Peter Gizzi’s poems have always walked a line between stylized opacity and friendly, if melancholy, accessibility, enacting an argument about whether language is esoteric or generic, personal or public, our salvation from commerce or hopelessly commodified. This argument is at the heart of much contemporary poetry, but for Gizzi it also represents an interior struggle between the need to disclose emotion with words and the need to hide it behind words. The interplay between these two ideas has never been stronger than in his new collection, Threshold Songs, in which the author is haunted by the deaths of his brother, the poet Michael Gizzi, and his parents. The central question here is whether words can do anything to share the burden of, or protect the self from, the pain of loss.
Gizzi is clawing at time in almost every one of these poems, trying to slow its passage or reach into the past. “I wonder if / you hear me / I mean I talk / to myself through you / your hectoring air / you’re out there,” Gizzi says to his ghosts in “The Growing Edge,” one of the book’s most transparent statements of loss and longing.
More often, these outcries act as muses for more veiled and fragmentary sentences, collages of seemingly loaded words, name checks, recognizable flecks. Gizzi’s poems are most successful—and he is at his most original—when he can interweave a voice that hungers to unburden itself of its pain with one that has little faith in the capacity of language to communicate anything, thereby dramatizing how hard it is not just to name, but then to come out and say, what one feels. Many poets fail by choosing one side of this fence or the other, either telling too plainly at the expense of music, or losing the reader in abstraction. At his best, such as in the poem “Analemma,” Gizzi proves a good poet doesn’t have to choose:
That I came back to live
in the region both
my parents died into
that I will die into
if I have nothing else
I have this and
it’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it
it’s ok to see there things
Here, the voice seems simultaneously disembodied and autobiographical, eager to communicate specific details (“the region both / my parents died into”) while retreating into a kind of safer abstraction, if not confrontation (“I’m in that somewhere / and what of it”).
Gizzi’s eye for detail serves a deep faith in the notion that things in poems stand in for emotions, that objects become talismanic, that, when represented in poems, they take the imprint of our feelings and memories and hold it out for display. He is among the foremost practitioners of the list poem, cataloging significant objects until a mood overwhelms:
This house is older than the lilac trusses glistening in winter ice,
older than the pack of Winstons on the wire chair,
older than the chair as well as this glass of water holding water.
Later in this poem, “Snow Globe,” he undercuts this specificity, asking, “Where is my head in this data? / All this / indexical nomenclature.” The tonal shift works because the abstract diction rests upon a foundation of detail: It’s thrilling, and frightening, to watch a mind protect itself from its own thoughts. “It’s not reassuring to know the names tonight,” the poem continues. “Just words to fill space older than a house.” There’s a willful amnesia here. Gizzi may desire to leave names behind, but he never lets go of the importance of language. Words are better than a void, even if they’re just “filling space.”