Three Poems

#18 from the series Strange Attractor
Georgi Tushev, #18 from the series Strange Attractor, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

Homer’s Anger

i.

Real things inside me he said.
You’ve gotten it all wrong.

I see you and hear you
and that is the beginning of a poem.

Not a circle but a ray
not a definition but a journey

flowering in scenes.
This composition is still all the time

coming into view.
The depth we might say.

I am seeing through you
like transistor songs

from a postcard beach town,
two loves caught in CinemaScope.

A movement inside movement
unlike the stars and flag.

ii.

I was going to tell you how it is
and then leaves out the window

ask me to respond.
Not just color and shine

but a total relinquishing
of the headlines.

If today is ash then
we have come from a great fire

and the heat is beginning
to consume the present.

To say rhythm is dangerous
is to miss the day entirely

to push the body on
in ungainly order

and the fate of fire
is to consume fuel from any source.

Already distance foreshortens
ghosts outside any door.

iii.

Should we discuss the news?
The meteorological epiphenomena

day in day out. It’s unforecastable,
not going to stop.

Here we are, caught
by a luminous blue fuzz

touching everything out our windows.
It’s not what you thought.

The smell of earth and hot sun.
Reassuring to lilacs too.

Loneliness is structural after all,
you have to really come with us

across the page, and if we are
indeed, alone together,

mighty are the numbers
drifting out there.

iv.

That’s it then, everything opening,
memory fuzzing, dandelion projection—

a falling upward at last. If you can
move like those motes

casting random shadow casting
liberty, the low progress in air.

To Carthage I came, to shadow
the lovely outside pouring upon the desk.

The lowing flickering branch
making a picture to show you.

I searched, traveled in stacks
all day and now I’ve found you.

Empty light forming a dais
on the page. A valuable blank.

This craving for notes, momentum,
that I came to love the struggle,

inner engine spitting years,
splintered, what are stars?

v.

I am listening to a life
unlived any other way.

Think of it. The notes remain
even as the song-sparrows change

from dirt to egg. Spring
to spring. Maybe that’s it.

The molecular world
falling and rising

within a single melody.
So why not liberty.

This is what I am told
to never stay with history.

Today we’ll be talking
about the government.

It’s important to remember.
All those scattered dispatches

on the back page. Human damage.
Working people and the right

to life, their pursuits,
not happiness,

not victories—
an endless series of victory.

vi.

One eye is more green than another
one more gray, a golden band

circles both pupils, dilates
as the creature breathes.

One eye is best looking for police,
they circle the block.

One for waves and motion
undulating from trees.

The eye is an instrument of emotion
like memory lives in the mouth.

Do you know what I mean
when I say anger is not emotion

when everyone is stolen
I will begin in rain

not to be wrong
but uncertain, to want

more than this sentence.
If I say darkness is still

when it falls, understand
I am moving toward you.


Protest Song

This is not a declaration of love or song of war
not a tractate, autonym, or apologia

This won’t help when the children are dying
no answer on the way to dust

Neither anthem to rally or flag flutter
will bring back the dead, their ashes flying

This is not a bandage or hospital tent
not relief or the rest after

not a wreath, lilac, or laurel sprig
not a garden of earthly delights

A libretto for the composer Michael Fiday,
for a song commissioned by the music ensemble Sequitur.


Beacon

You can always keep giving away
every shiny thing
gliding through daydream hedges
and fields
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?
We forget to laugh
I was going to say
but that’s no good
that isn’t even a start
trying to record a reason
face-to-face
and make it all better.
Better than what,
a really symphonic thought
to finally embrace the noise,
the afternoon light too,
the dog’s swagger and the kite
sailing beyond.

*

If it touches you
will you carry that unloosening
into a beautiful talk
of tomorrow, how satisfied you are
with your choices? Not the ones
you can choose among
but the ones you’re made of—
the flowers that came into your lines
wanting to say the accident of flight.
Faces too are a book,
like reading the stained glass—
à la to wit, we spent the day
reading glass in Rouen
I was going to say
remembering you
once you are gone
but that isn’t it. How I loved
so much more than that.
The whole dizzying horizon
blooming around you.
Tears electrical and stinging
in every tiny cell
hiding from winter
and the long gaps
of wanting and actual being here
with you like this
listening to my voice
as if it were enough
just this once
to rescue doubt into loving
the fact we are here
and that you too
are here taking in the air.

*

It won’t help to call out
intermittently: I am free!
Even if we didn’t go west
who wouldn’t have missed
the cornflower and poppies
on our goofy way to market.
The goofy present ribboning
highway to promise. What is it
dictating my hand
on its way to contact?
Can one ever expose the force
beneath a surface.
Are you still with me dear face?
Can you hear the cuckoo
as the dopplered sirens squeeze past
flipping the pages of a blank book.
A reflection that gave up the ghost—
wan and translucent, paling
like an unopened letter
momentous on the breakfront in sun.
We fade, come in and out
of summer in and out of sound.
I see it glittering in the sun.
I see the sun. The promenade alive
with radio air and streamers,
the crush of citizens—
to think I’ve known
about the sky all my life.
Or light on the floor through a window
from the streetlamp. Night.
That part of expectation.

*

This begins as all stories begin
with a small boat and a body of water
like an icy winter star,
fuzzy hills blue beyond
your neck and shoulder.
You are inside my projector
turning overhead and me
coming in and out of focus
when your light won’t reach me.
I know you’re there
even when I need
to stand in the dark
to find out why
I’m standing in the dark.
If everything were different
then this might be the same
in a rusty town when the sun
strokes the windows
and the dust of industry
across the soot and debris
of last season or into a tiny frame
looking at a flag
from my father’s car window
delivered even for an instant
to the right place and time.

*

The no, not, never,
not even, nothing of the day.
The nothing, nada, no thing,
not now of morning.
When the big arc zooms
into an acute angle,
and all your pictures still please
after the years and habit
lived among them.
I cannot greatly say
I am a rich landscape
or he who works the world
by observation alone is accurate.
The most distant sound
might be the truest
when nerves resemble
summer rain at 2 am,
the noise in back of things,
its deep seeding.

*

But if you were hoping
to think a way
between moonlight
and the dictionary
between summer
and the Constitution
steering your craft
into safe haven,
it isn’t as far as today’s
relentless polished horizon
inhuman silver tone
awash with tinsel.
I lost my way.
Can I say that
and still be trusted?
Can you ever trust
the rugged outline
of tree-lined boulevards in August.
The heavy narcotic
of the changing season.
What is it anyway
to navigate the gorgeous
swath of leaves
turning twilight wind,
birds pick up,
little things
awaiting the sun’s grand exit.
All things reach
when called. That’s the law.
I heard my name
one day from the road.
It startled me that alias
bringing me inside.


A Note on Peter Gizzi

Peter Gizzi’s name does not yet mean very much in America, but considering how often excellent poems like his are smothered by the smugness of the contemporary poetry scene, that’s no surprise. Many poets, especially those who fancy themselves experimental or alternative, churn out little more than delivery systems for doses of shiny pathos or linguistic cod liver oil. The pathos is decked out in the worn and frayed hand-me-downs of Frank O’Hara and other New York School poets. Advertisements for eccentricity and pampered idiosyncrasy written in a spirit of amused self-awareness, such poems are entertaining but hardly seductive since they lack the resourcefulness and sense of urgency that still gives the poems of O’Hara their wit, intelligence, and charm. As for the cod liver oil, it is dispensed by poets who write lyrics in which intimacy is put at a distance and for whom a poem’s level of difficulty, the extent to which it deranges linguistic norms, corresponds to its degree of political efficacy. Difficulty equals resistance. This is a schoolmasterish poetry bent on proving all the ways that language fails to communicate anything other than itself.

Peter Gizzi is well-acquainted with the lyric’s potential for linguistic bravura, but he is not entirely in thrall to it. His poems gently insist on the vividness of their life as poems as much as the vividness of their glimpses of life. They are inventive without being impudent, gorgeous without being gaudy, and they maintain their equipoise through tight and vivid diction. Gizzi’s poems are not without pathos either, but it’s more than the stuff of an identikit or enigmatic shock to the system. Not unlike Wallace Stevens, Jack Spicer, and George Oppen (all fructifying influences), Gizzi writes poems that dramatize the mind in the act of finding what will suffice in a volatile world that will not allow one to languish in satisfaction, certainty, or self-pity. Take the opening of “Revival.”

It’s good to be dead in America
with the movies, curtains and drift,
the muzak in the theater.
It’s good to be in the theater waiting
for The Best Years of Our Lives to begin.
Our first night back, we’re here
entertaining a hunch our plane did crash
somewhere over the Rockies, luggage
and manuscripts scattered, charred fragments
attempting to survive the fatal draft.
To be dead in America at the movies
distracted by preview music in dimming lights.
I never once thought of Alfred Deller
or Kathleen Ferrier singing Kindertotenlieder.
It’s good to be lost among pillars of grass.
I never once thought of My Last Duchess
or the Pines of Rome. Isn’t it great here
just now dying along with azaleas, trilliums,
myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox?

“Revival” is an elegy for the poet Gregory Corso that rejects the consolations of traditional elegy: hoped-for resurrection, the promise of newer pastures, the symbolic transformation of the corpse. It begins, paradoxically for a funeral poem, by reviving a catalogue of dying springtime flowers transplanted verbatim from Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” and it ends not by welcoming a rebirth but by casting away dust: “These parts wobble, stitching frames / to improvise a document: / all this American life. Strike that. / All our life, all our American lives gathered / into an anthem we thought to rescue us, / over and out. On your way, dust.” Yet the drama of “Revival” reinvigorates an elegiac mood that allows for the resolution of grief. The antipathetic is indulged, elegiac conventions are repudiated, yet pathos is revived. The dead receive the bounty of Gizzi’s imagination and grief without being embalmed by it. Instead of song as salvation, song as salvage operation.

Like Stevens’s dump, Gizzi’s America is a portrait of the world as it is, not a fatalistic wasteland. It’s a place where sifting through the trash is unavoidable and invaluable. For Gizzi, sifting involves listening carefully “to a life / unlived any other way,” as he writes in “Homer’s Anger.” A life unlived: This is poetry’s alien quality, something coaxed from everyday language and experience. A life unlived any other way: An alien quality that, rather than being the material of a superfluous art, makes poetry all the more necessary. This is one reason why Gizzi’s poems fuse a fierce lyric intimacy with moments of public exposure and address.

No subject presents a riskier moment of public exposure for a lyric poet than war. The risk lies in feeling insignificant. As a shepherd in Virgil’s ninth eclogue asks, “What can music do / Against the weapons of soldiers?” In “Beacon” (originally published in slightly different form in CROWD) and “Protest Song,” Gizzi asks a version of that question: What can the music of poetry do against the unnatural deaths of war? The Iliad, that epic of war, begins with Achilles’ rage at being robbed of a woman he deems his rightful prize. “Homer’s Anger” is not an epic but a lyric and it begins with Gizzi imagining Homer’s fury with us: “Real things inside me he said. / You’ve gotten it all wrong.” The nation is at war, which for Gizzi means we have mistaken Homer’s portrayal of a death cult for a glorification of battlefield heroes. We have ignored the blind poet’s vision of war as a no-win situation in which those who make it betray those who fight it. Given this climate of error and betrayal, Gizzi asks, how can a poet mourn without exploiting death for poetic gain?

Gizzi takes us on a search for a compassionate atmosphere, a space where “vulnerability won’t reproduce cruelty,” as he writes in “Ding Repair,” and where pathos won’t turn brittle, vindictive, or self-destructive. Gizzi asks a lot from readers who accompany him on a search, but he also, crucially, takes pains to include them. From “The Outernationale”:

When the pistons call,
when I was a wedge of sun
over steel mills,
when I asked what happened
I meant what happened to us?

—John Palattella

—John Palattella

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