Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 108 pages. $22.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
In his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet,” Robert Pinsky says that the poet’s job is to attend to “the unpoetic,” which the poet can discover “only by looking away from what society has learned to see poetically.” “The culture presents us with poetry,” Pinsky writes,
and with implicit definitions of what materials and means are poetic. The answer we must promise to give is ‘no.’ Real works revise the received idea of what poetry is; by mysterious cultural means the revisions are assimilated and then presented as the next definition to be resisted, violated and renewed. What poets must answer for is the unpoetic.
Of course, what the “unpoetic”—and thus the “poetic”—is changes with each generation. In Peter Gizzi’s case, he inherited his sense of the poetic from the previous generations of American experimental poetry. In their own reckoning with the poetic and unpoetic, the Language writers critiqued and dispensed with many of the things readers may think of as defining poetry, including the first-person speaker and lyrical, overtly metaphorical language, in the 1970s and 80s, and their influence is still strong throughout American poetry.
In his fifth book, Threshold Songs, Gizzi’s poems show the influence of such techniques while incorporating lyric tropes and themes discarded by that earlier generation—including the first person and lyrical language—in an ongoing effort to renew (to use Pinsky’s terminology) American poetic experimentalism. “Poetry makes nothing happen” goes W.H. Auden’s famous line from his elegy for Yeats. What poetry “makes happen,” Pinsky contends—and I agree—is to make itself relevant to the times in which it is written and read. What Threshold Songs makes happen is to dramatize this very attempt—and in this it succeeds.
“I come to it at an edge / morphed and hobbled, / still morphing” begins Threshold Songs’ early “Eye of the Poem.” The piece reads as an update to the decidedly pro-lyrical, un-experimentalist Ted Hughes’ “The Thought-Fox,” which similarly charts a poet’s relationship with an idea just at the edge of consciousness. “Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,” Hughes writes, “It enters the dark hole of the head. / The window is starless still; the clock ticks. / The page is printed.”
However, in contrast to Hughes’s poem, Gizzi’s further complicates the poet’s relationship with the poem with an ambiguous syntax particularly suited to our time. This ambiguity reflects the uncertain status of the lyrical “I” in contemporary poetry itself: where does the “I” begin and the “it” end? Is the “I” “morphed and hobbled, / still morphing,” or the “it”? Here, poet and the poem constantly refigure each other, as if in attempting to grasp Proteus, Menelaus must change shape, too. To write poetry, the poem intimates, is to move out to the edge, the threshold where boundaries are confused, and be changed. This is a very old notion indeed, and yet one that also makes a statement about writing poetry today. To remain relevant, so too the lyric much change, and the threshold is where such things happen, there between the “I” and the “it,” the poetic and the unpoetic, the “dark hole of the head” and the thought-fox.
In Threshold Songs Gizzi suggests that this threshold is (paradoxically) everywhere, emerging from “the jobsite singing itself.” Being in the midst of this threshold of constant change can be overwhelming. Can poetry, Gizzi asks, act as its own orienting device—a “momentary stay against confusion,” in Robert Frost’s famous phrase, or “fragments shored against my ruin,” in T.S. Eliot’s? “Where is my head / in all this data?” the speaker of “Snow Globe” asks,
Indexical nomenclature. It’s not reassuring to know
the names tonight, lousy and grigri and non.
Just words to fill space older than a house, a bird,
the glass and my hand.
The book’s epigraph from Samuel Beckett—“A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine”—helps us find our own heads a little more clearly within Gizzi’s book, which comes with its own confusion, fragmentation, and data. The epigraph’s back and forth between “voice” and “imagine,” much like the dance between the poem and the poet, acts as a “Marco Polo”-like homing device calling us to not only hear the voice, the thought-fox calling us, but to bear witness to that voice, and to the way we imagine its otherness:
I wonder if
you hear me
I mean I talk
to myself through you
you’re out there
tonight and so am I
for as long as
I talk to the air (“The Growing Edge”)
Gizzi’s response to “all this data” is clearly different from other contemporary poetic tacks, particularly that of conceptual writing à la Kenneth Goldsmith, another writer influenced by the Language poets but whose approach to data is much closer to a literal “indexical nomenclature.” (See Goldsmith’s Day, which re-presents an entire issue of the New York Times, or Fidget, which records every movement the writer made in the course of a day.)
Instead, Gizzi recovers a lyrical tradition excised by earlier experimentalists; yet in the critical vein of the Language generation, he tests, and tests again, the ability of the lyric to sing the sublimities of our time. “For why am I afraid to sing,” the speaker of “Hypostasis & New Year” asks, “the fundamental shape of awe [?].” In this testing and questioning, Gizzi’s “I” seems to take on and slip off lyrical identities and histories, from “I remake my life,” a variation on Rilke and James Wright, to the Four Quartetsesque “applause of rushes / sung into a larger sequence.” In these changes—Menelaus become Proteus—the poet frantically searches for the right combination of tradition and innovation, less to “make it new”—to insist on modernist novelty—than to “make it now”—to insist on seeing and speaking the world as it is, caught between the old and new, the poetic and unpoetic.
With such a relationship to time, it’s no wonder the great theme of Threshold Songs is that of being in the world—among bodies, houses, parents, and Gmail—and also what it means to leave it. “The body only lasts for so many days,” Gizzi writes in the prose series “Pinocchio’s Gnosis.” “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. That’s the paradigm.” And at the end of “Analemma,” a poem that begins, “That I came back to live / in the region both / my parents died into / that I will die into,” we find:
now that you’re gone
and I’m here or now
that you’re gone and
I’m gone what
did we learn
what did we take
from that oh
now that you’re here
and also gone
I am just learning
In Threshold Songs, the poet is at the edge of everything. In fact, everything is at the edge of everything—and we, and poetry, are constantly refigured by that threshold. “We are all stranded by the shore of something,” Gizzi writes. These are the songs of our stranded state. In attempting to be responsible to the unpoetic, Threshold Songs’ ambition leads us to attend to the world’s blurry boundaries and that old shibboleth, the self—and, in response, to sing. “And now that you’re here be brave,” Gizzi writes in “Tiny Blast”: “Be everyway alive.”