I know that’s all a bit blurry, a bit vague, but that’s how it is for me & the poems in ‘The Outernationale’.
Take, for example, these few lines from the opening of ‘Wintry Mix’:
The 6 A.M. January
in a waxy gray putty
whizzing by with spots
of luminous silvery
coming through, an eerie
like an old movie.
I think that’s spectacular, don’t you? A poem that begins by looking out on an early morning wintry sky could so easily be dully derivative, but the language here is fresh, clean & crisp, & ‘encaustic’ is the exact word for those waxy clouds, isn’t it? (It is; I looked it up.)
Now try this, the opening of ‘Beacon’:
You can always keep giving away
every shining thing
gliding through daydream hedges
in the heat of the classroom
stuck in a corner
looking at the H I J K L banner.
Or you can start laughing
it kinda works as a relief from other things
labor, sleep, stories with a setting.
But standing up on dry land
isn’t as easy as it once was, is it?
I can sort of intuit someone daydreaming through a dreary lesson, but there’s another strangeness going on too, the ‘shining thing’, & the sudden shift of language-register with the line that begins ‘it kinda works ...’ I’m every bit as fascinated by this as by ‘Wintry Mix’ but ‘Beacon’ is obviously an altogether more elusive & perhaps allusive poetic proposition. The poem floats rather beguilingly along like this over several pages. In the final section we’re told
But if you were hoping
to think a way
and the dictionary
and the constitution
steering your craft
into safe haven,
it isn’t as far as today’s polished horizon
awash with tinsel.
I lost my way.
Can I say that
and still be trusted?
And that’s the hint, I think. It’s okay to lose your way in a poem, to drift around somewhere ‘between moonlight and the dictionary’, but what does this mean for the reader? Can the poet retain the reader’s trust? All art requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Or to put it another way, if we are going to get something out of it, we need to invest a portion of our belief, our trust, in the work itself. In ‘The Outernationale’ it’s almost as if Peter Gizzi is taking things a step further, testing the reader’s trust, pushing the proverbial envelope. The poems seem to spring from what sounds like a sort of talking to oneself. But it’s not a matter of unfocused internal rambling; these poems talk to themselves in an intelligent & complex voice, a voice where thinking & feeling are swirled together in a way that good & interesting poetry does better than anything else.
There’s something in Peter Gizzi’s poems that we find in John Ashbery’s poems too
where what we take is what we are given.
Some call it self-reliance. Ça va?
To understand our portion, our bright portion.
(from Gizzi’s ‘Last Century Thoughts in Snow Tonight’)
which intimates that to enter successfully into the world of ‘The Outernationale’ (or the Ashberian universe for that matter) requires a degree of ‘self-reliance’. We take what is given & make of it what we can & will. And yes, that sometimes asks quite a lot of the reader, but I suppose we all know by now that the contemporary poetry reader is not the average reader & therefore, we hope, up to the challenge. Put simply, we have to be ready to give up some of our more prosaic expectations about the way literature or poetry (or even language) usually presents itself.
Wallace Stevens’ oft-quoted remark about a good poem resisting the intelligence almost successfully is also relevant here because it is entirely possible to suggest that some of the poems in ‘The Outernationale’ resist the intelligence just that little bit too successfully. Sometimes it’s true that what we are given is so inscrutable, so resistant to our need to ascribe meaning that it skims over the top of our comprehension making barely any impression on us at all. ‘Saturday and Its Festooned Potential’ is perhaps an interesting case in point. It begins
Faces unlike weather
no matter how closely
they resemble rain
In this theater, time
isn’t cruel, just different
Does that help?
Well, we might reply, no it doesn’t. Not really. Faces, do return sometimes, don’t they? And where did this ‘theater’ come from? And if time is different there, what is it different from & why should that matter? But if we can stay with the poem and let the abstractions start to build and layer, one on another, then something like meaning (although not entirely like it) begins to take shape. This is how it ends:
When twigs are swaying
the library’s large glass
signal, scratch, and join
to an idea of history
When twigs scratching
join to an idea of time
to a picture of being
Like to be beside and becoming
to be another and oneself
to be complete inside the poem
To be oneself becoming a poem
Without wishing to descend too far into the mystical, it is almost as if one has to submit to the incantatory quality of the poem for it to do its work, to find a way to be inside the poem rather than remain steadfastly on this side of the page, as it were. I’m acutely aware that in places this sounds more like theology than literary criticism, & that feels like a weakness – maybe in me, or maybe in the poems.
When I read ‘The Outernationale’ for the first time I found myself reminded in places of George Oppen, the work seemed to have that same lyrical spareness about it, so I was quietly pleased when later I noticed that the book’s epigraph (which I’d missed the first time around) was from a George Oppen poem:
I think there is no light in the world
but the world
And I think there is light
Light crops up a great deal throughout ‘The Outernationale’. In one sense ‘light’ is of course the lazy, catch-all abstraction, standing in for purity, truth, the ineffable, or simply when we’re grasping for the indefinable & can’t think of anything else; but in another way it is absolutely, poetically right in these poems, embodying the strangeness & otherness & evanescence which lie at the heart of Peter Gizzi’s genuinely visionary writing. And it is exceptionally competent & confident writing, there’s no doubt about that. Nor should we be in any doubt about its simple lyric beauty.
The shine on her buckle took precedence in the sun
Her shine, I should say, could take me anywhere
It feels right to be up this close in tight wind
It feels right to notice all the shiny things about you
About you there is nothing I wouldn’t want to know
With you nothing is simple yet nothing is simpler
(from ‘Lines Depicting Simple Happiness’)
Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I’m still bewildered. But in a good way.
Copyright © C. J. Allen, 2007