Book Review

Written in a time of loss and disaffection, the fatigue in these poems is insidious. The poems do not owe to a single event—not COVID-19 or Trump or random brutality or exploration of personal loss. But the effort to cognitively self-create requires intensity of purpose, greatly like making a poem from a world that comes to you in slivers and fragments. “Speech Acts for a Dying World,” the opening poem in this moving and verbally dazzling collection, articulates the need and frustration:

when I thought I was done
with the poem as a vehicle
to understand violence

I thought I was done
with the high-toned
shitty world

done with the voice and
its constituent pap

But how to quit “the marvel / of ephemeral shadow play, / the great design and all that”? Close looking is a pleasure as well as a source of material for the poet, and with it, the possibility of transcending the imminent:

when I said voice,
I meant the whole unholy grain of it,
it felt like paradise

meaning rises and sets,
now a hunter overhead
now a bear at the pole
and the sound of names

the parade of names

The book is full of the mundane particular, as in catalogues of serial naming that can suggest an abundance of significance or its opposite; the “emptiness fanning out into breakfast rolls, macadam, stars” in “That I Saw the Light on Nonotuck Avenue” These poems are, substantially, about death, loss, and/or a need to make meaning through art when habits of speaking and thinking emotionally distance you from vision. Though the poems always are alert to the presence of the numinous, Gizzi avoids the grandiloquent. Especially deft management of tone results from shifts from the banal into intimate statement. For instance, in the titular poem of the collection:

I read every moment is an opportunity for grace
and think every moment is a possibility of art.
I tie my shoes and now I am standing alone
in some inky light.
Yesterday I passed a Budget Motel next to
the Peoples Bank.
If there’s some connection it’s lost on me.
My heart lost on me.

Unsurprisingly for a book titled Now It’s Dark, references to light consistently suggest a trope of revelation or its absence, using words and phrases like glinting, sheen, shimmer, old light, blown light, blaze, sunstroked, and fire used throughout. The reference is never coded because nothing in these poems is simplistic. “Now It’s Dark,” the poem, deals with light’s absence “under this chemical sky,” saying, “Reader, if I could I would bring back for you / a sun made in crayon”. Elsewhere in these poems of fabulous movement laced with emotional glancing, Gizzi is never far from connecting writing/making art with the need to find stability among shifting phenomena and moods:

When my brother lost his voice I lost my childhood
lost the sun over sand in some place I can’t remember
in Rhode Island summer.
So far from myself in a body I can’t remember.
To no longer remember my body as a child.
To no longer remember today all that was.
Van Gogh was tormented by the sun and why not.
A constant blade-searing light that kills and cures.
I am not comforted by the cold stability
of universal laws
though one day I’ll die and think, that’s ok.
At least I’m writing and it makes a party in the dark.
A zombie feature that connects me to the undying.

The poems constantly move through topics of what it is to write poetry in a material world that fills the mind with ready-made instructions and responses, all while aware of an Augustinian longing for the something else. As always, Gizzi’s use of metaphor is fluid and adaptable, tentative connections contributing to disaffected expression. Meaning rightly feels adhesive rather than secure in poems that articulate emotional distance. Invoking Clifford Geertz’s term for dense, contextual detail, suggesting that meaning is accumulative rather than attached to specific moments, this poem concludes, “I am an incident trapped in thick description”.

As is appropriate for poems that loop through experience in an effort to make meaning, tropes, specific words, and images reoccur. When a second poem titled “Now It’s Dark” begins “the old song / worn from use / is with me again”, the poem revisits the words said before: “I didn’t know”—the last line of the previous poem, “Last Poem”.  It concludes as well with a serial catalogue of the kind mentioned earlier—”Neither music nor rhyme, / just night, tin, and sky”. The naming of things offered solely in a denotative sense creates textural singularity. The reference to music becomes resonant, reoccurrences of language and motif allowing comparison of the entire book to music, a melodious whole.

The relationship of poet’s voice to song reaches a formal extreme in the very long poem “Marigold & Cable” (in the section of the book titled “Garland,” alluding to the braided nature of the poem’s images). With rapid movement, shifts and elisions, the poems express what it is to exist in a condition of instability. However, the mood is no longer morose; repetition brings playful energy to allusions. You feel the excitement of the poet as his attention to the world yields discoveries of perception and language, the play of the collations necessary to a return to emotional stability.  For the writer who, earlier in the book, in “Inside Out Loud,” described himself as a “hungry ghost” and his world as a “void,” these returns/echoes/hauntings are integral.

I use the word “hauntings” benignly. It’s only right that poems of disaffection, that speak to a death-in-life condition for the poet, should move away from the aridity of trope to the viscerally of a literal body. In the next to last poem, “Ship of State,” the physical body itself is in discourse with the world beginning, “I wandered all night with my corpse . . . passed over the scene. . . I kept vigil everywhere . . . down streets . . . on walks . . . in coffee shops. . . .” Not to pass over the emotional struggle of his poems, Gizzi invites the recall of Walt Whitman’s lyrically omniscient poem “Sleepers” (“I wandered all night in my vision”), which makes room for him to ask what awareness of one’s actual death would be like. Gizzi writes, “and how does a boy begin to love a corpse . . .a stinking mass of rotten flesh. . . .” The image of death-on-life taken to its literal end in this courageous, gorgeous book, Gizzi completes his investigation of the constructions of self  necessary to the experience of poetic vision. Favored by chance, the poems fill with light.

About the Reviewer

Karen Kevorkian’s third poetry collection, Quivira, is recently published by 3:A Taos Press. She is a lecturer at UCLA.