Gravity and Fire
May 1, 2007
May 1, 2007
12 Min read time
Wesleyan, $22.95 (cloth)
On August 7, 1959, at 10:23 in the morning, a rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Stowed in its hold was an object the size of a medicine ball called Explorer VI. Part of a new generation of NASA satellites, Explorer VI was packed with scientific instruments designed to test the viability of deep-space communication and measure the energy of atomic particles trapped in radiation belts. It was also outfitted with four 20-inch by 20-inch solar panels, NASA’s most complex effort yet to supply a satellite with energy from sunlight. But there was a problem. Only three of the panels fully extended when Explorer VI entered Earth’s orbit; the malfunction diminished the power supply, which in turn amplified the amount of noise in data produced by various instruments. Nevertheless, on August 14, as Explorer VI cruised over Mexico, it transmitted a snowy television image of the north-central regions of the Pacific Ocean, the first such picture of Earth. Seven weeks later its signal died.
By chance, the poet Peter Gizzi was delivered into the world the day that Explorer VI escaped its gravitational pull, and during his 34th year he had occasion to remark on the impact of the satellite’s brief life on his sense of existence. In the foreword to the 1993 double issue of o-blek, the literary magazine he founded with Connell McGrath in 1987, Gizzi wrote, “We are the generation of artists that grew up with a photograph of the earth tacked to our walls. When that first image of the earth was sent back in 1959 our conception of this place was changed materially. No longer was it to be a world so defined by our ancestors; in that swift shutter and swift transmission it became worlds, peoples, and languages. All boundaries or clear definitions of identity are eroded, active and blurred.”
The epic scope of Gizzi’s remarks resonated with the o-blek double issue, titled “Writing from the New Coast,” which had been assembled to do nothing less than define a new generation of young poets, but it sounded out of tune with Gizzi’s own poems. The previous year Gizzi had published Music for Films, a chapbook of 109 very short, untitled poems keyed to the material particulars of daily life: “a simple fabric drapes / and cleaves”; “and green mixes in / mixes / into all / colors belonging // to breath // for there is earth / inside / and to dig // as the day transpires.” How could Gizzi talk in o-blek of undertaking “enormous reconstructions of times and places” yet in his poetry depict time and place on such a minuscule scale?
One answer lies in Periplum, Gizzi’s first book, also published a year earlier. The word “periplum” was coined by Ezra Pound in The Cantos, and it means a journey navigated by the stars. The Cantos is itself a vexed epic journey, yet one from which Gizzi drew an invaluable lesson. In “Song of an Acute Angle,” from Periplum, he writes, “The insect negotiates / a grass blade // where breath is // an eyelid / turning to meet / me turning away,” lines that recast Pound’s words of penitence in The Pisan Cantos: “When the mind swings by a grass-blade / an ant’s forefoot shall save you.” As Gizzi explained in o-blek, he wants poetry to aspire to the impossible task of constructing “a single world with shared aspirations, sensibilities and imagination,” yet he undertakes that great task with humility, which is why he judiciously cultivates a small scale in Periplum and Music for Films. “Still // satellites orbiting the earth / track a true arc,” he writes in the title poem of Periplum, “but perhaps too grand / for everyday distances.”
The everyday distances in Gizzi’s new book, The Outernationale, are ones that have always been his terrain: those between word and world, self and word, self and world. And, as in his other books, while Gizzi laments the existence of those distances, he doubts it is possible to crystallize a moment in which they temporarily vanish. His alternative is to send across those distances fleeting messages about the joy, anguish, and bewilderment of living within them. “If I forget my notebook / if these gaps I feel are also the gaps / I am built inside, thinking it’s all good,” he writes in “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me,” the delicately insistent opening poem of The Outernationale. “A Panic” extends the groove of anaphora Gizzi laid down in “Château If,” in his previous book Some Values of Landscape and Weather, while also dramatizing the heart and mind working to find what will suffice in a world that does not allow one to languish in satisfaction, certainty, or self-pity. But what distinguishes The Outernationale from Gizzi’s other books, and makes it his most harrowing and tender volume to date, is how extensively Gizzi explores the source of life’s most insoluble gaps—the passage of time.
Gizzi has worked hard to develop a vocabulary to explore the many facets of his anguished fascination with time. In his second book, Artificial Heart, he mentions such signs of change over time as erosion, evaporation, and decomposition, but without fleshing them out. In “Revival,” an elegy for Gregory Corso in Some Values, he frets about technological innovation creating a sense of accelerated history that deadens culture, but he also wonders if that unbinding can sometimes be a balm:
to embellish the holes in my sonnet,
no tracks leading beyond and back,
no more retrograde song cycle tatting air.
These parts wobble, stitching frames
to improvise a document:
all this American life. Strike that.
All our life, all our American lives gathered
into an anthem we thought to rescue us,
over and out. On your way, dust.
What’s different in The Outernationale is that Gizzi is less preoccupied with measuring time than with rendering its deep material dimensions and their impact on the senses. “If the sun throbs like a drum / every five minutes // what can we do with this // the 100,000 years it takes a photon / to reach the surface of the sun // eight minutes to hit our eyes,” he wonders in “A Panic.” Elsewhere, in “Human Memory Is Organic,” Gizzi mulls matter more dense:
We know time is a wave.
You can see it in gneiss, migmatic
or otherwise, everything crumbles.
That’s the message frozen in old stone.
Don’t despair: Gizzi wants “to correspond, to be in equanimity with organic stuff,” as he writes in “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures.” He wants to make a home for the imagination within the ceaseless changes and corruptions of time without cheaply aestheticizing them or feeling petrified by them. Crumbling gneiss anchors Gizzi’s sense of nostos.
“Invisible, the orchard keeper’s mansion / is everywhere. The heart becomes one, last stone / of an existing grove and a squatter’s earth,” Gizzi writes in “New Picnic Time” in Artificial Heart. The figure of a “squatter’s earth” reappears in The Outernationale, but scrubbed of its Thoreauvian shimmer: “if bound by the most ignoble cords / if squatting in time,” Gizzi writes in “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me.” “Squatting in time” is an arresting metaphor for life itself, but it also evokes a specific manner of living, a sort of punk pastoral: hunkering down in an abandoned or condemned space and salvaging it by repurposing stuff left behind by others. In its way, The Outernationale is a rambling squat, furnished with faint echoes of poems by Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Spicer, Oppen, Niedecker, Homer, Pliny the Elder, and Duncan, among others.
Gizzi’s longing to squat within time’s dimensions culminates in “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures,” the centerpiece of the book. Composed of 14 11-line stanzas, the poem tracks Gizzi’s responses to the recurring figures and techniques of Van Gogh’s paintings, especially their synesthesia and rendering of light and darkness: “The darkness bears a shine as yet unpunished by clarity / but perhaps a depth that outshines clarity and is true.” In stanza eight the poem takes a dramatic turn, repeating the preceding seven stanzas in reverse and turning into a palindrome. Gizzi has done something like this before: in “Beginning With a Phrase from Simone Weil,” in Some Values, he recycled over the course of the poem’s four stanzas phrases and images introduced in its first stanza. The recursiveness of “Vincent” is equally dynamic, with the poem rippling outward while spiraling inward. In stanza five Gizzi notes his longing to be immersed in something larger than himself: “To step into it as into a large surf in late August / to go out underneath it all above and sparkling.” He’s done exactly that in this poem, which unfolds “Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up / Its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape,” to borrow an image from John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
Like “Revival” and “Etudes, Evidence, or the Workings of the Sun Gear,” the two long poems of Some Values, “Vincent” dramatizes a severe complex of loss and gain. Its hard bargain is that a sense of loss or failure may revive the imagination’s hope of beginning again. Yet despite its lush music and design, “Vincent” sounds different from “Revival” and “Etudes”: it’s muted, lacking their bravado. What’s changed isn’t Gizzi’s prosody. As in his previous books, the poems of The Outernationale gently insist on the vividness of their life as poems as much as on the vividness of their glimpses of life. They are inventive without being inscrutable, gorgeous without being gaudy, and they sustain their equipoise through tight and vivid diction. Listen to the opening lines of “I Wanted the Screen Door of Summer”: “Opening sounds of blackbirds everywhere / everywhere in the day lost in sun // opening the screen door of summer / a blackbird glitter in afternoon haze // all day long riding a fiddle head / in Mahler excess calling thither.”
What’s absent from The Outernationale is the giddiness that quickens Some Values, and I think what accounts for the difference is that Gizzi’s meditations on time are now haunted by the unnatural deaths of war. Of course, The Outernationale doesn’t announce itself as a war book, and Gizzi’s reluctance to do so is understandable since no subject presents greater risks for a lyric poet. As a shepherd in Virgil’s ninth eclogue asks, “What can music do / Against the weapons of soldiers?” In a paper he presented at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in March 2004, Gizzi confessed to feeling similarly perplexed: “In the face of current events, I find myself caught between the seeming irrelevance of what I do and an insistence that what I do has value.” In fact, as Gizzi explained to Aaron Kunin in 2003, the working manuscript of Some Values had featured as its epigraph a line culled from Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead: “There were times when my hands moved with a speed and skill beyond me.” These words are spoken by a paramedic who botches a tracheal intubation. Gizzi decided to drop the epigraph because he feared that it could lead readers to misconstrue his book, most of which was written before September 2001, as a response to the carnage of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.
In The Outernationale Gizzi confronts war indirectly, most notably in the third of the book’s four sections. The Iliad begins with Achilles’ rage at being robbed of a woman he deems his rightful prize. “Homer’s Anger,” which opens section three of The Outernationale, begins with Gizzi imagining Homer’s fury with us: “Real things inside me he said. / You’ve gotten it all wrong.” The country is at war, which for Gizzi means that Homer’s vision of war—a no-win situation in which those who plot it betray those who fight it—has been ignored, his portrayal of a cult of death mistaken for a glorification of battlefield heroes. Given this climate of error and betrayal, Gizzi asks, how might he mourn without exploiting death for poetic gain or compromising the terms of his art? How, he wonders in “Fretless,” “To say my age, blown / as vapor on the glass / evaporating, reflected”?
Something like that happens in “On What Became of Matthew Brady’s Battle Photographs”:
Sunlight and plant light
glass and stain
the campaign the conflict
the dead frozen in air
the sun and the sweat
the swell of fetid flesh
Among the Civil War battlefields that Brady’s team of assistants photographed was Antietam, where nearly 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in 12 hours of combat. Brady went bankrupt from making battlefield photos; to recoup his losses after the war, his glass negatives were sold wholesale to farmers to build greenhouses.
the heat of loss
the nerves burn
and the shock
of never returning burns
in the belly
and the brain alike
What has returned is the spirit of Scorsese’s failed paramedic, engaged in a resuscitation effort with a salvaged 19th-century solar panel that blurs the boundaries between wars past and present, the fear of death and the metamorphoses of organic life. Like the Van Gogh paintings that prompt Gizzi’s meditations in “Vincent,” the poem also brushes against “that nothing at the center of something alive and burning / though nothing might be the final and actual expression of it.” Gizzi stresses his own sense of expressive limits in “Protest Song,” which follows “On What Became of Mathew Brady’s Battle Photographs”: “This is not a declaration of love or song of war / not a tractate, autonym, or apologia // This won’t help when the children are dying / no answer on the way to dust.” That last line is noteworthy because it echoes the final phrase of “Revival”—“On your way, dust”—but as lament instead of rebuke.
Gizzi’s self-scrutiny doesn’t derail his search for consolation in a world where everything crumbles and turns to dust. Instead, it makes the search, and the need to shape it into song and story, all the more vital. In the concluding lines of “The Outernationale,” he writes:
Throw back your head
to the milky tears.
All types and shapes
of silent night.
Here the crab, the bear,
the dipper, the wheel
and the little tightnesses
that keep us wanting.
The wanting that keeps us
looking hard into the dark.
The dark we hope to unpack
and move into
that one day
we might find ourselves lit up.
For Gizzi, the material world may render all systems of belief and meaning ephemeral, yet the power of gneiss in a hillside or stars in the sky to suggest a way of grasping “the noise in back of things / its deep seeding,” as he writes in “Beacon,” will never diminish—even during times of war. The Outernationale is a remarkable book: in poem after poem, nerve flares into shimmering gauze. And while Gizzi knows his poems are parts of a world that is inhospitable to them, those poems remain, like the image of Earth beamed back by Explorer VI, no less beautiful and beguiling for being so. ”
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May 01, 2007
12 Min read time