Brice Marden used beeswax to kill the reflective luster of his triptych color panels. Ad Reinhardt leeched the gloss out of his chromatic blacks. Jasper Johns accreted his white flags with matte paper and cotton. Such works defend the big Nothing of minimalist experimentation with the eloquence of rich monochromes that are apparently porous, surfaces that tell your head to sink in. “I will paint on one until I arrive at a color that holds that plane,” Marden has said.
The jacket of Peter Gizzi’s new book of selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, has the absorbent feel of brown sack paper. Its front bears only a high set title; its back only the small word “poetry.” There is little on this spare parcel to distract from its saturated color, a shade somewhere between carrot and crossing guard. For me it’s a color that “holds the plane” in the sense that it keeps yielding new tones as you look at it—pop glare, danger wear, flicker of flame, sienna hum. And in its pure dimensionality, I think it primes us for the tonal world we find inside the book. These poems are voice-works.
Everyone should hear Gizzi talk. (Listen to the interviews he’s given to Charles Bernstein and to Michael Silverblatt, for example.) Few contemporary poets are this casually expansive, this vigorously invested in the idea that poets speak to one another across space and time. He treats as insubstantial the century and a half that separates him from Whitman and Dickinson. Interviewed by Ben Lerner, he says, “I am unwilling to allow a mere 150 years (blink) to make me think that these enduring authors are not my immediate contemporaries.” One has the sense he would say the same of his remove from Homer, from Virgil, likewise from poets yet to come. These energetic sweeps give Gizzi the air of reporting back from a conversation, discreet and ongoing, with a personal archive of historical bards. Consistently he brings the weight of poetry’s past to bear on its present, so that, as the title of one of the poems in this new selection suggests, “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.” In fact,
they are right next to you
in the lanes, hugging a shoulder
Whitman and Dickinson have a clear genealogical claim on his language. (Whitman he calls the “mother” of our American idiom, Dickinson the “father.”) But Gizzi writes to them, not like them. To Whitman he speaks of the democratic struggle, the tension between the one and the many, the “body electric” and the “body electorate,” but also their mutual articulation. And in Dickinson he engages the serious child, close to the edge of consciousness, who interrogates the universe, though haltingly, with poise. At times he can be seen trafficking between mother and father, making them the stereoscopic pair in which to glimpse our history unfolding, as in “Pierced”:
The heart of poetry is
an arc between grass blade and gown
hovering beneath an eclipse
Berkeley Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, whose collected works Gizzi has edited, said he received his poems by listening to radio signals transmitted by Martians. “Everyone’s listening to someone in the air,” Gizzi writes in “Lullaby,” from Threshold Songs (2011). The last book to be culled from for In Defense, Threshold Songs was written during a period of great personal bereavement—in which Gizzi lost his mother, brother, and close friend. No less attentive than Spicer to thresholds of communication, Gizzi’s “air” invokes a radio tuned to the departed.
I mean I talk
to myself through you
you’re out there
Like musical “airs,” the Threshold Songs are, to my mind, the barest of Gizzi’s poems, though their bareness seems to respond to more blustering presences: the “hectoring” voice, the “spike / in the air” (“The Growing Edge”). After reading Threshold, I hear Gizzi’s characteristic abrupt endings in a new way; they make “spikes” in the silences that ensue. “On your way, dust,” the nearly spat address that closes “Revival” (2003), an extraordinary elegy for Gregory Corso, now strikes me with its echo of that idiomatically American way of leaving: to beat it, to scram… Scram, dust—though dust will always settle.
References to visual culture appear across In Defense. Gizzi often seems to be experimenting with a kind of translation, rendering as sound the “values” of color and contour that mark his favorite paintings and films. One example is “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures,” from the book The Outernationale (2007). At first you think it’s some colossal sestina—that most mentally ill of forms. In fact the poem is a mirror image. Its lines create a near perfect chiasmus, with only the most minor discrepancies on either side—a few periods repositioned.
one great solace in paint and brotherhood the sky and grass.
The fragrant hills spoke in flowering tones I could hear
the gnarled cut stumps tearing the sky, eating the sun.
The gnarled cut stumps tearing the sky, eating the sun
the fragrant hills spoke in flowering tones I could hear
one great solace in paint and brotherhood the sky and grass.
Why Vincent Van Gogh? Or maybe the question is, why, for Van Gogh, this palindromic sequence? Certainly the form captures something of that airlessness in his paintings: “Is this what you intended, Vincent,” without question mark, begins and ends the poem. The significance of the structure has little to do with formal closure. It’s more the fact that once you know it, you begin to look for local effects, clusters of lines that work backward and forward simultaneously, at which point a certain mania starts to disperse throughout the calm of the larger symmetry. The effect is as close a poetic approximation of Van Gogh’s brushstroke—“the striated purposelessness in lapidary shading and line”—as I can imagine. Crossing the fold, that flip of syntax, feels like turning from a reflection you thought was real, only to face yet another reflection. As in Dickinson, language seems to peel from its adhesion to the world.
Perhaps this tells us something about what it means to write about art, having to return again and again to the work itself, and to essay forth its affect in different combinations, which become new sequences of responsiveness, new stops, new arrivals. It also lets us glimpse a mechanics to which Gizzi’s verse recurs—the masterfully open syntax that, when closed down suddenly at new joints, feels so definite, then changes.