Poetry in Motion
June 1, 2004
Jun 1, 2004
9 Min read time
Some Values of Landscape and Weather
Wesleyan University Press, $13.95 (paper)
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 artist’s asymptotic—indeed impossible—endeavor 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 auto’s “elastic motion,” unlike the locomotive’s scheduled linearity, meant the gamble of getting lost and being late. The car did not merely symbolize or engender disorientation—it 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 Proust’s 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, Gizzi’s 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 volume’s first sequence (“A History of the Lyric”) finds us “in the lanes, hugging a shoulder,” and across the book’s five divisions we encounter “a friend getting into her car,” “a transmission’s 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, Gizzi’s 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 Gizzi’s 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 Gizzi’s writing is automatic, let alone standard, any more than it is to claim the car is a hermeneutical key to his imagination’s ignition. It is to note, however, that his poems are propelled by dynamics of resistance and repetition endemic to all motors—every poem, William Carlos Williams said, is a machine made of words, whose “intimate form” gives language its “highest dignity”—and that Gizzi, a studiously reckless driver, possesses “an avant-garde / a backward glance.”
The volume’s 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, Dumont’s or king’s / or starch, powder, Antwerp or Haarlem / or mineral, robin’s 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 Stevens’s “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, Gizzi’s 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).
“What’s so wrong about the real, / so off with clarity,” he wonders in “Lessons in Darkness,” anxious that Jean Baudrillard’s 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 that’s 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-sestina’s 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. Gizzi’s 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 Malebranche’s disquieting assertion that, rather than lead us into foreign lands, he will show us we are estranged within our own. Truth in Gizzi’s 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 andting, KABOOM and kerpow, dzziitt, shh sh, tsk tsk. Gizzi’s 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 Gizzi’s 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.” Song—a word that appears frequently and unabashedly in this volume—is 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 natural–industrial 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 O’Hara put it, while being prepared, in Emily Dickinson’s 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 d’Arc, 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. “It’s 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.”
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June 01, 2004
9 Min read time