Poetry in Motion
Values of Landscape and Weather
Wesleyan University Press, $13.95
Brought up in the era of the barouche and accustomed to the train,
Proust was amazed by the motorcar. For this novelist obsessed
by the rapidity with which a century had vanished, the velocity
whereby its usurper had always been relentlessly en route, and
the artists asymptoticindeed impossibleendeavor
to render events at the moment of their disappearance, the automobile
signified speed, escape, the joining of places thought to be distinct.
From the front seat of a convertible, what Proust felt acutely
was a machine outstripping history, as landscapes foreshortened
in relation to the human being, who, in exchange for this new
freedom and mobility, was continually displaced. Whereas the train
had idealized destinations, the car took us backstage into
the streets, so the world was suddenly experienced as unfortunately
real. The car was so homely a mode of progress because
it respects no mystery. On the other hand, a car ride
transformed objects into their own images, while houses and other
previously stable markers were viewed from heretofore unknown,
perhaps unimaginable perspectives. Further, the autos elastic
motion, unlike the locomotives scheduled linearity,
meant the gamble of getting lost and being late. The car did not
merely symbolize or engender disorientationit was the site
of un-situation par excellence. Proof rested in the fact that
if you said as much while behind the wheel, the statement would
close in a locale already different from where it had opened,
its validity thus expiring at the instant of its confirmation.
Peter Gizzi has not quite gotten over the car. He shares Prousts conviction that travel, art, and desire are structurally synonymous, insofar as they promise that movement toward a horizon is what counts. Gizzi is less concerned, however, that arrival equals a collapse into commonplace. Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Gizzis third full-length poetry book, constantly remarks the comings and goings of automobiles and their drivers. The first section (Objects in mirror are closer than they appear) of the volumes first sequence (A History of the Lyric) finds us in the lanes, hugging a shoulder, and across the books five divisions we encounter a friend getting into her car, a transmissions whine, handling / the gears as you move into the curve, the car heading out / to meet the sun. The auto has long since become a banal staple in what Gizzi calls all our American lives, and that is rationale enough for its frequent emergence in these poems. Rarely dependent on terra firma or today, Gizzis lyrics nonetheless believe with Simone Weil there is no better time than the present, and they maintain a commitment to illuminating what is so near it has faded from sight, whether Kool-Aid, Clorox, a Sno-Kone, or a matchbook.
Nor is the car an inaccurate or unsatisfactory figure for characterizing Gizzis poetics, which accelerate and back up, shift on the fly, idle and occasionally stall, turn and overturn, swerve, brake and break down, becoming roadworthy again after minor repairs. This is not to suggest that Gizzis writing is automatic, let alone standard, any more than it is to claim the car is a hermeneutical key to his imaginations ignition. It is to note, however, that his poems are propelled by dynamics of resistance and repetition endemic to all motorsevery poem, William Carlos Williams said, is a machine made of words, whose intimate form gives language its highest dignityand that Gizzi, a studiously reckless driver, possesses an avant-garde / a backward glance.
The volumes major achievement, the ten-page Etudes, Evidence, or a Working Definition of the Sun Gear, takes part of its title from automobilia: sun gear is the primary gear for distributing power to the several speeds in an automatic transmission. Beginning with epigraphs from Lucretius and Dziga Vertov about the organization of elements into phrases generating movement, the poem is a cascading exercise in synesthesia, whereby color and spliced quotation, sunlight and syllables sounding tissues, letters of the alphabet and foreign phrases, the stuff of our frail, fierce world and stuff hinting at elsewhere, are all juxtaposed or associated as they stagger down the page. Written in Marseille, France, the poem is saturated with the noises, odors, and tints of the Mediterranean, where beautiful ruins still pierce through their reconstruction, silent churchyards no less excessive than lapping waves.
As Gizzi pursues the difficulties translating a blur, his senses searching for what has already become the debris of the poem, fate of phrases, / of vermilion, damned to souvenirs, his stanzas are tiles in a mosaic glued loosely, or frames of a film that digresses, cuts, keeps cutting off. We do not inhabit a fixed or even firm milieu, the poem suggests, while enacting polyvalence and parataxis. Even a hue fails to sit still or achieve consistency, turning into an object instead of attaching to one: royal, Prussian, Dumonts or kings / or starch, powder, Antwerp or Haarlem / or mineral, robins egg, Parma, Napoleon, / Chinese, deep, sky, livid electric, etc., blue. Gizzi avers, There is a project for the sun, and his poem carouses in the lush, contemplative, exploratory spirit of Wallace Stevenss The Comedian as the Letter C, where no image is ever out of earshot, no sudden applause of rain too ordinary to build an aperture, engine, or empire on. Played alternately in a geological key and the f-stop of architecture and neon, Etudes likewise veers reflexively, existentially. How much sun can a body carry, the drunken words ask,
while it ticks, whirrs, hiccups and spins,
and what about reflected light
tucked away, does this go missing
when a body folds back into wind?
If, by a kind of photosynthetic grammar, Gizzis poem has converted light into lines, Etudes . . . also emits a refracted luminosity. Moreover, as the compressed phrase Sun Gear itself indicates, his lyric grafts the natural to the synthetic, a fusion Gizzi likewise examines in his previous book, Artificial Heart (1998).
Whats so wrong about the real, / so off with clarity, he wonders in Lessons in Darkness, anxious that Jean Baudrillards simulated cities and non-events have triumphed in voiding the authenticity and verifiability of our lives. Gizzi often speaks from the first person, but not without worrying whether I am just another I-am poem. Experience, as he questions it, might no longer carry its etymological vectors of risk, crossing, and experimentation, but instead refer only to further referrals. The idea of a love poem.org written to Paris.com is but one example of everything faking it so badly, until nature itself, as Overtakelessness proffers, becomes an episode of mimesis: Unstuck weeds float downstream / completing representation. So if, in Dumbbell, Gizzi declares curtly, Now thats a life, it may be simply to remind himself, and Imitation of Life: A Memoir frisks the suspicion that actuality happens at a distance, if it can be said to occur at all. Each of that quasi-sestinas six chapters finishes in a parking lot, revealing how impersonal our notion of community is, how much more functional than friendly or free of charge, how each stopping place is just a holding pattern leading to another departure. Gizzis poems are flush with such anonymous, liminal zones, from the kiddy department of Wal-Mart and a theatre waiting for / The Best Years of Our Lives to begin, to a barbershop down a crumbling mainstream: Population 347.
We may recall Nicolas Malebranches disquieting assertion that, rather than lead us into foreign lands, he will show us we are estranged within our own. Truth in Gizzis landscape is a cacophony of rumor (some say love some light some say the dark some heaven [Plain Song]), a litany of hypotheses (I guess these . . . will do. / I guess that . . . also [In Defense of Nothing]), or if phrases tumbling anaphorically, proliferating until the word ceases to introduce suppositions or conditionals and nearly becomes a discrete theme (Château If). These recurrent, conflicting proposals, as Gizzi explains in a recent Rain Taxi interview, permit generative thought and doubt at the same time. Aporia and ambiguity are inevitable aspects of being alive, as Take the 5:10 to Dreamland confesses: Sometimes I am so far from myself / the stumble above only makes it worse. More importantly, haunted thinking and gutted belief can denote compelling premises on which to construct poetry, because their negativity undoes what they develop, while keeping its outline intact.
Linguistically, Gizzi shies neither from simple words / in a bramble of words nor from saying Selah in silvered tones. There is a penchant for onomatopoeia in this poetry that insists on the glottal while pushing toward an uncanny, tin-canny tune: gling and ting, KABOOM and kerpow, dzziitt, shh sh, tsk tsk. Gizzis tactile, forensic rhetoric returns language to its material state, simultaneously verging on erratic melody. His impudent, inventive, eye-level expressions whistle a dixie cup and pixie dusk, helix and the pixel hour, gimp and gimbal, dumbfuck and fuckbook, here a dumpster / there a Dane, dirt-shimmied, widdershin, The body / and its brightwork, its willy-nilly hurdles and vaults, oompahs and muzak, do its shtick and solo ingle, funny ha-ha, lumen chatter, hahahaha, huh. Though much of Gizzis poetry worries that our lives have fissured internally while likewise separating from exterior wholes, he also wonders whether music were a condition / of all our endeavor here. Songa word that appears frequently and unabashedly in this volumeis held out and held up as a possible, upright mode of coherence.
In this hope for harmony, Gizzi regularly exploits the initiating, eidetic construction There is . . . as a strategy for trying to settle within the world by first setting down its neutral presence. He does not, he asserts, want to compose a still life into which artifice may enter, but rather to describe the valves / and cordage. Beyond underscoring his preoccupation with naturalindustrial tensions, the terms Gizzi uses to depict these competing, potentially colluding aesthetic tactics index his tendency toward not ideas about living but the thing of living itself. Death, dust, and dream circulate throughout the volume, but Gizzi will finally not relinquish life, this pageant that demands too much. He sees existence as going on your nerve, as Frank OHara put it, while being prepared, in Emily Dickinsons rubric of contingency, to go above the nerve. The besidedness to live / on Saturday is often arduous and unnerving, but it means, too, the compensatory variety of children in clumsy jackets, the myth of Cinderella and the memory of Jeanne dArc, a revelation of belle lumière at 8PM, having roamed for 7 hrs on yr name day. Astonished by what he calls the witless parable of waking, ever laboring to rescue / real time, Gizzi stakes his claim on the tangible, temporal, emotive side of leaf, zipper, sparrow, lintel, scarf, window shade, as well as on those values, especially liberty and the pursuit of whatnot, that reveal the titular Some of what we are while resisting our sum.
The fantasy of totality is foiled by plural
depth, and the rival demands placed on ourselves should,
whether leveled from outside or by ourselves, be acknowledged.
Its good to not break in America, Gizzi admits
in his Revival for the late Gregory Corso, praising
elsewhere what might finally break us, and that is good.
According to Some Values of Landscape and Weather, we
live generic yet singular, isolated yet shared lives that, though
insufficient, somehow suffice nonetheless. That our days and nights
constitute a fractured, finite, unfinished narrative running upon
a time / and goes like this is not a new insight. Gizzi
offers unique reasons, however, for putting the questions life
poses into that other form of questioning known as the poem. Because
beauty walks this world. Because the earth is
porous and we fall constantly. Because every thing
is poetry here, and poetry can catch you in the headlights.
the co-editor of Verse, is the author of Anabranch
and By Reason of Breakings.
Originally published in the summer
2004 issue of Boston Review.