The Whole Vortex of Home

Reviewed By

[Peter] Gizzi’s particular gift is to posit that shifting location where senses meet the terrible and the sublime, where political portent or its brittle actualities announce themselves in various configurations.

Peter Gizzi writes immensely satisfying, supple poems, and his fifth collection provides evidence of a well-lived, not always permeable vision on every page. Threshold Songs is the perfect accompaniment for an interior instrument, reminding the reader of one’s own riches, by making them as new as the poems. What is seen and heard in each word becomes an essential part of a musical ensemble, well-rehearsed with the rigorous knowledge brought to the project, but never feeling stiff. Gizzi’s particular gift is to posit that shifting location where senses meet the terrible and the sublime, where political portent or its brittle actualities announce themselves in various configurations. To do this without stumbling is a major accomplishment.

“The Growing Edge” which begins the volume, is painful, alert in a manner that is almost spine-tingling:

There is a spike
in the air
a distant thrum
you call singing
and how many nights
this giganto, torn
turned, I wonder if
you hear me
I mean I talk
to myself through you
hectoring air
you’re out there
tonight and so am I
for as long as
I remember
I talk to the air
what is it
to be tough
what ever
do you mean
how mistaken
can I be, how
did I miss it
as I do entirely
and admit very
well then
I know nothing
of the world

It’s a three-page uphill/downhill path here, and not a word is wasted. He has, as they say, nailed it at the end, like an archer in an earlier century :

I mean the whole
Vortex of home
buckling inside
a deep sea whine
flash lightning
birth storms
weather of pale
blinding life

There’s not much to add to this essential, alchemy, and the shorter pieces contain just as much power. “Fragment, ” below, in full, works as a kind of sculpture that could be on permanent, always invigorating display in a museum garden:

When you wake to brick outside the window

when you accept this handmade world

when you see yourself inside and accept its picture

when you feel the planet spin, accelerate, make dust
        of everything beneath your bed

when you say I want to live and the light that breaks
        is an inward light

when you feel speed of days, speed of light

if one could fancy vision then let it be of you

let it be thought breaking in your view.

Reading this, and most Gizzi poems, is like paying a call on a living repository where art, physics, astronomy and exalted subtleties of emotion meet at newly decisive brink. To give a Gizzi poem its due is to be enriched by becoming more attentive. This can and should, of course, be said of any poem, but Gizzi’s work refines the process with such finesse that he almost seems to be creating a new, ephemeral form one wants to keep always at hand.

“Oversong” could be reconfigured as a charcoal sketch prized for the places where light enters, departs, leaves a mark or a leaves a space that is itself an indispensible mark:

To be dark, to darken
to obscure, shade, dim

to tone down, to lower
overshadow, eclipse

to obfuscate, adumbrate
to cast into the shade

becloud, bedim, be-
darken, to cast a shadow

throw a shade, throw
a shadow, to doubt

to dusk, extinguish
to put out, blow out

to exit, veil, shroud
to murk, cloud, to jet

in darkness, Vesta
midnight, Hypnos

Thanatos, dead of night
Sunless, dusky, pitch

starless, swart, tenebrous
Inky, Erebus, Orpheus

vestral, twilit, sooty, blue….

Those ellipses are his, as deliberate and utterly fitting as the ancient allusions and everything else here. “Tenebrous” with its connection to Easter liturgy and mystery, serves as a well-placed pebble of acknowledgement that prayer, song, poetry are enigmatic vessels for what cannot always be contained.

“History is Made at Night,” a ten-part construction, is close to impeccable and always exhilarating, though sometimes a little too blunt as in :

But what else is there
when so many are asleep
in this age of sand, yes, sand
in the eyes and in the heart.
Its hard to get a footing,
the mechanics are exhausting.

No doubt they are, and in a piece that faces head-on dismay with inventions and their corroded half-deaths (“Cars in the yards/make ugly sounds/and the animals/touching them smell bad.”) and “Gmail” one accepts, even gathers in, the immensity of the ache while still wishing for sails to be trimmed closer to the wind, more distant from the commonplaces. That said, “History is Made at Night” is as a whole is bold and striking, an erudite creation, a description that also fits the entire volume. Closing the poem, Gizzi reminds :

Even daylight is historic
if you think on it
if you really feel its cold rays,
old poetry, spreading evenly
over as far as you can see.

It’s all fair game and nothing is unimportant. Everything must be experienced and noted, which is, he understands, impossible, and even the most far-seeing cannot see with enough precision. The warmest among us will experience, if not comprehend, cold rays.

In “Bardo,” the next to last poem in THREESHOLD SONGS, the marvelous title is joltingly apt, and the lines cohere with integrity :

I’ve spent my life
in a lone mechanical whine,

this combustion far off.
How fathomless to be

embedded in glacial ice,
what piece of self hiding there/

I am not sure about meaning
but understand the wave.

By the end of the poem, the questions he raises are the ones that must be asked :

And if I say the words
will you know them?

Is there world?
Are they still calling it that?

Peter Gizzi is on an arduous quest. Everyone who reads him should find their own journey given a superior sustenance.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →