Threshold Songs
by Peter Gizzi
Wesleyan, $22.95 (cloth)

One way to get a handle on experimental poetry is not to think of experiment as shorthand for difficulty or opacity but instead to take on good faith the word’s origin in scientific method. Consider the poetic experiment as akin to the scientific one, designed to discover and literally sound new knowledge about the world, its mysteries, its injustices.

Another important resemblance between scientific and poetic experiments is that failure is as important to recognize as success. Poet and critic Joan Retallack—who has written fruitfully on the correspondences between scientific discovery and poetic innovation—notes that many scientific journals have begun publishing reports of failed experiments. It is almost too easy to suggest that poetry already assumes this tactic. Failure dogs the genre in its reception, in its paltry rewards, in the romanticized failure of the poète maudit. Even putting such commonplaces aside, there is a compelling argument that failure is integral to the very conception of the poem. In his study The Long Schoolroom, Allen Grossman offers that the poem is always a record of its failure to achieve the maker’s ambitions for it: for transcendence, for social change, for epistemological breakthrough.

Such notions of experiment and failure condition Peter Gizzi’s fifth volume of poems,Threshold Songs. Stylistically, Gizzi’s writing is not forbiddingly experimental. His language is often allusive and abstract, but he is gentle when philosophical, tender when ironic. As the title of the book indicates, Gizzi positions himself between traditions, even epochs, reaching back with yearning to embrace in song a premodern origin for lyric. But his poetic and intellectual biography testifies to how thoroughly he is steeped in the strains of postwar American avant-garde writing. As a journal editor, Gizzi solicited and published work by multiple generations of the New York School; he studied with Language poets and Black Mountain heirs at SUNY-Buffalo; most notably, he has edited the lectures and (with Kevin Killian) the collected poems of Berkeley Renaissance poet Jack Spicer. 

In Threshold Songs, Gizzi embraces what is sometimes posed as experiment’s opposite: lyric, with its sirenic promise to transpose private perception into common plaint. Gizzi risks this nostalgic turn fully aware of its impossibility. As the failure of Ezra Pound’s project demonstrated, it can be dangerous to fashion unity from the fragments of contemporary life. Like many of his experimentalist kin, Gizzi writes from the thwarted position of one who cannot escape his implication in the political and social damages he protests. His particular version of this problem, as dramatized in Threshold Songs, is to turn toward the natural world, albeit with the recognition that nature cannot provide the same uncomplicated succor it seemed to offer Wordsworth and Coleridge. Gizzi’s experiment is thus to attempt mourning an illusory pastoral while simultaneously forging a more ethical relation to the real nature inspiring it. 

Nature has long served as the metaphorical ground of poets’ search for the numinous. As critic Angus Fletcher suggests in his A New Theory: Democracy, the Environment, and American Poetry, “Poetic language, as distinct from discursive language . . . seems unable to exert its expressive and representing powers without using naturalistic terms.” Whether or not Gizzi has read Fletcher’s volume, in Threshold Songs he puts this notion to the test. Yet Gizzi’s apprehension of nature is always troubled by his awareness that our environment—threatened by pollution and sprawl—cannot be the same ground it was for the Romantics. Nature is not a zone that can be entered and exited at will; we treat it as other (disposable) at our own peril. In the final poem ofThreshold Songs, “Modern Adventures at Sea,” Gizzi articulates his perspective:  

Is there an end
to plastic. Is
yesterday the new
tomorrow. And
is that a future?
Do we get to
touch it and be
content here
before we go.
That the signs
won’t remain
in the end.
And that I may
learn this language.
That there could
be a language
say with a dolphin,
a dog, a cattle herder
and slaughterhouse,
a lumberyard
and big redwood.

Gizzi imagines a more reciprocal relation between humans and a natural world understood in all its complexity, an ecology accounting for other beings with language (dolphins), companions (dogs), food sources (cattle), and material resources (lumber). His fraught question, whether “yesterday” may augur a “new tomorrow,” is emblematic of the volume’s lyric strategy and, ultimately, its failure. We cannot go back to some earlier union with nature any more than we can xerox the old songs: some new hybrid must be found.

Such hopes are also freighted by Gizzi’s realization that apprehension of nature is always mediated, as he admits in “Snow Globe,” a trope suggesting that even the hope for a global ecology—it’s a small world after all—may start with kitsch. An excerpt:

The house is covered in fresh snowfall, lovely
     in reflected mercury light,
its weary glow damaging to the cardinal flirting
     between branches
of a stalled ornamental maple. 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.

The names—arbitrary in whatever language—come between the poet and the world he describes. There is nothing empirically “damaging” to the cardinal about the light-reflecting snow; it’s us, or the speaker, that the presence of the word “mercury,” with its toxic associations, alienates from the idyll of the scene.

In a critical appreciation, Gizzi praises the urban pastoralist James Schuyler for possessing a “palpable sense of irreality,” while at the same time revealing “the seemingly random syntax of the physical world.” Gizzi’s work borrows much from Schuyler’s—including his skinny line—and sends the reader gently brushing through scrims of irreality. It is not so much the syntax of the physical world that Gizzi’s poems reveal but the occlusion of nature’s rhythms when translated into our own, as in this Schuyler-inspired excerpt from Gizzi’s previous volume, The Outernationale (2008): 

The 6 A.M. January
encaustic clouds
are built
in a waxy gray putty
whizzing by with spots
of luminous silvery
crack-o’-the-world light
coming through, an eerie
end-o’-the-world feeling
yet reassuring
like an old movie.
Do I really have to go out there?
Now a hint of muted
salmon tones breaking
a warming band
of welcoming pinkish light.
Is it like this every morning?
My head still in the dark.
Worry, eck! But the brightening
russet tipped cloud ballet
reminds me of something
in Pliny, yea, Pliny.

Note how careful description of nature shifts in this passage, from static to fluid, mediated first by painting (encaustic), then film, then ballet. Is there any way to apprehend nature without mediation, even the mediating power of another poet’s voice? 

This self-abnegating imitation of Schuyler foreshadows Gizzi’s second experiment inThreshold Songs, which is to “understand / oneself. With- / out oneself.” Disavowal of ego is a programmatic tactic in recent experimental writing, one that Gizzi refreshes by testing it against nature tropes. “I accidentally / become a self in sun / in the middle of day,” he writes. One of the most alluring poems in Threshold Songs, “This Trip Around the Sun Is Expensive,” transfixes precisely because Gizzi surfs waves of natural description guided more by sound-sense than by program:

Shipboard is
what winter is

what isinglass
moonlit wave
winter is

This is the beginning of a minor poem, but one that offers pleasure because the poet surrenders himself to the poem’s unfolding, and each line achieves a balance between the known and the surprising. 

Elsewhere in the volume, however, Gizzi’s penchant for the philosophical can edge him closer to anxious raveling. A selection from “Analemma” (an ancient scientific term describing the plotting of a celestial body relative to one’s own position) is characteristic:

It’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
some where
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it
it’s ok to see these things
to be the way they are
I can be them
have been them
will be there, soon

The ghost of Robert Creeley haunts these austere lines—a simplicity of meaning made poetic through subtle syntactic shifts. Although the poem is abstract, slow re-reading helps to locate oneself in the poet’s deep reserves of feeling, the causes of which are kept tactfully remote.

Yet however sophisticated and ethical is Gizzi’s disavowal of self (“not autobiographical but autographical,” he describes his aim in the 2008 anthology Lyric Postmodernisms), in this volume Gizzi’s references and word music often are not individual or eccentric enough to escape collapsing back into poetic doxa. Perhaps I am too defensive against the sentimental, but I find this especially the case when Gizzi’s expression is at its most self-consciously noble, when he evinces grief, worry, hope, yearning. Although he resists a Romantic view of nature, an expressivist impulse ultimately governs his work. His admitted program is to limn a poetic ghost world whose contours are meaningfully sensed by the poet but can be only partially transmitted to the reader. The poet is a translator of “phantom” poems dimly perceived and melancholically curated: “I find myself left to develop the ruins of what did not come through,” Gizzi explains, showing how the modernist obsession with the fragment has become romanticized through a figure such as Spicer, who similarly described the poet as a medium.

For Robert Frost, the question that poetry must forever grapple with—the question posed in “The Oven Bird”—is “what to make of a diminished thing.” Gizzi’s faint tracings of the “phantom” poem engage the question, but largely return us to Frost’s post-Romantic pastoral field rather than take us to new ground. The failure of Gizzi’s volume is not the failed outcome of an ambitious experiment, as in Pound’s attempt to write a poem containing history, or Stein’s and Ashbery’s experiments to waste language in pursuit of a new phenomenology. In Gizzi’s work, failure is the poem’s given, an effect of style and tone that captures the marginality of poetry but reflects as well a corrective vision of humans’ position in the universe: we should be more humble.

Many will find this failure effect moving and true. Certainly it is expertly done. But because these poems so often begin and end in diminishment, they are foreclosed to discovery. Poised between care and worry, Gizzi’s Threshold Songs are never less than admirable and are frequently beautiful. Yet the ease with which they cede to their own limitations raises the question: Having succeeded at failure so securely, why not risk failing to succeed?