In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011
Peter Gizzi
Wesleyan University Press, $26.95 (cloth)

“Periplum, not as land looks on a map / but as sea bord seen by men sailing,” we read in Canto 59 of Ezra Pound’s magnum opus. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us Pound derived periplum from periplus, the ancient Greek word for an account of a circumnavigation by ship. Peri means “around”; plus means “to voyage” and, in one grammatical variant, “to swim.” Swimming around, you might say, is just what we do when we pick up Pound’s Cantos. Thrown into the deep end of literary history, it is sink or swim from the very first line: “And then went down to the ship.” Why change the plus to plum? The coinage evokes a host of associations: a ripe plum (round like the globe); a plumb line; purpleness (compare the French périple). There may even be a pun on plume (feather, pen, nom de). Representing a journey phenomenologically (“as seen by men sailing”) as opposed to abstractly (“as land looks on a map”) is a wonderful metaphor for the poet’s sensibility in general and the postmodern poet’s in particular: “If I know what I’m going to say before I say it, it’s not a poem” is the modus operandi that unites many a disparate lyric in these times.

The periplum may be analogous to the “view from horseback” representation of landscape painting; maps, by contrast, take the “bird’s-eye view.” Louis Marin, in his essay “The City in Its Map and Portrait,” reads the attempt to reconcile these two views in a sixteenth-century portrayal of Strasbourg as evidence of the subterfuges of perspective. The cathedral spire, both icon of authority and synecdoche for Strasbourg, dominates the horseback view but disappears in the bird’s-eye view: “It is as if the viewer of the map were contemplating the whole of the city . . . from a celestial place whose projection onto the surface of the ground represented could be inscribed by default, in the form of an absence, a central blind spot.” The blind spot where the cathedral spire hides, it turns out, is the space we occupy as we look down on the page. The periplum affords no such refuge.

Peter Gizzi took on Pound’s talismanic word in his debut book, Periplum, published by Avec Books in 1992. Avec was a West Coast outfit run by writer Cydney Chadwick; the Web hardly registers its presence now, but it was a mainstay of the Small Press Traffic crowd at around the time Gizzi’s own magazine, o-blek (pronounced “oblique”), became a square-paged fetish object for devoted readers of Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, John Yau, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (whose tutelage at Brown would form Gizzi’s tastes), Rae Armantrout, and Michael Gizzi (his charismatic older brother, also a poet). At the time they were a coterie of writers, many actively hostile to “the mainstream,” some actively hostile to academia, and all influenced by what Marjorie Perloff has called the “Pound-Williams-Stein” branch of modernism. True to the idea of the periplum, o-blek had no stated mission and included no author biographies. The reader, far from occupying a position of power and knowledge above the text, found herself without a map, at sea: if you wanted to navigate this new world, you would have to figure it out by means of your own senses. Fanny Howe, a frequent contributor, has a different word for this experience: bewilderment. It is not a pejorative.

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987–2011 is both bewildering and not bewildering. Gizzi remains faithful to the tenets of the periplum: there is no scene setting in his poetry. It is immersive “as sea bord seen by men sailing.” The opening of “This Trip around the Sun Is Expensive” (from Threshold Songs, 2012) is as paratactic as waves slapping a hull from all sides:

Shipboard is
what winter is
what isinglass
moonlit wave
winter is
Winter surf
all time booming

What-is-in-glass indeed describes the moonlit wave or winter’s crystalline air in Western Massachusetts, where Gizzi grew up and now teaches. This looks like minimalism, but it is the utter subsumption of experience in phonemes. It is maximal word-as-world. This technique is not as bewildering as it used to be. Over the course of Gizzi’s career, we’ve learned to read experimental work: Armantrout, Barbara Guest, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, and Anne Carson have all become renowned over the last twenty years.

Reading Gizzi’s early books, Periplum and also Artificial Heart (1998) and Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), one becomes alert to the ways Gizzi has signposted his influences. The map includes many of the names above as well as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery. The influence of the New York School poets underlies a three-way wedding in “Hard As Ash,” which veers between Ashberian phrases such as “Private catastrophes at the speed of Phaethon” and O’Hara-esque lines such as “it was the morning / of the poem.” Elsewhere we also hear Michael Palmer (“No one lives there / X and delirium / —barely wider // than a sun”) and John Wieners (“I’ve seen sorrow on joy street”).

In an interview with Ben Lerner, Gizzi said, “I am interested in states of consciousness and the discovery of selfhood, i.e., who Peter Gizzi might be or might have been, through the baffles of tradition.” That striking metaphor—forefathers as acoustic baffles, devices for control of flow—is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s poem “Les Phares” (literally, “The Beacons”), in which a litany of great painters, from Rubens to Delacroix, culminates in a howl that echoes through the ages: “These blasphemies, these ecstasies, these cries, / these groans and curses, tears and Te Deums, / echo through a thousand labyrinths.”

Like Baudelaire’s beacons, Gizzi’s baffles refract a lament of human suffering. His method, unlike Baudelaire’s, is quieter. Preceding by just a few years the 1995 publication of O’Hara’s Collected Poems, which had a nuclear effect on young poets, Periplum marked the debut of a meditative thinker who, like Jack Spicer, O’Hara’s West Coast opposite, maintained a skeptical attitude toward naturalism, “personalism,” and profanity. By that I don’t mean bad language; I mean O’Hara’s cheerful “Is it dirty / does it look dirty / . . . does it just seem dirty” insouciance in, say, Lunch Poems. That Gizzi would eventually edit the collected lectures of Spicer, and collaborate on a new collection of his poems, makes sense: both are somber poets who grapple with the near weightlessness of language like the Biblical Jacob with his dream angel.

Where Spicer could be acerbic, though, Gizzi is insistently gentle. Is there, in fact, a tenderer poet among our generation of Xanax-starved fast talkers? The beauty, melancholy, and, yes, tenderness comes fully into play in his latest books, The Outernationale (2007) andThreshold Songs, which take up a little less than half of this volume of selected poems. “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures” is a palindrome poem, suggesting a mirroring between poet and painter, but it is so infused with feeling for Van Gogh that the tricksy form melts into its ache:

Is this what you intended, Vincent
that we take our rest at the end of the grove
nestled into our portion beneath the bird’s migration
saying, who and how am I made better through struggle.

The imaginative identification between the two artists, one a suicide, is artfully folded into one of the few poems of formal closure Gizzi has written.

Spicer, in his letters to Federico García Lorcasaid that the poem should have “an infinitely small vocabulary.” What that might mean, coming from a professional linguist in a language as expansive as English, is that the poem is better served by its constraints than by its freedoms. Witness Gizzi’s own vocabulary, only occasionally punctuated by the mundaneness of “CliffNotes,” “muzak,” or “DMZ”: “This is a poem about breath, / brick, a piece of ink / in the distance,” he writes in “Edgar Poe.” One might say Gizzi’s poetry is about breath, brick, and ink, and what one can do with those simple elements: “A fanfare of stone air.” In the longer, ambitious poems such as “The Outernationale,” such constraints lead to a paradoxical “defense of nothing.” “Start from nothing / And let the sound reach you,” ending with:

If we could say
the world has changed,
it has changed. If we say
the world is the same
then so it is. But nothing
changes everything.

This “nothing”—signifying over the line break both a totality and its negation—goes back to that spire that disappears on the bird’s-eye map. If that is our point of view as readers and judges of the text, Gizzi would like to pull us back down to the periplum, the periphery, to grasp the landscape of our unknowing without illusions. In Defense of Nothing neither apologizes nor explains, but in its circumnavigation the reader will be moved to find experiences of suffering, surprise, joy, and gratitude, experiences that define life itself.

Photograph: Drew Herron