Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review


By Peter Gizzi

Reviewed By Melih Levi

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Writing always has a history. Poems, the lyric in particular, are often thought of as experiences that interrupt the flow of time and carve out an ahistorical framework for themselves. While this sentiment conveys a naïve belief in poetry’s ability to arrest the reader’s attention and sustain it for some time, it dismisses the agony that the poet experiences while bringing the poem into the world, a process involving intense battles with the history that each sound carries and the various territories they demand in the poet’s imagination. Considering the recent publication of Gizzi’s selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, it doesn’t come off as a surprise that the poet would be preoccupied by a history of his own poetic production and how, retrospectively, his oeuvre makes a claim on the history of poetry at large. In Archeophonics, Gizzi concentrates mainly on two concepts which are announced in the title, archeo- and phonics, a historical study of voices and sounds, an excavation of language and forms of articulation.

Gizzi struggles to return to the already-spoken, continuously refusing to cooperate with the written record or the most recent articulation, and desperately searches for the possibility of an origin, a body, in full awareness of the task’s impossibility. What we see throughout the collection is an animation of this impossibility, an attempt to inhabit the impossibility itself by describing it and often turning it into a landscape. Landscapes give Gizzi the chance to perform a double return, through both context and language. Throughout this process, the poet finds himself having to confront the melancholy impossibility of returning to a place as one used to know it. “The winter sun says fight” questions the artificiality of induced moods and impulses that are triggered by natural phenomena:

Now fog says coffee,
that’ll bring you back.
To where?

It is exactly these inscrutable gaps between phenomena and the actions they prompt that add up to a sense of place. The line break (“back. / To where?”) performs this adding-up effect. We have to read ahead before we can return to the question; the coffee is supposed to bring him back before he can ask the question, “To where?” The return to language is always caught up in these paradoxical gestures. At the end, the poet declares, “I’ve been here before.” This “here” is by no means an answer to the question that the poet had posed earlier (“to where?”) but rather a melancholy admission, a placeholder that can come only at the very end, when one is just about leave a place, a thread of language, or a poem. It’s only by entering language, as one enters a place, that we can imagine how we find our way around a language or how we might have been able to do it once.

But of course, such places are only and unsettlingly fictional, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, “everything we say / Of the past is description without place, a cast / Of the imagination, made in sound.” And because they are fictional, Gizzi’s insistence on spatializing these sounds ends up uncovering the fictions that he himself often unconsciously sustains. In “Strangeness Becomes You,” Gizzi begins by antagonizing and dismissing the ever-constitutive power of “the old language,” which, at the very end of the previous poem, was left “dozing in the sun,” making itself comfortable:

The old language is
the old language.
It don’t mean shit.

With this colloquial and irritable tone, the poet is attempting to have his own way with language and to deny its ability to overdetermine meaning, but gradually language gets its own way with him:

Try as you must.
Break as you will.
Solo in space
clinging to space.

Fuck, the air said
passing a corner,
a long ropy snot
hitting a gutter.

The poet’s descriptions of the struggle to break free from old language almost always evoke a sense of place. This imaginative tendency to spatialize language, however, only works to trap him further. Gizzi is always exacting with his line breaks and in this case uses them to test his feeble autonomy over language by showing that he can break the line wherever and however he wants. Yet this also proves to be an illusion as other actors, like air, emerge and call into question the extent to which the poet can control the symbolic space of his own language. Eventually something has to give, and this time, it’s the syntax that causes a rupture in the body of the poem. Syntax “breaks down” and speaks in the language of protest:

one day the poor
will have nothing
to eat but the rich.

These lines are reminiscent of a poem (“Masters of the Cante Jondo”) in one of Gizzi’s previous collections, where he gradually comes to realize that he is getting caught up in a political bind:

By the time of this speech
the original has vanished

without promising emancipation
The sound is a body

This sound is my body.

Gizzi recognizes that his body is the site where multiple histories are negotiated and sometimes subjugated or lost without any hope for recovery. His occasional choice to couch such philosophical and political problems in the form a lyric voice will not be surprising to his longtime readers. But in this particular collection, Gizzi’s lyric mode presents a new challenge by repeatedly exposing the historical and often dissonant means by which a voice comes into being. This, in turn, makes the reader overly conscious of the act of reading these poems. How do we perform this voice, while at the same time witnessing a painful process of phonic excavation? At times reading these poems, especially if we are in search of some coherent meaning, feels like playing the devil’s advocate, or even worse, pushing the poet right into the fire. In the title poem (also the first in the collection), Gizzi starts out by claiming that he is “just visiting this voice.” Yet it immediately becomes clear that he is in fact stepping into an uncontainable situation:

I am just visiting the world at this moment
and it’s on fire
It’s always been on fire.

The reader’s awareness of the poet’s flammability as he steps barefoot into multiple histories of sounds precipitates in an emergent politics, one that causes relentless angst in the poet. Indebted to as well as burdened by a long history, Gizzi is often somberly self-conscious of the immediate reverberations of his work, as in the fifth poem of the sequence, “A Winding Sheet for Summer”:

Now discrete observations produce undramatic sound,
like I am a bubble,
make me the sea. O, make me the sea.

As Walter Benjamin once suggested, “What has been forgotten . . . is never something purely individual.” Gizzi is aware of this fact to be sure, and he understands that his archeology cannot simply be a poet’s personal journey into forgotten and archaic constructions. Nevertheless, as above, he tries to stay afloat in “lexical waters,” where he keeps bumping into the “fictions” that “remain” of each sound. Archeophonics is an unprecedented and haunting meditation on poetry, how it retains memories of its former manifestations, the politics of this retention, and how, most importantly, in spite of everything, voice rises to the surface and poetry survives.

Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University. He studies American, Turkish, and German poetry from the late nineteenth century onward, with particular attention to poetic form and prosody. He is also a translator. His co-translation of one of the earliest Ottoman novels, Felâtun Bey and Râkim Efendi, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2016.