Absolute Difference: Peter Gizzi's Threshold Songs
(Wesleyan University Press, 2011)
And getting it
Peter Gizzi's fifth full-length collection of poems, Threshold Songs, explores an edge-sheened shadowscape inhabited by undersongs and voice overs, in which one thing is always passing into another, passing for something it's not, and ultimately passing away. Within this twilit and twittering headspace, we hear an echolalia of the everyday--the gnarl and guff, the pop and whizz--that allows us to triangulate a proximal locus through inner sonar and outward soundings. The call-and-response of these poems seems to register the humdrum of a mental static: "I wonder if / you hear me / I mean I talk / to myself through you" (1) the book's first poem declares. The poems are elegiac callings to the dead, who yet are "everyway alive" (41) as the grain of a dissonant voice within oneself, even as each self is composed (and decomposed) of others. The "you" is also the "I"; the addressee is likewise the speaker, both personal and impersonal, anonymous reader and intimate loved one, and all have been implicated in underwriting the text's overtones. Singed and singing, through the live wire of these poems the dead are quickened and the distant made close.
The book is dedicated to three guiding spirits, "called back": Gizzi's mother, close friend and artist Robert Seydel, and his brother Michael, also a poet, all of whom died in quick succession. Such is the brain-enfolded darkness, the wave-pulsed electric storm, wherein "you ride the current with your head . . . birdsong caught in the inner ear" (47). The voices in this collection are thrown in an effort to delay the "thrownness" of the world. "And where does / the voice / come from?" Gizzi asks (84). The voices here seem to arise from subliminal babble, posthumous murmurs, or unconscious articulations of thought that shape one's breathing: they are deeply private yet simultaneously public and historical since for Gizzi the lyric self is conducted by voices from the past, whether companions known personally or absorbed from the literary tradition. The air--the airs--the arias--tremble with outbreaks of leavening light, each moonwashed or laceworked silhouette put in relief by a sudden, unexpected flash of insight or resemblance backdropped by a vacancy of weather, history's windswept cloud-puzzles riddled or rizzled away where their boundaries have become obscured.
The lines between things are always frangible, always breaking down, even as the syntactically fragmented poetic lines themselves display a surprising tensile strength: "this line from cloud dander to the solo bulb of morning, a string through common prayer. . .when the grey-green shadows suddenly dayglo over the rushes" (53). Intransigent, rush-hour bleepings and the ubiquitous mizzle of gizmo-bots constitute the noise of these poems, their dawdle and dander, amid a setting where a dingy bulb may substitute for the sun inside a giant big box store--or the black box of one's own thoughts. Nonetheless for being evermore littered with sonic fuzz, the poems manage to find loopholes in our feedback loops. Gizzi writes on a flattened, pitchy frequency where the self is lost within its environment, identities bleed into their context, meanings dissipate to signs, signs to things, things to mirage, mirage to the self again, which has already faded to a tremulous, atramentous memory; though, of course, memory is nothing, except a dim "archival light," (15) a fritter to shuffle and fray amid this orphic "gaslit underworld" (72).
Yet, that "string of common prayer" provides one noiseless patient spider's thread, a strand in a textual network, a rosary, or perhaps just the connection of some tin-can telephone: prayer acts as a binding force despite--or even because of--the fact that it's never answered. It provides a belated asymptote toward which we can direct and voice our immortal desires as well as an event horizon beyond which there is no enlightenment or knowing. Since "the space inside is vast," (9) prayers boomerang--just as "all time is booming," (21) at once big bang and apocalypse--among the vaults of the head's cathedral. Gizzi sends such mumbled devotions toward the deceased (of which god is merely one) as "if [he] had a prayer," (23) but they ricochet back as what Emerson famously deemed "our own rejected thoughts," haunting us with their alienated grandeur. Thus amplified, the subvocalized chatter we daily shush shines out and "errs forth" (44). The hype and static of these disparate voices finally redounds to form a hypostasis of different persons united in one, a chorus within the solitary singer.
In issuing his hopes outwardly only to have them reverb back in interference patterns, Gizzi may believe that communication is not possible, but that we still have an imperative to act as if it were. The most critical of us inevitably have a will to "misunderstand, to fail at empathy and love, to not understand love and to love, to be diseverything and to love" (55). The very hope we want to communicate is its own motivation for us to continue voicing it, even if we have no other place to whisper our secret hopes except the void. In the last words of his "apocryphal" will, Gizzi writes: "To mercy I leave whatever," (55) an acknowledgement that any exchange requires an interlocutor's mercy to translate its cipher, and so the work of inheritance will always be to make what's given one's own. Through such convolutions and turnings we may have recourse to a "homing" (47), where we find our place--by resisting our groundwork and thereby creating a dwelling--in some larger tradition, some relayed handing-on that is yet not ready-to-hand.
But on a more homey if unheimlich level, we're trapped inside a bubble, a snow globe in fact, watching the "snow channel, and it's snowing" (11), with "this again, the emptied anthem, dusty antlers, pilsner flattened" (9). The beer isn't the only thing that's flat in these poems. The language affects the monochromatic compression of the cubists, fracturing and flattening its space in order to reveal jarring juxtapositions. It is filled with vague "something's" and "whatever's," phrases that float about with little demonstrable significance. The flat, at times almost flatulent, style, however, allows the dull background to stand out. The flat lines take us near the bone, and thus vivify us. The most fleeting, far-gone impressions can be disclosed amid a heightened sensitivity to our thresholds of experience. If occasionally these tone poems feel like a symphony for dog-whistles, our ears eventually adjust to the gradations and each thought seems dogged by its shadow. In this sense, a more apt visual analog for Gizzi's work might be James Turrell's installation Pleiades wherein one must wait in a darkened room for over twenty minutes, starring at an amorphous, nearly imperceptible light-source. The payoff, however, occurs when the retinas accommodate to the minimal illumination, and one glimpses a shared hallucination: an uncertain, disembodied presence of glimmer hovering in the half-glow.
Existence is inexact. Gizzi offers us the ghosts of trace elements and electron skirmishes as they pingback and play out in the nether-regions of consciousness. He tells us to "bring all you got," (73) and gives us in return a "blowtorch grammar's / unconquered flame" at "full bore" (11). The bore, though, is both boredom and a hole--the boring holes persisting through which we have breakdowns and coming out of which we have breakthroughs. Gizzi writes: "The house is covered in fresh snowfall, lovely / in reflected mercury light"(13). The light bounces off a distant origin as silver-tinted, changeful, and thieving, appearing in a wash of nostalgia. But we're confused how to gloss these stolen moments and furthermore unsure whether they have been stolen by us or from us. Gizzi continues: "Where is my head / in this data? All this / indexical nomenclature. It's not reassuring to know/ the names tonight, lousy and grigri and non"(13). Nothing is left to point to, and the past one wants to reference has disintegrated in a blizzard of data point: tattered papers, momentoes, and charms. There is no going home again; or, rather, home becomes simply the snow-globe one has made inside one's skull, with its unsettled boneyard radiance.
My favorite individual poem in the collection is probably "Oversong," with its litany of encroaching darkness, part of which reads:
To be dark, to darken
to obscure, shade, dim . . .
to dusk, extinguish
to put out, blow out
to exit, veil, shroud,
to murk, cloud, to jet . . .
vestral, twilit, sooty, blae . . . (64-65).
The poem allows the words themselves to suggest various shades of mortality while also hinting at how language itself is haunted, eclipsed, and obfuscatory. The simple accumulative power of the list reminds me of Anne Carson's Nox, another deeply elegiac work that took on the historiography of personal memory in terms of the multiplicity inherent in any system that attempts to hold memories in place. Alphabets, as surely as mountains, keep moving, and the past is subject to the discandied, twitching, luculent, and zeroing lexicon. The white vestries have become soot-begrimed at this eventide of history whereas "blae" even suggests a sky burial in which the grey-gloom flyover of cloud-cover itself has been transfigured into a coffin's lid. But "it's not morbid / to think this way / to see things in time" (15) Gizzi frankly affirms in another of my favorite poems, "Analemma." One can only think in time, and to think about time is only to turn that thinking back on its own resources, understanding the motions--the emotions--of thought as up against death.
Ben Lerner writes that Gizzi's book reminds him of "the tension at the heart of song, which has the power both to lull and to intensify, as do certain drugs." The elegiac song specifically may quiet our grief even as it elaborates our lament. But since the songs in the book arise out of "a vortex" of "birth storms" (3), they also become a medium to "accept this handmade world," (18) the broken thing all thought, all poems, all lives succumb to. And yet, these "birth storms" allow Gizzi to avail himself to be a medium for the numerous, if not numinous, others who dwell in his mind, to give them new life through his reflections upon them. We live in our heads or in other's, and the transport between them: that's all life is. And then it's gone. In the meantime, Gizzi proposes, along with Stevens, that the poems of this book are a place of refuge and dwelling helping us to perpetually reinterpret "How to live. / What to do." (85).