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Peter Riley reviews
Some Values of Landscape and Weather, by Peter Gizzi.

Wesleyan University Press 2003
This piece was First published in PN Review no. 158 (Volume 30 no.6), July-August 2004.
It is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

This book contains at least a dozen poems of outstanding achievement, in some of which the poet seems to depart from the kind of poetry he nurtures in the greater part of his work. They seem to represent a bursting out, possibly in impatience, from both the complexity and the constrictions of the current American poetical idiolect. They are simpler, clearer, and of larger breath. This shift is all the more interesting since Peter Gizzi has achieved so much without it, and has already established a territory of his own which quite transcends the university-ridden expectations of the American scene. It is a territory of paradox

Paradox asks so much from us
we often experience it as grace. (p.94)

in which the familiar and the strange become co-present. They become, at times, the same thing. You could pause at many points and find that you know where you are and what’s happening, and at the same time you know neither; this is a real human voice speaking to you, and this is an artificial non-voice addressing no one; the words are grounded on a known world, and the words are isolated in their own enigmas. The poetry runs, a skateboard on a ridge, between these hollows, veering now this way now that. The dominant sense is of a discourse, an address, in which individual experience is so deeply embedded that objective and subjective perception are indistinguishable. The strength of word and image lies in a coherence among known and mysterious (or safe and risked) usage which is an exploration of the world through language, pushing the reader constantly from one place or level to another, forming imaginative connections between disparate entities. The poetry moves through these possibilities smoothly, confidently, and above all passionately.

For it is not a balancing act, it is not a managerial steering course. You do not achieve this kind of textuality by holding back from extremes; you achieve it by going hell-for-leather for what you believe in: balance is achieved through impetus. What is believed in is poetry itself and its fidelity to the real. The poetry begins from poetry — a lot of the first lines, the entry to the poem, have a familiar ring, welcoming us to a theatre we think we know, as by half-quotes which we may or may not recognise.

In the middle of our lives we walked... (p.20)
Sometimes I am so far from myself... (p.36)
Spider webs are scarier... (p.44)

But the poem never stays in these places. Take these for the first two lines of a poem:

Many days since this letter, I want to report
I have seen the seeds outside my factory open (p.65)

We begin in a safe epistolary mode. Perhaps it could be by Roy Fuller. Without violence we are transported immediately to somewhere quite different, richly suggestive of a redemption beyond the scope of poised address. (This is from the sequence “Masters of the Cante Jondo” which is probably the finest achievement of the book). At other times the beginning may occupy a zone of high apocalypse:

When the sky came down
there was wind, water, red (p.13)

which it also will not remain with, but end with a token of personal trust.

There could be many ways of indicating the features of this successful poetical texture, which keeps the poems running as discourses, lyrics, quests, passionate outburst and sharp witty jibes all at the same time: the freedom of immediate, word to word, transition between abstract and circumstantial; the teasing out of widespread verbal values clutched in the tension of a constant music; the grounding of all the poems on individual experiences or knowledge (the story surrounding the lyric), frequently threatening, which it is not quite our business to be told... It is probably also important that the temptation to despair in an alienated political climate, an important justification for much experimental poetry, is set aside with no more than a somewhat grim shrug —

A Lockheed Galaxy rattles our sills
through cloud cover.
They are preparing for war again. (p.36)

From time to time through the book we are reminded, sometimes very gently, that what we hear is a ghost voice, a voice from the dead —

I am on the other side now (p.6)
I think of you more often now I’m dead (p.18)
Winter’s the thing / I miss (p.38)
I remember, in the cool of shade / my body (p.94)

Gizzi has studied Jack Spicer, but side-stepped his aggression. The ghost voice is of course an artifice, a figure of the poetical voice itself, involved and not involved in the world, freed from singular rational discourse but bound by memory and affection to the world it loses. Its distance is a way of reaching the “values” of the title, which are more than what may be gained from landscape and weather (both terms subject to figurisation — there is actually very little pastoral imagery in the book). They are also sheer properties, numinous totalities which it is the business of poetry to intuit in the interaction of experience and knowledge, and in mutual apprehension of the forms of the world, from galaxies to the shapes of individual letters — the harmonies between them. It is a quest for a basis to human continuance, a reason to be glad and hopeful here in spite of what threatens us and our values. So it is an art of peace, as the clouds later “blush” at what they are made to hide.

And what of the “different” poems? They are not different; they enfold the same purpose and the same rich verbal tensions. But it is as if this texture, so heavily informed by poets such as Stevens and Spicer, were suddenly subject to a whiff of Whitman, with chant-like repetitive structures and/ or a sudden plainness. They do break out of the “lyric” tensions which dominate the writing, into something more like psalmody —

Some say the birds overhead are a calligraphy: every child learning the words “home”
some say that the land and the language are the father
some say the land is not ours
some say in time we’ll rise to meet it... (p.89)

This passionate hesitance is surely the best thing America could do with its deeply ambiguous presence in the world.

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