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A delicate balance

Some Values of Landscape and Weather; Peter Gizzi; Wesleyan University Press: 110 pp., $28

March 21, 2004|John Palattella | John Palattella is an occasional contributor to Book Review.

"There are too many skateboards here, too many waves / to negotiate, the graded hills fall / too suddenly into the sea." These are the opening lines of "Ding Repair," from Peter Gizzi's second book of poems, "Artificial Heart." The words are a protest against the monotonous and wearisome plenitude of a California afternoon, and to steady the pace of his meditation on that life, Gizzi introduces a more detailed image:

A hummingbird at the scarlet bell works the vine.

Even as adults we hope to witness ordinary spectacle

evolve into meaning, ordinary and rare each time

the ribbon, the wave -- all bent.

Many of the poems in "Artificial Heart" focus on something like that hummingbird: In the face of loss, despair, anonymity and cruelty, Gizzi pursues the quiet clamor of gorgeousness. He does this by steering clear of writing "I am" poems that make his inner life our roommate -- which is no surprise, since today such stuff is as plentiful and wearisome as skateboards. Instead, Gizzi approaches the present by invoking and reinventing the work of key predecessors.

He draws on different forms (canzone, villanelle, free verse) and echoes the words and tones of many poets, including John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Hart Crane, Jack Spicer and Elizabeth Bishop. But "Artificial Heart" owes its quiet clamor to more than this conversation with a tradition. There's also an infusion of punkdom: "New Picnic Time" draws its title, as well as some phrases, from the Pere Ubu album of the same name, while "Fear of Music" samples the lyrics of David Byrne.

"Artificial Heart" is mannerist in the best sense of the word, in that it playfully and elegantly extends the work of many fine figures. But mannerism's serious play can become a trap if a poet grows too comfortable with certain riffs and stylistic effects, allowing them to become pranks or head games. In his new and engaging volume of poems, "Some Values of Landscape and Weather," Gizzi returns to the subjects of "Artificial Heart" and avoids the trap of mannerism by writing in a more delicate and plangent way than he has in the past. He works in a language that, for all its affectionate nods at other poets, is entirely his own.

One strength of his idiom is its equipoise. Gizzi is well acquainted with lyric poetry's potential for linguistic bravura, but he is not entirely in thrall to it. His poems manage to be inventive without being impudent, gorgeous without being gaudy, and so they are free of the occupational hazards of contemporary lyric poetry: presumptuous egotism, grating allusiveness, treacly insouciance.

Gizzi's equipoise is expressed through his diction, which is tight and vivid. "Thinking oompahs of dented brass / yesteryear calling on the road"; "The words come in winter / the steel, the ice petals"; "a broken line / picked clean / by sparrows at dusk"; "A day mulches according to gravity / and the sow bug marches." These lines have in common a linguistic economy and sensual intelligence. Consider how the sound of "mulches," possibly obeying the laws of gravity, collapses into "marches," or how the liquid rhythm of "the words come in winter" is frozen, appropriately enough, by the sharp stresses of "steel" and "ice petals."

What's also common to the lines is the way they lend physical details to an idea without letting the idea dissolve into the details. It's not a matter of providing a physical image for an idea (yesteryear, gravity) but of establishing a correspondence between idea and image. Gizzi's is an art of reverberation and conjunction.

His poems, in other words, insist as much on the vividness of their life as poems as on the vividness of their images of life. It's not that the poems are simply meditations on their own linguistic machinations. If they were only that, they would be nothing more than pale imitations of Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and Jorie Graham.

Instead, Gizzi frequently pares down a lyric to elementary images and syntax, in order to better plumb the emotion at its center. "Coda" begins by sketching a landscape: "When the sky came down / there was wind, water, red // When the sky fell / it became water, wind / a declaration in blue." With that last line, "Coda" could very easily veer off into abstraction, but it doesn't, because in the next stanza Gizzi himself becomes part of the poem's story of loss -- "When the end was near / I picked up for a moment" -- and one remains suspended with him, until the sixth and last stanza, which is the most terse and haunting of all: "In my dream you were alive / and crying."

Other poems dwell on vulnerability and loss in a more formally and philosophically expansive manner. "Beginning With a Phrase From Simone Weil" opens with a paradox, "There is no better time than the present when we have / lost everything," and one cannot but wonder -- especially since the enjambment of the two lines causes "have" to collide with "lost" -- what kind of wisdom this Job-like speaker will offer. Is loss all that one has?

Gizzi delves into the scope and intensity of that paradox by recycling, over the course of the poem's four stanzas, phrases and images introduced in its first stanza. In the last, the words of the opening line become, "There is no better everything than loss when we have / time," a reversal indicating that Gizzi's poem, and perhaps poetry itself, can fulfill itself only through loss.

In "Ding Repair," Gizzi writes that he wants his words to create a space where "vulnerability won't reproduce cruelty" -- that is, where pathos won't turn brittle, vindictive or self-destructive. In "Some Values of Landscape and Weather," Gizzi imagines that space and convinces one of its value too, by allowing his words to be free and more than free: elate and intent, ordinary and rare each time.

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