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Rob Stanton reviews
A panic that can still come upon me
by Peter Gizzi
40pp. Ugly Duckling Presse. US$5. 193325419X paper

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Rob Stanton and Jacket magazine 2007.


paragraph 1

‘If’ appears to be Peter Gizzi’s favourite word. He uses it repeatedly in his poems to invoke an ideal state, somewhere nearby in which poet, reader and world would be in perfect alignment, meaning would become transparent and true communication could take place: ‘I wanted to go to it: if leaf beauty, / if cloud beauty, if ideas of relation.’ In his last full volume, the much and deservedly acclaimed Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan, 2003), many sightings of ‘if’ clauses culminated in the poem ‘Château If’, in which the qualifications just piled up:


If love if then if now if the flowers of if the conditional if of arrows the
condition of if
if to say light to inhabit light if to speak if to live, so
if to say it is you if love is if your form is if your waist that pictures the
fluted stem if lavender


Gizzi’s new poem-sequence, A panic that can still come upon me, handsomely produced by Ugly Duckling Presse, similarly uses ‘if’ as a structural device, whilst striking out for further resolution.


Post-Spicer, Post-Ashbery, Post-Language, Peter Gizzi finds the lyric ‘I’ confused, vulnerable, but still alive and breathing hard. His quest is self-conscious: Some Values of Landscape and Weather, with its keys sequences ‘A History of the Lyric’, ‘Masters of the Cante Jondo’ and ‘Fin Amor’, took the ‘deep song’ and troubadour traditions for an extended spin, looking far back at the roots and sources of the ‘lyric’ in an attempt to project that ‘I’ far into the future. At one point, Gizzi wanted to call the volume In Song & Story, a telling title (and tellingly set aside for something more suggestive and expansive). A panic that can still come upon me builds on Gizzi’s past experiments and successes in the long poem form, and mixes in an added urgency, part personal and part political. This is not entirely new – there are hints and dark notes everywhere in his work gesturing at a wider context (along with such titles as ‘To his wife far off in a time of war’) – but it deepens here at the same time as furthering that lyrical adventure. This is no small achievement.


It starts, again, with ‘ifs’:


If today and today I am calling aloud

If I break into pieces of glitter on asphalt
bits of sun, the din

if tires whine on wet pavement
everything humming

If we find we are still in motion
and have arrived in Zeno’s thought, like

if sunshine hits marble and the sea lights up
we might know we were loved, are loved
if flames and harvest, the enchanted plain


Irresolution grows as each new clause fails to resolve into a complete sentence. The reader’s sense of ‘calling aloud’ fluctuates from confident proclamation to cry for help. This is the hesitation caught in the poem’s emphatically lower case title: ‘panic’ is an external agent working ‘upon’ the speaker, although, as ‘still’ tells us, perhaps less often than it used to. The inference is that things are better than they were, but still far from perfect. Much of this discontent stems from troubling hints of recent international horrors:


If our loves are anointed with missiles
Apache fire, Tomahawks
did we follow the tablets the pilgrims suggested


if children, soldiers, children
taken down in school

if burning fuel


Note how, by highlighting those already-bastardised Native American terms and mentioning ‘pilgrims’, Gizzi quietly suggests that violence and appropriation are an intrinsic dark part of America’s heritage. Other concerns, however, are more metaphysical:


If problems of identity confound sages,
derelict philosophers, administrators
who can say I am found


Also added to the mix are the problems of writing itself:


If we ask that every song touch its origin
just once and the years engulfed


Too bad for you, beautiful singer
unadorned by laurel
child of thunder and scapegoat alike


So the poet too is caught between possibilities, extremes of prophecy (‘thunder’) and derision (‘scapegoat’), ‘beautiful’ yet unappreciated. Social problems, political problems and aesthetic problems are thus weaved together in a sequence that is constantly threatening to ‘break into pieces of glitter’ that veer from the noisy (‘the din’) to the illuminating (‘bits of sun’). And what would happen should all those conditionals be fulfilled? An unclouded Utopia would arise, presumably. That this is impossible is what gives the passage its considerable power and pathos.


And it is precisely this power and pathos that are the greatest danger facing Gizzi’s ongoing development as a poet. So skilled is he in generating this kind of crepuscular atmosphere of doubt, hesitation and vacillation that it could easily become an end in itself, a manner to be reproduced in poem after poem almost without thought. Perhaps all lyric, centred on a single, fallible perceiving self risks lapsing into evocative aphasia and aphoria in this way, as though Wallace Steven made a career re-writing ‘The Snow Man’ a thousand times, instead of moving on to his extended inventions of a ‘supreme fiction’ to counter that poem’s ‘nothing’. The poet may ‘affirmeth nothing’ but eventually he or she will have to stand for something. Gizzi is ultra-aware of this solipsistic possibility, however – it may be the motivation behind the new proliferation of lyric sequences in Some Values of Landscape and Weather – an attempt, in Yeats’ terms, to ‘[h]ammer [his] thought into unity’. The first section of A panic that can still come upon me ends with a warning shot: ‘If exit is merely a sign’, as though it knows that escape may only be an illusion.


It is not surprising, then, to find the poem’s second section attempting something more uplifting:


I can read the narrow line above the hills

The day unbraids its pretty light
and I am here to see it

This must be all there is
right now in the world


Seeing and reading what is here may be enough, but there is an uneasy air of capitulation and resigned quietude to this section too:


There are things larger than understanding

things we know cannot
be held in the mind


A comparison of the ‘100,000 years it takes a photon / to reach the surface of the sun’ with the ‘eight minutes [it takes] to hit our eye’ makes such individual knowledge and perception look pretty small.


In this light, it seems inevitable that ‘if’ makes an aggressive comeback in section three. Things seem to have improved a little though, with the appearance of an addressee, ‘you’, and a collective first person:


If today and today I am speaking to you, or
if you/I whisper, touch, explain

if they/you hate those phases
if we struggle to get to the thing
the body and the other noises


(Gizzi has his masters, whom he deals with bracingly by ‘sampling’ them directly: here, it is John Ashbery’s lovely lyric ‘Some Trees’ that is near-cited in order to evoke its promise of easy, natural intimacy and communication.) The struggles that I, you, we, they go though in this section are markedly less grim than those in section one, more susceptible to alleviation by humour and verse-music:


if everyday strife, everyday sprecenze
if everyday uh

is this what my body says
my buddy said


The fourth section makes sense of the poem’s constant references to ‘what my body says’. It is formally more coherent than its predecessors, consisting of three tight stanzas, and this coherence seems mimetic of its fruitful confusion of mind, body and landscape:


A branch and the scent of pine in summer
the bridge and the water in the creek
the stones and the sound of water
the creek and my body
when hair and water flowed over me


The speaker appears to have transcended ‘life’ – by dying perhaps, although perhaps merely through a heightened sense of awareness and involvement – but this collapse of interior and exterior is in no way threatening. In fact, it is so relaxed that the reader almost doesn’t notice that the second stanza begins again with an ‘if’, perhaps because the resolution of the condition evoked – ‘If I am a bridge I am standing on, thinking, / saying goodbye to myself’ – seems to matter so little that it actually adds to the feeling of release, rather than – as in previous sections – ratchetting up the tension.


By now it dawns on the reader that the poem’s progress has been roughly dialectical, with the fears and confrontations of sections one and three balanced to some degree by the more positive affirmations of sections two and four. Section five thus has its work cut out synthesising these extremities into a satisfying finale:


So the vocalise day imprinted a sound

I’m not stupid
I too unwind in the most circuitous fashion
I undress water directly


The first line here picks up on the beatific interlude of section four, externalising the ‘calling aloud’ that opened the poem so that it becomes no longer I’s responsibility but a characteristic of the ‘vocalise day’. The next three lines echo Whitman, that grandmaster of emphatic pathetic fallacy, although in a somewhat anaemic, denuded fashion – perhaps all that is available in these less than effusive times. It may just be the design of this Ugly Duckling edition, which capitalises the opening word of each section, but ‘SO’ here rings out with the promise of conclusion and resolution after ‘IF’, ‘IT’, ‘IF’ and ‘A’. Resolution comes, tying together an acceptance of appearance somehow both Platonic and everyday (‘If the answer becomes sun / then sun inside, normal things, okay’), a gentle-yet-firm rejection of nationalistic militarism (‘the ribbon above our heads is not a banner’) and a final dispelling of doubts over poetic calling (‘If I wanted to go all over a word / and live inside its name, so be it’). We are given both grand statements – ‘indeed, symphonic dailiness is felt order’ – and wry self-acceptance: ‘why shouldn’t I come in from the cold’. Why indeed?


The poem ends with positive intimations of a shipwreck as a test of experience, rather as in Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, and a final intersecting of thought and reality:


There is my body and the idea of my body
the surf breaking and the picture of a wave


This is a tentatively cheering conclusion, the parallel construction suggesting that ‘the idea of my body’ has as much tangible reality as the created image of a wave, while the picture has made actual and perceivable and, thus, real the artist’s idea of the wave. The world, self and the self’s perception and projection of the world have an equal, balanced existence. ‘There is’ is a final affirmation of essential quiddity in the face of the poem’s many ‘ifs’.


Gizzi’s second volume, Artifical Heart (Burning Deck, 1998) marked a huge jump in intensity and skill after his debut, Periplum (Avec Books, 1992, recently republished with added extras by Salt), and Some Values of Landscape and Weather comfortably trumped them both, announcing the arrival of a master craftsman who was also ceaselessly probing and daring. If A panic that can still come upon me doesn’t quite represent another quantum leap forward from that, its confident ambition and mature desire to say something beyond fragmentation make it a clear consolidation of Gizzi’s achievement to date. Gizzi is, in short, too thoughtful and questioning to become a mere stylist: forthcoming volume, The Outernationale, will show in greater detail how far and where this has taken him. Lyric may have become an odd venture, even a dishonest and questionable one (‘if no one believes what I see’), but, as Gizzi everywhere intimates, its pulse lives on, needs to live on (‘If behind the grail and new elm / the pink light saying welcome earthling’), even if it beat with an artificial heart.

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