A review of Piotr Gwiazda's 'Messages'
In his first book, Gargarin Street (2005), Piotr Gwiazda, after “meandering slowly from nowhere to nowhere” in a self-deprecating manner, after revealing his motto “Give Chance a chance” (36), and after postulating,
What if the script of human life is full of typos,
missteps, mishaps, false starts, false alarms,
wrong turns, dead ends, distractions, digressions —
(notice the language here playfully falls into that “poetic misstep” of cliché), he tells us how to see the future: “Think of it as an enormous blank, a sort of dream” (60). In his latest book, Messages, Gwiazda enriches his conversation about the future, situating it within the present (and past), as in the last section of the last poem, “Messages”:
Here on this planet,
with no future,
where the wilderness has the color
of worn-out dollar bills,
rivers are covered
with oil and graffiti,
and civilizations of dragonflies
evolve in the parking lot
behind a shopping plaza,
comes to a standstill:
The horizon is both there (stated in text) and not there (crossed out). And by implication, the future, or a world broadening out from the present (and past), is there and not there. What seems to matter is the present “with no future”; what matters is our deliberative purpose — whatever “mission” that may be — that comes to a “standstill” before this ghost of a future. Gwiazda plays with these “standstill moments” throughout this book. They are observable and delightful (especially through language), contrary, and ever-changing and ultimately unknowable.
Gwiazda frames this book with a long epigraph from Joe Milutis (Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything). Milutis argues that too much analysis (i.e. rationality) leads us to lose connection with each other, connection that seems to form when we allow illusions (i.e. irrational sense) to form. That we have to get back to developing illusion “because within it is a fundamental sense of direction and source of energy” (from the epigraph), which, according to Milutis, allows us to be more like who we are. In the three sections of this book, Gwiazda works towards illusion, or points it out in some form. He rubs and plays into the following paradox: the search for illusion (that irrational sense), and thus an energy of connectedness, is rooted, at least partially, in a search that is inherently rational.
In especially the first section, Gwiazda rarely veers into the personal. Rather, he broadly addresses culture, critiquing its blindness and excess, which can become boring and meaningless in its quest (or assumption) of grandness and rational meaning:
This small round floor that makes us passionate —
“HOSTAGE BEHEADED IN AFGHANISTAN,”
“ISRAELIS SEEK REVENGE
IN DEATH OF TODDLER” — is it past reprieve (5)
Even though the speaker is Dante here, these lines reveal a difficulty in this collection: the tendency to tread the border of cultural critique in the language of lecture/instruction, essay, or warning — and less in the language of a particular poem. Gwiazda moves into this problem infrequently, even though this implicit or explicit critique occurs consistently throughout the collection.
“Three Pieces for Two Hands,” the ninth of ten poems in the first section (there are ten in the third section as well), marks a stylistic break. Unlike the other poems in this section, there is no compression in the lines, which are visually expanded and spaced. There is a dreamy quality to this poem, a bit fragmentary in its first two parts. The poem foreshadows the second section of the book, where he creates a space to reflect on time in the only poem in that section, “Time.”
Besides being a spatial break, “Time” seems a break in tone as well. It focuses inward, in the more personal realm. It seems to be showing Gwiazda as he struggles in his role as a poet in which “I observe everything, / record everything” (22) but “I don’t know what I’m feeling // and so reserve comment” (23). He perceives (and perhaps purposefully exaggerates his capabilities) but may not understand or know the depth of his responses. This inward manifestation of the poet seemingly at home in uncertainty contrasts with the rawer, more observational poet of the first section, “a hacker” (3) or “assassin in the boardroom” (3) poet, the outspoken poet.
The third section of the book starts by alternating between cultural infusion and critique with the spatially open “breathable” poems. In these “culture poems” (“Before America,” “Island,” and “Ohio and West”), there is a sense of static, repetitive compression of American cultural history. These poems seem to implode. Gwiazda’s America is the antithesis of Whitman’s expansive America. The language here is at once stimulating and exciting but it also encroaches upon itself, enclosing and suffocating. The spatially open poems (“In Transit” and “Purgatory”) intercede these cultural blocks with a more “breathable” critique:
The banality of morning clouds.
Vivaldi in the shopping mall.
Jury duty. (36)
What comes out of these juxtapositions is the poem “Clouds Moving In.” The first section of this poem is the only place in Messages in which Gwiazda mentions Poland, which was an integral place in his first book. Here, Poland is distanced from Gwiazda (as in third person). In the second section of this poem, the scene shifts to “Dear New Yorker” (38), which can be taken as the literary and cultural center of America. It shifts to the first person, yet even here, “What really concerns me though is the way my body reacts / in front of an onrushing car. How it’s wafted by the wind // from late October to early April” (38). The poet is obliterated, almost surreally. There is disintegration, as Gwiazda points out later in an interview at the end of the book: disintegration of the poet and the poet’s culture.
In the third and last section of Messages, Gwiazda delves into the personal, which also stays somewhat impersonal since the speaker refers to his love interest as “X.” This tactic is Gwiazda at his best: on the border of irony, not meaning to be ironic but meaning to get to the essence of experience, struggling for it. That experience itself, at least in his writing, is both there and not there. It changes: “Anything, anything / can be put into a poem” (3). He writes of that trace of anything. He writes the ghosts of experience, enacts it in his writing, especially in the physical cross-outs in his text (“Clouds Moving In,” “Things She Didn’t Say,” and “Messages”). The cultural breaks down into the personal, which ultimately breaks down in the text. There is no “permanent” marker. There are markers of perception, which are ever-changing.
Gwiazda’s language percolates out of the mundane context. He compresses images and lines in many places (e.g., “Ghost Photography” and “Removable Tattoos”), so that when the language becomes “uncompressed,” as in “Time” or “Three Pieces for Two Hands” or in moments elsewhere at the end of “Purgatory” or “In Transit,” the work breathes. Even the pace of his language and form is impermanent.
Gwiazda in most of this book is comic and delightful in his play. In fact, it seems the first part of the collection has a more comic tone, perhaps because its language and form enact the qualities of misperception. It extends the grotesque (“Aardvark, Fat”); it lumps closely together the on-the-surface dissimilar (“now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence, / now a bad cop, now a mullah” ); it brings out explicit cultural idiosyncrasies (“Every six months you are required to change / your email password and/or sexual partner” ); its titles invite wit (“Three Pieces for Two Hands” or “Life after People”); it sings out a manifesto song (“Ether”) and later critiques poets who align themselves with manifestos (“Removable Tattoos”); it serves irony (in “Dante on a Plane,” Dante looks down from a plane, from the “heavens,” into the “hellish” earth; Dante observes, in essence, from the other side).
Gwiazda’s word choice resonates:
Poetry is silence in drag (27)
Poetry is dressed up (“loud”) in the cultural fringe (as “drag”). At the same time, it is silent, especially in the mainstream. It’s hidden but there. And to stretch these words even further, poetry drags on (in time). Poetry and its silence create a drag, stopping the momentum of mainstream observation. There’s effort in poetry; there’s the dragging of this silence through the throat. Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Gwiazda zooms in on rich, evocative words, exposing the contrariness of experience — from plain to poetic language and even to the made-up word:
Everywhere you turn
only readymade language …
People have organs
and messages inside them. (44)
“Readymade language” is at once natural in its flow, especially to those persons speaking this language. At the same time, it’s as unique and unnatural as the word “readymade.” It’s both sonically mundane and visually not mundane. This phrase enacts a perfect compression of contrariness rooted in experience.
Gwiazda’s work shows the convergence between the mundane and not mundane. In “Daylight Saving,” the last poem of the first section, “The apartment replies with pebbles and stars” (17). Gwiazda frames an answer without actually answering a question. He frames an answer in a poetic form that verges on breaking the poetic, a prose poem in five section-vignettes. He frames an answer in the resonance of the poem’s silent answer, and allows the reader to own the answer (and question). All this poem reveals is that an answer will come from the mundane (pebbles) and from the not mundane (stars in the grand universe). Both aspects are so different, yet both are “nothing” or “small,” from where we stand. Both are “far” from our actual, human experience of perception.
Messages revolves around interpretation. In the first section, Gwiazda implicitly looks sometimes broadly, sometimes abstractly, and sometimes (especially at the end) personally at what it means to interpret. He delves into interpretive uncertainty, “a thing unknown” (8). Ultimately we are “beginningless and free” (6). In other words, we are unrooted and open to possibilities. Even in “The Golden Age,” a world of rationality, we do not achieve certainty; the monuments from faith and irrationality, “These marble hands. These limestone eyes. / The boiling earth. The swollen sun” (10), keep us from understanding the world in more rational certainty, which ends up being “mostly boredom” (10) anyway.
Gwiazda is very conscious of the role of the poet, of himself, and his place in this interpretative scheme of communication, which by itself has a lack of coherent, obvious meaning.
All is not lost, however, when poets —
tired of contests, fed up with manifestos —
improvise in softly toned sprechstimme
song of dubious importance and vague beauty. (12)
Here he beautifully subverts any manifesto or theory he set up in the book’s epigraph and in his first poem “Ether.” Such a perfect word choice: Sprechstimme, a German word meaning “between singing and speaking while using an imprecise pitch.” This word strikes an imprecise balance in the stanza. It is a foreign word which introduces a “foreign” concept — that of an indeterminate, uncertain role of poets who have nowadays been conditioned towards a competitive certainty of theory, or “schools of poetry,” and of winning contests (to get published) and perhaps being viewed as better poets. Gwiazda undercuts this oeuvre in the plain last line, reducing his own importance. His verbal skill and tenacity undercut and destabilize the standstill moments.
Gwiazda repeats and revises throughout the book, moving into the personal by the end so that perhaps cultural becomes personal and personal becomes cultural. He constantly overlays his previous poetic words and ideas through cross-outs, repetitions, reimaginings: “Poetry is a matter of / perspective (perception rather)” (3). Even here, in the first poem, Gwiazda starts to “cross out” and change his interpretation of “perspective.”
Messages concludes with an interview, “Messages Without a Message: An Interview with Piotr Gwiazda.” When I first wrote a draft of this review, I did not read the interview. The title alone told me the danger: this interview interrupts the penchant against analysis with the possibility of analysis. Gwiazda, for his part, must have been aware of this contrariness/juxtaposition by titling the interview as it is. But it’s an informative read that adds a little more depth to my understanding of the book. There are three main points about the book in this interview I found most interesting: 1) There is no message/meaning to a poem but what the work itself does to you, and this take fits well with the enacting of experience in language that Gwiazda employs; 2) How a poem and its “message” — whatever it is — evolves on you, the reader, is the crux of his interest; and 3) These poems try to account for the human capacity for illusion.
By the end of Messages, the future is no longer an “enormous blank, a sort of dream” (Gargarin Street, 60). The future is no longer out there, neither outside the self nor in dreams. Rather, the future is in the “reconstruction of dreams” (4), the ever-changing revisions of perception, and ultimately of consciousness. Gwiazda suggests the interdependence of humans on this earth and environment. The damaging human interaction and continual response of nature has all but wiped out that future’s enormous blank, defraying this dream as a ghost. The future itself has essentially become fixed in time — actually, going along in time — ever-changing as these “standstill moments,” dependent on our present choices and active perceptions.