By Peter Gizzi
Wesleyan University Press
This book by Peter Gizzi released on Wesleyan U. Press comes to me hailed hailed and praised. It makes me question again what poetry can and should do; what I want from it; and how it actually works. In the course of my reading this work, Peter’s fourth and most ambitious, I would imagine, I found myself dipping into a bit of red wine, looking up some terms and words in the big red dictonary and googling, "The Internationale." I also listened intently to Nina Simone’s "Pirate Jenny" and Leonard Cohen’s "If It Be Your Will" by Antony from the latest soundtrack of "I’m Your Man." Am I a hopeless, generationZ multi-tasking failure, or was there a logic to my diversions? Well, I’d like to think so. And also, that like a good Robert Wilson opera with it’s Suzuki like friezes, I had time to leave the theatre, free-associate and breathe. Perhaps it was "Pirate Jenny" that led me to find the lyrics of the famous socialist anthem to understand what it stood for and how powerful were its words. If Gizzi is writing an "Outernationale," what’s the relation between the two, or is there one at all?
The Internationale was written in Paris in 1871 by Eugene Pottier. It was composed to celebrate the Paris Commune of March-May 1871 –the first time workers took state power into their own hands. And the Commune was drowned in blood, according to the Marxist descript on the web, by the conservative French government in Versaille. However, the anthem took on future meanings and revolutionary uses in Spain, Chile and Poland. It is worth noting the 6th verse of one of its versions:
"Laborers and peasants, we are
the great party of workers
the earth belongs only to humans
The idle are going to live elsewhere
How much they feast on our flesh
But if the ravens and the vultures
Disappear one of these days
The sun will shine forever
l: It is the final struggle
Let us gather, and tomorrow
Will be mankind:l
Gizzi does not present a socio-political tract in the poems of the "Outer…" It is not revolution for Martians either. He follows in the walk of Whitman and Ashbury in creating architecture of a personal and subjective vision of humankind. He plays with language like an engineer but his perspective is more metaphysical than scientific. He’s referring to the world outside us, as it is reflected in us, as it even becomes us, in his writing. He might echo Walt’s "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." And he certainly believes in some kind of tribal interstices of artists as he embeds quotes and references from the works of Ashbury, VanGogh, John Cage and Mandelstam in this collection.
The Outernationale is indeed, "beyond the grid," beyond the wrenching pain of industrialization and class struggle. Gizzi sees us as evolving through and with many strange, ordinary and splintered things. He likes to play with perspective, like a painter, to investigate color and simulate depth.
I must say my favorite poem in this collection is not its title track, which I find like the worst of his poetry, too obtuse, fragmented and maddeningly pretentious in form. (Hey, that’s just me. I would certainly admit that some of his poetic gamesmanship is probably above my head) but it still comes back to the fundamental question of what vibes and messages language can create in us, and for us. No, my favorite poem is called, "Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures" – a kind of ode to Van Gogh that takes on a beautiful, fugue-like life of its own. Its structure is almost classical though it’s language distinctively modern. Here is the crux:
"O to be useful, of use, to the actual seen thing
to be in someway related by one’s actions in the world.
There might be nothing greater than this
Nothing truer to the good feelings that vibrate with us+
Like in the middle of the flower I call your name."
And then another repeating stanza:
"But felt things exist in shadow, let us reflect
the darkness bears a shine as yet unpunished by clarity
but perhaps a depth that outshines clarity and is true."
When Gizzi puts forth an idea and imbues it with light and dimension, I’m completely drawn in. When he seeminingly masturbates with syntax, I could care less, no matter how brilliant most of his writing is.
Another wonderful poem is "Nocturne," for it is again like a gorgeous abstract painting, for which we have at least some known reference:
"To know is an extreme condition
like doubt, and will not rest
Even the dailies unravel in the end.
The aperture shut tight.
It is so difficult to admit light
In its unconditional noise
Its electric blur, its red
Cherry red, red of the advertisements.."
And he moves on to:
"All, under blue, a prison shirt blue
that torch song blue of the crooner’s eyes"
And resolves to:
"The throaty blue
in a doorway after a party."
And so color comes alive as an entity we can feel.
I’m also fond of "Human Memory is Organic" which also has a Whitmanesque flair:
"I am just a visitor to this world
an interloper really headed deep into glass.
I, moving across a vast expanse of water
Though it is not water maybe salt
Or consciousness itself
Enacted as empathy. Enacted as seeing."
Yes, it is a bit abstract, but the abstraction works, moves us, as if we are all at once and in transition visitor, then consciousness, enacted empathy or seeing. I guess Whitman would have named others, asserted tribes, proven his passionate bonds. With Gizzi it an implied connection and an explicit displacement in language that we find. Sometimes this works magically as in "The Western Garden" where the notion of history is introduced:
"The wood grain is deeper
than a forest
deeper than the sea.
The solid indication
Of space in time,
These whorls testify
This pattern inside."
Indeed in this poem he objectifies the role of the West in history as a garden:
"In a Western garden
there are broken tiles
like the broken history
like the objects broke under
the rims of the conquerors wheels.
In a Western garden
It gets darker faster
It is home this dark
This flag invisible in wind."
This hints at colonization and power struggles. It’s a delicate rendering –through a garden with broken tiles – of something which has rocked whole civilizations and cultures. And so it is with Gizzi, that he prefers to provide us with verbal clues and hypnotic, if elliptical descriptions of our world rather than the bold crass flashes of traditional verse. He does not rhyme; he does not construct sonnets or villanelles.
Please make no mistake, this is a book that will turn your wheels and make you think and associate beyond it’s frame – what good poetry should do – for it is fascinating and musical enough and flecked with expansive meanings.
Ibbetson St. Press