A sound in the mind

A review of Peter Gizzi’s ‘Threshold Songs’

Threshold Songs

Threshold Songs

Peter Gizzi

Wesleyan University Press 2010, 108 pages, $22.95, ISBN 0819571741

Besides referring to an entrance, the word “threshold” signifies the lower limit of an observable phenomenon; take grief, for example. I know when grief arrives, but when is it gone? More likely, grief just dissipates and never goes away entirely and at some point maybe we cease trying to measure it. On the other hand, a threshold is a crossing. When I was twelve, my parents added a room onto our small house, and the builder suggested ash for the thresholds. Ash, he said, had been thought to keep out evil spirits. Once you’ve crossed a threshold, there is no going back; you have been irrevocably changed. What’s more, it’s possible to consider every moment of your life in these terms, and so those moments become — sometimes intolerably — charged with the weight of all of our histories, hopes, and desires.

A threshold, though, is also a singularity, the point at which a function takes an infinite value. That is, in a sense, the upper limit of an observable phenomenon; as in, what is the limit of our perception? In the case of grief, this question might be better stated: how much can we take? In “Analemma,” Gizzi writes:

now that you’re gone

 and I’m here or now

 that you’re here and

 I’m gone or now

 that you’re gone and

 I’m gone what

 did we learn

 what did we take

 from that oh

 always dilating

 now that you’re here

 and also gone

I am just learning

that threshold (16)

 

The way the lines break here enacts the reaching of the words themselves as they tendril out into thoughts, and thoughts are risks. I feel myself asking myself whether I’m willing to think about these things. What is “here” and what is “gone”? And, perhaps more significantly, what does “learn” mean in this context? The word “threshold” gets invested with the weight of all of this, because the threshold is the place where one feeling becomes another feeling, where we go from being okay to not being okay. Or we weren’t okay before and we won’t be okay again, but the terms have been altered.

In “Pinocchio’s Gnosis,” Gizzi writes, “Sure it’s a nice day. A splendid day when joy met doom, the entire forest wept” (31). Here is threshold-as-meeting, and the forces coming together are as disparate as joy and doom. Storms are formed by the crashing together of opposing atmospheric forces, and though those forces may be locally relieved by the release of the storm itself, they still exist as themselves again in other places, and again, later, in the very same place. Might we see a storm as an entire forest weeping? In the same poem, Gizzi writes, “This body only lasts for so many days. It’s got a shelf life. It’s got time-lapse, time-based carbon life. There’s you and it and now you are it” (34). When the body meets the mind, it happens in the body, and certainly there are storms.

In the fourth section of the poem “History Is Made at Night,” Gizzi writes, “Gmail / invites me to ‘go visible.’ / Is being invisible not enough? / A kind of vow like poetry / burning the candle down” (69). The shift from visible to invisible, happening even as it does here in the mediated space of Gmail’s chat function, is another kind of threshold. The word “invites” feels generous; the world is out there waiting for you to go visible. But then how do we deal with all of the problems of communication? Here we have poetry “burning the candle down.” What is the candle when it burns down all the way? In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville said “I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg.”[1] He was frustrated by a paradox; no one wanted to hear what he wanted to say, but he was unable to say anything else.

This paradox is similar to the paradox inherent in lyric poetry; that we are compelled to sing what is ultimately an interior expression. In “Apocrypha,” Gizzi writes, “I found I was over and singular yet many, the many and the singular, the many and the evolutionary, the many in the grain. Many more” (54). If every individual is singular, then to be singular is to be like everyone else. The one intermingles into the many. In the very next sentence, Gizzi writes, “Who in hell am I writing for?” In the ninth section of “History Is Made at Night,” he writes, “That the biology / that composes I / is shared with I” (74). It’s a beautiful notion that comes close to answering the previous question. To write is to compose, so biology — the world — writes us. In return, we write back. The poem “Bardo” ends, “And if I say the words / will you know them? // Is there world? / Are they still calling it that?” (77). This “you” gets expansive if we think of it as the possible world out there, where we hope to commingle our confusion and bewilderment with a little bit of understanding.

In the book’s final poem, “Modern Adventures at Sea,” Gizzi writes: 

I wonder if I am
up to this light.
These ideas of order
and all I feel
walking down
the avenue. (82)

Ideas of Order, of course, is the title of a 1936 collection of poems by Wallace Stevens, a collection that includes the beautiful poem “How to Live. What to Do.”[2] These two sentences are how Gizzi ends Threshold Songs. The questions of how to live and what to do are important ones, and poetry often feels like an answer that makes sense. “I wonder if I am / up to this light” is a thought which is right at the crux of being a person. There is this voice, and we don’t know if it is inside of us or outside of us, and we wonder if we are up to the impossible task of expressing it. This voice is the preoccupation of Threshold Songs and really of all lyric poetry. In “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” Stevens writes, “At the earliest ending of winter, / In March, a scrawny cry from outside / Seemed like a sound in his mind” (534). Gizzi writes:

When lost at sea

I found a voice,

alive and cresting,

crashing, falling

and rising. To drift,

digress, to dream

of the voice. Its

grain. To feel

its vibrations. Pitch.

Its plural noises.

To be upheld

in it, to love.

Whose book lying

on that table?

And where does

the voice

come from? (84)

 

The question is enormous and exists at the threshold of song itself. “These ideas of order / and all I feel / walking down / the avenue” (83) is all we are, and one way of living is to cross the threshold of saying any of it at all.

 


 

1. Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and Newberry Library, 1993), 191.

2. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1982), 125.