Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
The poems in Peter Gizzi’s most recent book, Archeophonics, operate as an homage to sounds as in the title poem that celebrates echoes, repetitions, and other poems, “the archive in the mouth”:
I’m saying this and it’s saying me
That’s how it works, seesaw like
The archive in the mouth and the archive is on fire
That’s the story
The sun and the body and the body in the sun
A trajectory runs through the whole from poems of despair and loss to those of revival as “the old language / continues its dialogues / in ordinary dust.” The book directly raises questions of how one is to go about the writing of poetry given the collapse of language and the self, as in an initiating quotation from Rimbaud: “For today’s tourist, orientation is impossible.” The first section presents a speaker who is burdened by time’s passing, the collapse of syntax, and an overarching doubt: “To know something / and fail. / Why discount it? / The onslaught of eyes / beneath a fuck-you sky.” As might a Romantic poet, the “I” begins in dejection:
At the moment
I drag and solo
in a bitten landscape,
that sound out vowel
or sadness like glitter
sprinkled in a mind.
Yet, the ensuing poems make the self-conscious effort, despite the fraught world, to reinvent the self and to embrace a new belief:
I am fighting for love
but I need a new god.
Left here, this one
no longer fits. I, sick
of the reptile in me,
the dis in time,
its twigged agony.
The songs that make up the book utilize the metaphor of “air,” an early word for song, and frequently turn to the air itself for inspiration, as Romantic poets often did and as others influenced by them (for example, Wallace Stevens) have done: “Looking out over the day, the pale performing day. / I always consult the air before composing air.” I am reminded of Coleridge’s “Aeolian Harp” or Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Gizzi’s own “Wind Instrument”: “Was that a cathedral bell / or the air conditioner? / Crisp air coming in.” Here “air” is also a voice talking as the air of the world moves into the speaking poet: “you do all the talking, / you do all the talking / and forget the world.” In thinking about this and Gizzi’s adoption of a specific tradition, I returned to M.H. Abrams’s suggestive “The Correspondent Breeze: a Romantic Metaphor”:
“Breathing” is only one aspect of a more general component in Romantic poetry. This is air-in-motion, whether it occurs as breeze or breath, wind or respiration—whether the air is compelled into motion by natural forces or by the action of the human lungs. That the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron should be so thoroughly ventilated is itself noteworthy; but the surprising thing is how often, in the major poems, the wind is not only a literal attribute of the landscape, but also a metaphor for a change in the poet’s mind.
Thus the book takes a long view of the role of poetry both echoing poetry of the past and looking to the round of seasons and the future, adopting a generalized vocabulary and nature metaphors for the possibilities of revision. Two voices, it seems to me, characterize Archeophonics, the speaker-as-Poet placing himself in and defending Poetry and another that reads as specifically personal: “I hate that, when syntax / connects me to the rich” or “Next year my body will be 57; it was human, it was American, it was a piece of big data.” The representative “voice” of the book’s argument remains the significant, which is perhaps risky in the contemporary world of more political poetry, more specific lexicons, more fury. It posits an argument for a certain poetic history, for a range of different poetic projects, and for the ways in which poets can revitalize the so-called “old,” here represented by a familiar struggle between death and life, and by particular metaphors and vocabulary. In one poem, risk is acknowledged as a solo flight “back / into the old language.”
As the book moves forward the speaker posits ways to reimagine the world and oneself. The unnerving creaking of the wooden floor turns to a warm stripe of sun on the same floor. Or in “A Winding Sheet for Summer, #11”: “This thing and sound glitters. / Indicative transitive particular battles the void. / All afternoon a green-gold silent light / on the spotted grass, sprung.” The possibility of transformation manifests in the acknowledgement of natural beauty and—as the book demonstrates especially well—the pleasures of sound as in this affirmative stanza from “Civil Twilight”:
What if it were all music?
What if the day were a countertenor
informing us, besting bureaucracy,
offering sustenance against my case of the punks.
Take the ride, it won’t take you all the way.
The sun in the street or am I just lucky.
The day was like that.
And the established fact of the sun.
The poet evoked specifically is Blake: “I am willing to walk / away, willing to be / on fire, to blaze / to Blake, to sink / into the moon’s / aphorism and / its garden of figures.” Language becomes both archival and reclaimed, as in one of my favorite poems, “Rime,” affecting in part because of its extreme brevity and simplicity—again, perhaps, a choice in dialogue with Blake’s poems of innocence and experience (although without its revolutionary fervor). Like those poems, “Rime” repeats, rhymes, and utilizes the symbolic.
It was a language to eat the sky
a language to say goodbye
standing with others
standing in the dust.
The old language
continues its dialogues
in ordinary dust.
The book ends on an upbeat note with “Bewitched,” a poem focused on the love of words, and prior to that a song in short sections. “A Winding Sheet for Summer,” creating a world by means of song opposing death and doubt. Here the choice of recommitment and belief is stated directly: “I know it’s summer even if I can’t decipher the call. / I believe in the birds haunting me. I held on. / I’m full of bluster but also full of vision. / I’m not ready to put the book down.” The first poem in “A Winding Sheet for Summer” illustrates the Poet’s choice to employ very general phrases, traditional metaphor, and echoes from earlier poetry:
I wanted out of the past so I ate the air,
it took me further into air.
It cut me, an iridescent chord
of geometric light.
I breathed deep, it lit me up, it was good.
All these years, lightning, rain, the sky,
its little daisies.
Memento mori and lux.
There are echoes of Hamlet (as indeed in the earlier poems of melancholy) as the poet alludes to his response to Polonius: “Wonderful I eat the air, like chameleons do: I’m positively stuffed with air, I eat so much of it.” Also an echo from Genesis, “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good,” an echo that sounds highly significant but can also be experienced simply as flat unless one grasps and embraces the carefully structured book as a whole. The book’s ambition and power lies in the book-length project as one follows the questions and doubts that run throughout and the concomitant recognitions of—to utilize its self-consciously chosen and freighted vocabulary—air, sounds, sun, love, books, flight. It functions as a constructed artifice designed to find “what will suffice” (Wallace Stevens) as in the final poem of this series referencing both a bird’s flight and poetry (“kerning,” the spacing between individual letter forms):
The kestrel swerves.
Its silent kerning.
A stunning calibration of nothing.
I’m left to see.
Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor