Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011

By Peter Gizzi

Reviewed By Tim Wood

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Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance

—Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

The title of Gizzi’s selected poems conjures up some pretty famous lines in the annals of modern poetry, from W.H. Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” to Wallace Stevens’s “the nothing that is not there / and the nothing that is.” Another way, then, to read Gizzi’s title, if we take a slightly circuitous route through these invocations, is “In Defense of [Poetry].” Associating “poetry” with “nothing” may seem to beckon after the rueful poet’s reduced expectation that, because poetry makes nothing happen, there is, in fact, nothing to defend. But in Gizzi’s case, mounting a defense of nothing is neither a justification for a pessimistic outlook nor an admission of poetry’s irrelevance; a defense of nothing is a means of preserving an imaginative space not already occupied by the ads, road signs, storefronts, labels, junk mail, television shows, or radio top 40 playlists that purposefully direct us toward precast destinations. Oscar Wilde anticipated such a defense when he wrote, “A work of art is useless the way a flower is useless”—anticipating, that is, Ed Harris playing Jackson Pollock: “If people would just look at the paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” Gizzi doesn’t seem to tear his hair out over what poetry means, but he doesn’t take the act of making a poem for granted either: “I was going to build you a flower. / Then the day broke apart.” Gizzi’s poems lead you to think that building that flower would not only create something enjoyable but also make something useful. It will lead you somewhere unexpected. It could save the day.

That said, any poet who marshals a defense of nothing very well knows it is a philosophical precipice suspended between an abyss and the void, as Shakespeare’s Lear notoriously demonstrates when he denounces his most honest daughter Cordelia by declaring, “Nothing will come of nothing.” In an instant, Lear invokes a philosophy of negation (ex nihilo nihil fit) that he will then be forced to live out to its logical conclusion: “a bare-forked animal.” It’s a high-stakes game to try and alchemize “the nothing that is not there” into “the nothing that is” and to make nothing “happen” by snatching possibility from loss. Reading through Gizzi’s selected, the mind leaps from one line to the next, and the surprise in the enjambments comes less from the unlikely but fitting connections and more from the breathtaking leap over what isn’t there. Surveying almost twenty-five years of poetry, In Defense of Nothing makes clear that, whatever the hazard, Gizzi has sought to reveal the nothing that “actually” occurs by making us aware of the white spaces that define the contours of experience, the flashes of perception that don’t last, the interstices in “the irreducible together / of this being you / being me.”

The book begins both singing and seeing in the classic poetic overture of an invocation: “O branch O earth.” But soon, through the conspiracies of seeing and singing, Gizzi gets to the heart of the matter. Writing in an age when the Muse is not so readily available for daily inspiration, Gizzi’s poems wonder what it means to be a poet here and now. Fittingly, the first answer comes in “Poem for John Wieners”: “I am not a poet.” Via negativa. In defense of nothing—a statement that resolves with the insight that a poem is where “eyes grow into the evolved dark.” The following poem, “Despite Your Notices,” answers this negative with a positive: “This is my poem…. The one I tuck under my eyelids when looking inhabits the distinctions of what can be seen.” Again, though, the poem is what you see with eyes shut against what already assaults your vision. Nothing in defense. Of perception. Of language. Of new insight. So what does the poet do then with this “empty empty” space? “The poet builds a room, / it can be small or grand depending on the tone / as in June her garden is real.” Better yet, the poet simply forgets:

The morning you woke up and for a moment forgot
to call them “dead,” it was the morning
of the poem…

Gizzi’s poems often turn a “nothing” like the act of forgetting into a means of retrieval, restoration, or recovery, where what’s lost becomes immanent, what’s ephemeral becomes perpetual. Of course, these attempts to transform space and time can’t always work, and so they are often taken on with a wry smile and some skepticism about what poems can actually accomplish: “I am here. Ask me now. / Saying leave me alone, I am only a poem, / what do you want from me?”

Gizzi knows “this might be leading nowhere.” But nowhere is also always utopia, the spatial equivalent of a “nothing” that Gizzi’s poems chart as “a composite map leading me to the horizon / of afternoon, where the you is not erased / or blown away but remains coal ash intact / at the bottom of my mouth.” As maps imply both journeys and destinations, Gizzi’s “composite map” of poems charts “the garden of vestiges” looking for “this possibility of place” only to arrive after “these past thirty-odd years / it took to get here/ on this Tuesday”; all the while, the poems continue to move “on the thruway,” “the miles under my feet,” “the cars / and the people in them on their way.” It almost goes without saying that, as they venture forth, the poems travel through poetry. Gizzi’s “Learning to say ‘my wife my car my color” is ventriloquizing Charles Olson, “these small hands” cons a phrase from E.E. Cummings, the insistence that “in June her garden is real” evokes Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” and “A box of elderberry lists behind the alcove… / then description fails the reader and we / are left with only shapes and patterns” seems to owe an awful lot to T.S. Eliot for its tone. If not, then the reference to “a hollow man” or “Tradition & The Indivisible Talent” certainly identifies the influence just as “I quantify, I loaf, I wonder, I find, I rev” tips its jaunty hat to Walt Whitman’s diction and cumulative syntax. And then all this allusiveness is in its own right homage to Ezra Pound. The point, though, is not to addle our brains raking through Gizzi’s lines searching for half-buried allusions, for a “Melville, forgotten, / buried under ambition and guilt.” Even when the allusions are conspicuous, Gizzi’s poems resist this approach to reading a poem. It is not just when an identifiable reference crops up but always and everywhere that Gizzi’s poems give off an uncanny feeling that this has been said before, just not quite in this way.

The poems simply make obvious that the words are well-worn and are always on their way from elsewhere, if not from fragments of poems then recycled idioms and even clichés (e.g. “A grace opening to air. / No better time than the present”). That the language comes used and is in use means that these “things that have been already said many times: / leaf, zipper, sparrow, lintel, scarf, window, shade” connect us and can be made abstract enough that the individual voice gives way to the procession of “just another I-am poem, / a we-see poem, a they-love poem.” A Gizzi poem is “the song built with the populism of a mural,” repeating words—such as today, love, you, I, eye, die, twilight, horizon, smile, know—until they almost feel allegorical and become our own. On the whole, these poems move beyond the conventional lyric condition where “You are solo”:

I could never find
My way there and now
We are only here.
That’s something
More than spectacular sunsets,
Fading shafts of water.

To “look straight into the impermanent flash” and register the momentary, making it last long enough to imagine it and for someone else to see it—both “the surf breaking and the picture of a wave”—is one way a poem can make nothing happen. Another way is to find a means of stabilizing the fickleness of an instant with the ballast of love: “if sunshine hits marble and the sea lights up / we might know we are loved, are loved.”For whatever the ostensible subject of Gizzi’s poems, they are all no doubt love poems.

For a book so concerned with sound, it is worth pausing before concluding to note the music of Gizzi’s beveled lines. Just the title “Lonely Tylenol” is worth saying aloud five times fast (both forwards and backwards!). Or try twisting your tongue around “Pinocchio’s Gnosis.” Otherwise, simply recite lines like these to hear Gizzi’s intricate music:

A dirty blotter
Its crusty bottle, a plume

*

There are beetles and boojum
Specimen jars decorated

With walkingsticks, water striders
And luna moths

A treatise on rotating spheres

*

This swivel chair, worn
From some years past

As a genre, a selected poems is a sort of “swivel chair,” a chance to look back, look ahead, and spin things around. Neither the freshets of a new compilation nor a retrospective sea of a collected works, a selected gives a poet like Gizzi the occasion to extract a poem from a longer series and let it stand on its own as well as to “make a few silent edits” (a fitting Cagian gesture for a book that defends “nothing”). Gizzi’s selected, then, is not nostalgic but actively involved in advancing its own poetic activity, which, in this new context, these lines originally from The Outernationale (2007) neatly sum up:

To continue is not what you imagined.
But what you imagined was to change
and so you have and so has the crowd.

Gizzi’s poetic drive to “Start from nothing and be- / long to it” is, as the enjambment suggests, a kind of longing or, otherwise, a directive keening: “Start from nothing /and let the sound reach you.” Both conceptions imagine “nothing” as a point of arrival or a state of being. Perhaps this is what Gizzi means when he writes, “nothing spoke for itself.” Whether spoken aloud or read in silence, the poems gathered into this selection show how “nothing / changes everything” as Gizzi’s curatorial eye continues to limn the unfinished edges of these polished surfaces.

Published 12/16/14

Tim Wood is currently a Fulbright scholar at the Universität Tübingen in Germany. He is the author of the book of poems Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008). His poems have recently appeared in Likewise Folio . His critical work can be found in Convolution , Jacket2, and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. His poetry reviews are accessible online at Colorado Review, The Iowa Review, and the Boston Review.