Outside of any system

A review of William Corbett’s ‘Elegies for Michael Gizzi’

Elegies for Michael Gizzi

Elegies for Michael Gizzi

William Corbett with drawings by Natalia Afentoulidou

Kat Ran Press 2012, $20, ISBN 9780979434235

Late in September 2010 Michael Gizzi passed away. This shocked all who knew him. He was young, only sixty-one. During the course of his life he lived mostly in New England, and was in the lineage of other great New Englanders such as Frank O’Hara and John Wieners. If you listen to Gizzi’s readings on PennSound you will hear how fine an ear he had, an ear that descended directly from Jack Kerouac’s own demotic taste. Amongst his contemporaries Gizzi found himself with Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, Bernadette Mayer, and Craig Watson. During the 1980s through the 1990s Gizzi lived in Western Massachusetts where he ran a series in the barn behind Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield. Notably, James Schuyler gave one of the few readings in his life in this barn. As Corbett puts it in his new book, Elegies for Michael Gizzi, a brief and beautiful book of poems with drawings by Natalia Afentoulidou, “[Michael] was one of those generous souls who served poets and poetry.” When I met Gizzi in the early 2000s he was back in Rhode Island and running yet another series in Providence with Michael Magee. During a memorial reading organized for Robert Creeley in 2005, Gizzi mentioned that Creeley always wanted to be where the action was. The same was true for Michael.

William Corbett, like Gizzi, is a New Englander in the New York School lineage, a point he touches on frequently throughout Elegies. The first poem, “Answer,” opens with a question that O’Hara poses in “A Step Away from Them,” “But is the / Earth as full as life was full, of them?” Following those lines Corbett thinks through the question, parsing it out:

These lines get to me, always have.
We stumble over what in death
Is uneven — “as life was full”
For my friend, the handsome tree surgeon
Michael, poet of soul-ache and slapstick
Played poker-faced, who saw double
And minded two voices that didn’t rhyme.

In the stutter of the dash after “Is uneven” and line break that follows “as life was full” is a burst of emotion that brings Corbett to the conclusion that “You can answer O’Hara’s question, / Yes, fuller. The depths we enter / Have room for everyone.” “Answer” sets up wonderfully what’s to come in the interplay between Corbett’s poems and Afentoulidou’s visual art.

A native of Greece, Afentoulidou has illustrated Greek editions of Leo Tolstoy’s Three Hermits and The Power of Darkness as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. Her work in Elegies, lovingly reproduced by Kat Ran Press, consists of abstract curves of bright color mixed with white and black suggesting amoebic sea life. These drawings are also astounding in their gentle playfulness, feeling as if they’re still under water. The drawing after “Dubrovnik and Split,” for instance, looks in part like a tongue sticking out. This dovetails nicely with Corbett’s humor in the poem:

I’ll be Alan Hale
To your Errol Flynn
Pineapple to your ham
Bonkers to your apeshit

Though this is a book of elegies Corbett’s and Afentoulidou’s willingness to be funny makes sense, because Gizzi’s poems, even at their most melancholy, were always out to have some fun. Since there are only sixteen poems in Elegies Afentoulidou’s work encourages the reader to slow down. Her images become objects of reflection and meditation between Corbett’s poems. This is exactly what’s needed. It’s as if these drawings help the reader, whether you knew Gizzi or not, parse through the emotions of death. And the emotions of death are really questions.

In his book, Corbett never asks the trite “Where are you now?” Instead, Corbett focuses on the concreteness of living in the untitled poem that begins “What was the last food tasted, / The last music heard, / Last line read, last line written?” In other words, it’s not where the deceased has gone after life that holds concern so much as what he did during life that matters to Corbett. In this regard, Corbett draws attention to Gizzi’s service in the name of poets and poetry in the last couple of pages of Elegies. It’s this aspect of Gizzi’s “life and work that needs amplification,” according to Corbett, “because it will, as part of what made the world go round, be lost or obscured in a footnote.”  

In these final pages Corbett, who in addition to being a poet is also the author of the memoirs Philip Guston’s Late Work and Furthering My Education, shares some wonderful anecdotes from his friendship with Gizzi, all of them focused on the various reading series that Michael had organized over the years. One of the first was at Embree’s Restaurant in Western Massachusetts, Corbett tells us. “Poets,” in this series, “received $100, drinks and a good meal for entertaining a room full of people with an ear for poetry, many of them friends.” What Corbett mentions next might tell us more about his own taste in locations than Gizzi’s, but it’s scene-setting nonetheless. As the author puts it, this series at Embree’s wasn’t held in a “grim basement once frequented by Trotskyites or John Birchers. [Or an] art gallery with floor to ceiling mind-numbing art.” Corbett goes on to mention the real advantage of this series when he writes, “The reading over, we did not have to look for a Chinese restaurant no one had ever been to that might be empty enough to accommodate us.” Because they were already comfortable in a welcoming place they could sit around to drink and talk. Corbett’s description of the Embree’s series is telling, because it demonstrates what he sees as one of Gizzi’s most valuable contributions to poetry. For Corbett, Gizzi “was a natural scene-maker unintimidated by the size of the crowd or the out-of-the-way-ness of the scene.” Gizzi, like Creeley, wanted to be where the action was, even if that meant creating the atmosphere necessary for it. Thanks to Corbett’s skills as a poet and memoirist this aspect of Michael’s life will not obscured in a footnote.

What’s also notable here is that Corbett draws attention to the fact that poets like Gizzi are rare, closing with this thought: “Now he is gone and someone will replace him. But not, I’m guessing, right away. Michael’s kind comes along infrequently, does what they do outside of any system and leaves the memory of all that.” While poets with Gizzi’s dedication certainly are uncommon this is only part of what’s important here. Read through any of Corbett’s work, whether it’s his poems, art writing, or memoirs, and the reader will find the author continually placing value on what’s done “outside of any system.” For Corbett, as for any poet perhaps, the value of any undertaking ought to be determined by one’s own need to do it, not whether the project will bring you any prestige. Because of the author’s own willingness to disregard the system, whatever it may be, and focus on his memories of Gizzi, Corbett and Afentoulidou’s book is a testament to one of the most prestigious gifts of all: friendship.