Peter Gizzi is a master at allowing his poetic language to summon its own range of meanings, rather than blatantly declaring them to the reader.
In Defense of Nothing, Selected Poems, 1987–2011 by Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan University Press, 244 pages, $18.95, paper, $26.95, hardcover.
By Matt Hanson
Ever since founding and editing the short-lived but influential o-blek: a journal of language arts, Peter Gizzi has created a unique and compelling body of work. His poetry has been widely anthologized and has appeared on broadsides and in chapbooks. In Defense Of Nothing, a career-spanning new selection of Gizzi’s selected poems, new in paperback from Wesleyan University Press, marks a major retrospective for one of our most interesting and unique contemporary lyric poets.
In an interview with Poetry Foundation, Gizzi modestly characterizes his voice as “simply, an ongoing narration of my bewilderment as a citizen in the world.” It’s reassuring to know that poetry can be the fruit of bewilderment rather than the cause of it. As Ben Lerner has remarked, Gizzi’s poems make us “silly with clarity” and refuse to choose between depth and accessibility while creating a rich linguistic space that serves to describe “a logic of sight.”
As a title, In Defense of Nothing works on several levels. Gizzi’s poems don’t defend or promote any particular way of seeing, preferring instead to engage with tradition by tweaking its terms, as in the wittily titled “The Outernationale” which fractures the name of the traditional Communist anthem and offers some complex dialectical insight: “When a revolution creates its orbit/ the objects return only different/ for having stayed the same throughout.”
The poem “Hawthorne” consists of an indexed deconstruction of the various permutations of the noun: “A thorny Old World shrub./ U.S. novelist and short story writer./ A city in Southern California.” None of the terms assumes priority over another but enhance each other, a defense of nothing that rebukes fixed hierarchies of meaning. Gizzi is a master at linking disparate terms and images together, a strategy that implicitly defends a different kind of nothing: he gives up the authority of explaining and defining for the liberating power of re-imagining and reworking, a way of living up to one poem’s luminous directive to “be everywhere alive.”
One of the amusing qualities of In Defense of Nothing is that the poems don’t draw heavy-handed, self-important distinctions between “high” and “low” modes of discourse. Gizzi is also co-editor of The House That Jack Built, the collected essays of the poet and professor Jack Spicer, who suggested that the best analogy for a poet was a radio, picking up signals and transmitting them from the ambience of the surrounding culture onto the printed page. Gizzi is a master at allowing his poetic language to summon its own range of meanings, rather than blatantly declaring them to the reader.
It’s not all just verbal hijinks, either – real emotion comes through, particularly in “Revival” a moving elegy to his late friend the Beat poet Gregory Corso. Artfully employing the enigmatic yet tender refrain “It’s good to be dead in America” the poem takes the reader through a subtle but evocative labyrinth of private memory and collective American history, poignantly asking “How come all the best thoughts/ are images? How come all the best images/ are uncanny?”
By artfully mixing stylistic grace with philosophical exploration, the poems of In Defense of Nothing demonstrate the kind of inscrutable luminosity that only poetry is capable of, whether anyone is there to witness it or not. As opaque as it can sometimes be, Gizzi’s voice doesn’t take itself so seriously that it neglects a sense of levity in the mixing of tones and diction: “winterreisse/ Hubba Hubba like.” The language in his poems can incorporate a range of material from Ovid to Emily Dickinson, reference commercial jingles or a chorus from a punk rock song with equal grace.
To rework an old cliche, if living in the world isn’t bewildering then you’re not paying enough attention. Gizzi’s poetry is deeply rewarding at its most lyrically reaching because it helps us to recognize and describe a place “to be and not to understand./ To understand nothing/ and be content/ to watch light against/ leaf-shadowed ground.”
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.