piece or speaker that props up the whole endeavor. Take, for example, the deliciously dumb “Cloistered in an Oyster”:
Another sleepless night with the top down.
He has a headache that could write its own biography. How long
can one inhabit a dumb-waiter? His mother Pearl plumps his
Eyes lie through their teeth. Is it so important to be unfortunate?
Is shucks not enough? Perhaps he could import a diver to yank
him out of bed?
Another clammy night. (38)
Arrant goofiness is a great virtue, but there are others on display. “Dig the King” is a hypnotic little song for Elvis, in which “digging” and “rock” and Presley’s beach movies all get mixed up with the elements of a classically portentous homage:
The king that sounded
Most like the king
The king in the ear
Of musical things
Bring on the king
The king who was playing
The king on the beach
A mineral king, king of digging
Remember the king
Like a mood ring
A natural king (22)
Not infrequently, Gizzi punctuates his welter of warped aphorisms and broken-off narratives with an old-fashioned lyric beauty. These moments are all the more exquisite for how they startle. “Hubble approaches lilac time” (13) is, to my mind, pretty unimprovable, as is “The moon said in an opal voice, I pedal along, // a ribbon in my mouth. I chew it in the rain” (57). It’s not an easy beauty, but it’s about as pure as one could want.
The word “deadpan” derives from an old usage of “pan” for “face.” It is a physical, visual description that also means something tonal, audible, and abstract, and Gizzi returns again and again to that intersection, where the senses are conflated and the impossible is made palpable. Declaring that “One can’t adventure with images anymore,” he tries to write as if “the eye were a tongue,” as if one could “[translate] ideas into things” (15, 37, 17).
Because he is a writer who has no program beyond, as he puts it elsewhere, “[pursuing] the radical possibility that anything is possible,” Gizzi is wildly free in the choices he makes. Sometimes the pursuit doesn’t pan out, and when it doesn’t, all that freedom makes me itch for greater strictures. But to watch him in the attempt, to watch him write with absolute liberty what happens when “the King’s English goes native to the grammar of his heartbeat” (64), is always exhilarating.