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Peter Gizzi—Threshold Songs

By Alan Gilbert

Peter Gizzi has been a good friend ever since we overlapped for a year together in grad school almost two decades ago. I reviewed his first two poetry books, Periplum and Artificial Heart, for Denver Quarterly and Chicago Review, respectively, and read his next two, Some Values of Landscape and Weather and The Outernationale, with deep interest and admiration. He’s one of the finest lyric poets writing today, as attested by profiles of his latest book, Threshold Songs, in the New Yorker and a number of other places (Karla Kelsey’s review in the Constant Critic is particularly insightful), as well as being named a Best Book of 2011 by the Times Literary Supplement.

Much about Threshold Songs points to a loosening from this world and evocations of another time and place—from the spare (yet beautiful) design to the shadow realms the book voices. Written in the wakes of the deaths of his mother, brother, and a close friend, Threshold Songs speaks to and from the dead. Ghosts have always inhabited the language of Gizzi’s poetry, and here they cross over, or under, as in “Basement Song”: “How deep the mother / deep the basement // the body, odor of laundry / the soul of a bug.” Poetry, perhaps more than any other form of writing, reveals that the materiality of language is a liminal condition, and in this sense captures the ephemerality of all that we are and know—meaning, that we also aren’t and ultimately don’t know. In other words, poetic language is essentially anti-essentialist. Gizzi is among a relatively small handful of poets whose work understands this intuitively (instead of, for instance, conceptually).

As even the above brief passage from “Basement Song” makes clear, one of the most striking features of Gizzi’s poetry is its rootedness in the phenomenological world, and his work manifests a poetic thick description of this world’s various layers, from the cellular to the cosmic. This helps keep Threshold Songs grounded when it wants to wander into the darker recesses of silence, as well as when crucial passages in the book are structured as hypotheses (the “if” construction appears throughout Gizzi’s poetry), including the tour de force list poem “Apocrypha,” with its apparent resignation—it functions as an imaginary last will and testament—that is in fact a gorgeous gesture of defiance. For instance: “To Times Roman I give my stammer, my sullenness, my new world violence, form and all that, forms, and all that paper, gusts. Little buttress.” In the end, poetry is a flimsy, yet necessary, defense.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 by Alan Gilbert.