New Depths of Deadpan
Burning Deck, 2009
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Clark Coolidge, Michael Gizzi, and I lived within 30 miles of each other, in that UFO zone connecting western Massachusetts and mid-Hudson Valley New York, we often got together. When we weren’t scouring the countryside checking out secondhand bookstores, and talking about whatever was our enthusiasm, we took road trips. We once drove to Niagara Falls as well as visited Christopher Dewdney in Toronto. On at least three occasions we drove to Lowell, where Jack Kerouac grew up and where he is buried, and walked around the town, stopping at various sites pointed out on a map provided by Brian Foye. Clark and Michael knew Kerouac’s words and wordplay inside-out. And it was clear from our conversations, an anti-social, staccato patter interrupted by riffs, puns, and one-liners, that Michael had his ear to the ground of the American vernacular, the figures of speech one hears (if one knows how to listen) in gas stations, convenience stores (what is so convenient about them?), playgrounds, bowling alleys, and backyards. I was reminded of Michael’s keen ear while I was reading his most recent book, New Depths of Deadpan, published by the legendary Burning Deck Press, run by the national treasures, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop.
(Here I would like to make a small aside. Recently, I was in Berlin for a poetry festival. After all the readings were done, we were invited to have dinner in the cafeteria of the Akademie der Künste, where the readings took place. Rita Dove, the former poet laureate, sat at a small table with her husband and two friends, and didn’t talk to anyone else, while Rosmarie sat at a large table surrounded by people, many of whom were meeting her for the first time. She was cheerful, friendly, and open.)
New Depths of Deadpan consists of 55 poems, none of them longer than a page, and many shorter than a sonnet. The lines are generally sentences, which form a stanza (a cluster of declarations), followed by white space, and another cluster of sentences and fragments. There is a tension between the music of the line and its meaning which Gizzi refuses to resolve.
“Two comics move away from a mirror: one a mist one a mast.”
Rather than stopping to explain what this might mean, Gizzi moves on, clearly in love with the spaces that language can bring him to:
“The good thing about rats is they don’t lie. Cross a gecko with a mussel and what you have is a new kind of adhesive tape.”
This isn’t surrealism, it is the voice of a late night TV huckster, and it isn’t the only voice that Gizzi is able to channel.
“War with its lights out eschews imagination. All our buds lost their heads in the flower of their youth.”
If you want to know how weird, interesting, scary, and odd America is, go out and stand on a street corner and listen to what people are saying to each other or to themselves, what they loudly announce to their cell phone as if it is an obedient parrot desperate for the news or, better yet, stay inside and read New Depths of Deadpan.
“Yesterday, Sonny played five innings with one of those franks in
his hair. When he tried to steal second you could’ve timed him
with a sundial. Doc said he’s seen better legs on a camel.
The palm trees beyond the fence are battling tuberculosis. Owners prowl the lobbies with cereal on their chins.”
Or this line about being an adolescent:
“I’m not much but I’m all I think about.”
This is the America Whitman and Warhol never got to, and Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, and Charles Simic run away from. It is not images or stories, but the constant music of American speech that Gizzi celebrates and dismantles, however grim, disturbing, and dark it might be.