A New Nation Where Words Line Up
(The Figures, 2015)
As a young man, the poet Michael Gizzi worked as a tree surgeon in New England. His extensive body of poems shares the arborist’s desire to be away from the ground. Gizzi’s gaze is frequently above him, and with each book new canopies give way to unknown skies, as well as sightlines that reveal our long shadows. The publication of Michael Gizzi’s Collected Poems, edited by Clark Coolidge and Craig Watson, makes it possible to watch Gizzi model the dissonance of being human over the arc of his work.
To find all of Gizzi’s poems in one place is an opportunity to observe how he learned to push what he sees and feels against itself. Two of his earliest pieces, Bird As (& Other River Parts) and Avis: or, The replete birdman, look toward trees and bird flight, while later books are increasingly celestial.
In “Bird As,” Gizzi writes:
Damn these arms the hands
pushing air they won’t let
up they don’t
The desire to be bird
like as to freeze
The lineation of “let / up” and “don’t / lift” places the words that connote rising on the line beneath to underscore the impossibility of the lifting the speaker desires. Desire, then, is a way of being without achievement and so the pleasure it provides is necessarily frustrating.
Other early projects also wrestle with absence and inability, and spatiality. The prose poems of Just Like a Real Italian Kid consider place as a synesthetic aggregation, and family lineage the ultimate mode of spatial thinking about time. In Italian Kid Gizzi’s representation of childhood excitement demonstrates the acrobatic image density that characterizes some of his later work. He writes:
The Estate of Summer: insect-shot-clinic swell weather beach sets Italian high-heel slippers and spinach sand sandwiches at Jones Beach I still get a jones for. Where when you were young enough you could still go to the Ladies Room with your mother and all you knew about sex was the way your folks smiled at each other. Still, you can’t remember that until you’re older than they were.
Gizzi occupies two simultaneous moments here; he’s a kid, while also narrating being a kid from his grown-up position. Place—not just the space of a room, but who and what it contains, and what characterizes them—becomes the shape of feeling in a way that’s increasingly true in Gizzi’s later books. Italian Kid is perhaps the first instance in Gizzi’s work in which the objects in the poems routinely entangle and push against each other to hold themselves up. By moving objects through space and combining them Gizzi creates his primary mode for constructing emotional clarity.
Gizzi’s poems attain much of their power though his sense of emotionally curated spaces and his subsequent attunement to music. Gizzi perfects the music of his trademark hypersensory parataxis in “No Both,” the title of which is rightfully negation and twinning. It appears just over halfway through the Collected. In it, he writes:
Angels are people who never blinked
I’ve seen them sniffing
I can see through you into the garage beyond
One day you’ll sit in the sun and be incinerated
Sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally
I get up in the morning and there’s my skin in bed
Angels never blinked suggests that they never missed what the world had to offer their sight. Even so, their seeing and their sniffing might go together, where angels sniff for information like dogs and their sniffing makes their gaze indecorous.
Such pairings make room for horrible occurrences to feel offhand. The skin in his bed may be the skin cells he leaves behind, where the natural is terrible, or he may get up without all of his skin, where the terrible is naturalized. Gizzi’s poems accommodate observation as a flotation device when being alive is being out to sea in living.
Gizzi’s work often tries to find or make a place, and then to trouble the place it has. “My Terza Rima,” which follows “No Both,” is dedicated To Providence, where Gizzi lived on and off throughout his adult life. Gizzi’s later books include a number of dedicated projects and poems that bring friends and colleagues including Clark Coolidge, Keith Waldrop, Bill Berkson and Bernadette Mayer into the room with his work. Gizzi spent several decades of his adult life in western Massachusetts, editing Hard Press and Lingo magazine in the ’90s. Participation in his community was part of his practice, and he ran a number of reading series, both in western Mass and in Providence, to which he returned in his final years.
Knowing that the poems pull toward Gizzi’s death in September of 2010, it’s hard not to read them as forging death’s path. What governs Gizzi’s connective logic becomes distilled in the later books, where the poems are excellent schematic and emotional maps. In “The Big Incontinence” from My Terza Rima, he writes:
Ma doesn’t like to get high
but she sure loves her elevator music
from which she can see
the golf of Mexico
I wonder why that is?
Implicit in his thinking is that elevators lift you up, that Mexico has golf you can see from the air, that the distance between height and ground is a gulf, and so is the space that being high creates around other things, that elevator music is a vehicle for distortion, and that being high might produce the gulf/golf of Mexico. “Why” is both “why can she see?” and “why does she love her music?” In much of his work, Gizzi’s lines are broken across their units of meaning, creating a Creeley kind of dissonance. Here, a similar sense of tugging is built upon the poem’s countermotion, where the lines fall down the page while connoting rising. Gizzi’s ability to use physical impossibility to locate the distortion endemic to living galvanizes these later books, as his language becomes increasingly spatial. It feels like he alters the physical world to reorient what he loves about being alive to a framework that feels more livable, which for Gizzi, must happen in poems.
This is especially true of Gizzi’s final book, New Depths of Deadpan. Even as a title, it’s a contrast of movement and meaning. “Deadpan,” which originated as 1920s and ’30s slang for “poker faced,” suggests a still surface as well as a flat tone. Movement that belongs to stillness, depth that belongs to deadpan, is a Gizzi logic that feels unsustainable in these poems, and captivated by unsustainability. In “Chimes at Midnight” he writes, “maybe a whole other life is possible. Maybe noon would rather be mid / night.”
Wishing to be other than he is, and expressing the fissure of how that desire might feel, is the governing presence in Gizzi’s final published poems. His final pamphlet “in this skin,” is dedicated to Pen Creeley, and performs that fissure to the point where personhood becomes interchangeable. The final poem, “The Dualists,” closes with the following: “A few exotic excursions / And you’re anybody / You say to the fog / ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t stay.’”
In addition to bringing his published work together, most of which is out of print, the Collected offers many of Gizzi’s uncollected poems, which reinforce the fault lines of his thinking over time. It also includes his poems from the months and days before his death.
Gizzi is a poet whom we need in order to understand how poems might accommodate a desire to be away from the world while being in love with what it contains. His are poems of slippage. They gather their dynamism from falling away, where “stars lose their grip / on the sky.”
You can’t help but feel your way through Gizzi’s poems, as they get closer and back off, as he curates even celestial bodies and their music as his companions in being present and departed in a world both his and not. As he puts it in his short project dedicated to Clark Coolidge, Cured in the Going Bebop, “Absence finds a way of being / there.”
DAVY KNITTLE is the author of the chapbooks empathy for cars/force of july (Horse Less Press, 2016) and cyclorama (The Operating System, 2015). His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Fence, and Jacket2, and his collaborations with Sophia Dahlin have recently appeared in Eleven Eleven. He lives in Philadelphia.