“The Grass inside the song / stains me”: Quoddity’s quiddity
Readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne undoubtedly will hear in the title of Peter Gizzi’s new collection the vibrant affective discombobulations that Hawthorne attached to threshold spaces. In his uncompleted The Dolliver Romance, Hawthorne writes, “I linger at the threshold, and have a perception of very disagreeable phantoms to be encountered if I enter. I wish God had given me the faculty of writing a sunshiny book.” Gizzi’s Threshold Songs is at once a work of threshold-lingering and sunshine, the latter of which is attested to in Gizzi’s brilliant “Analemma”: “Now that you’re here / and also gone,” Gizzi writes, “I am just learning / that threshold / and changing light / a leafy-shaped blue.” Threshold and changing light, here, mark a loss both mobile and intractable. The means by which these poems measure loss—a sundial, a poem named after a sundial—are adequate to the task of measuring, even as the loss they seek to measure always comes up short.
Hawthorne’s letter erroneously imagines sunshine as mitigating, salubrious alternative to the threshold, whereas Gizzi’s poetry insists (with a perspicuity that would seem vatic were it not so grounded in vulgate incessance) that even more trying than threshold without sunshine is the collision of the two—fatal insofar as the collision locates the lyric voice in a present barely recuperated from the past, in which sunlit horizon can’t be wished for or dreamed of, because its immanent limitations are nearly self-foreclosing:
the morning light is in us
a stinging charge in the mouth
this is something everyone feels at least once
here before you started listening to the song
at the beach and soldiers by a desert
if anybody looked we are all stranded by the shore of something
I mean to say seeing pictures inside as they are.
We find in Gizzi’s work a crisis in quiddity and quoddity. Both words denote a relation to whatness: Gizzi’s whatness inhabits the elusive architecture between what-as-immanence and what-as-question. These poems underscore the impoverished (and perhaps knowing) pathos of the English language’s provision of a single word to describe our oscillations between wishing for and writing about a given entity. We might, like Romans reaching for quid or quod, need at least two words for this uncanny toggle. We might well need a panoply of non-pronomial terms to describe our vexed, fugitive relations to the pronomial. As Gizzi puts it, “When a thought’s thingness / begins to move, to become / unmoored and you ride / the current with your head.” A poetics ideally accommodates the weather of contingency in more ways than a logic or programmatic, and so Gizzi’s poetics of whatness necessarily betrays its own sedulously uncertain waver between definite and indefinite article, relative and non-relative pronoun.
The rift between knowing what’s antecedent, pining for it, and the duress of antecedent gone missing: such is the distilled grammatical fact of bereavement, such the elegiac way in which we love and articulate what isn’t there, the what standing in for another lyric object even as, again and again, it can do no more than stand alone. Here are some lines from Gizzi’s poem, “The Growing Edge,” whose title conjures not only the collection’s trials in and of threshold, but the Steinian spread of edges that might in some ersatz therapy seek to render more demarcated the limits of what’s potentially indefinite querulousness. “I talk to the air / what is it / to be tough / what ever / do you mean”; “what does it mean / to enter that room / the last time”; “what does it mean / to be tough / or to write a poem.” “What” ribbons through these poems with the ardent opacity of repetition compulsion, as in the aptly titled “Hypostasis & New Year.” Hypostasis—a belief in substance, or (and it’s a big “or”) the fact of it. New year—nascence of a new whatness, occasion (felicitous hazard) for dismantling old immanences into new forms:
Of what am I afraid
of what lies in back of me of day
these stars scattered as far as the I
what world and wherefore
will shake it free
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then what of night
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
what silver world mirrors tarnished lenses
what fortune what fate
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Of what am I to see these things between myself
If some collections of poems are written or read as exercises in auto-psychoanalysis, Threshold Songs ends in an analytically oceanic interminability. The final couplet (elegy’s most eloquent structural distillation) of the book’s final poem, “Modern Adventures at Sea”—“How to live. / What to do.”—telegraphically arises as an SOS concealed as exhortation; the latter’s fantasy of buoyancy drowns in the ostensible duress that occasions the exhorting. HELP, as formulation, can be taken as either desperate or altruistic, depending on the parallax between speaker and addressee. Analogously, Gizzi’s final couplet turns on us and itself, in part because its quiddity cannot know or will not communicate its own relation to itself or any possible preceding grammatical subject. The punctuation is final only in form; the finitude of the couplet’s periods betray the desultoriness of fictive closures asked, half-heartedly, to navigate expression in search of forms more convincing than those in which they find themselves. That the turn from “How to live” to “What to do” could be understood as either emergency or response to emergency turns poetry-as-fool’s-Orphic-errand into Eurydice’s flinching flash. The alacrity with which Orpheus turns to and into Eurydice recalls the turbid economies of regret and compensation that mark what often is most moving in the work of Jack Spicer and Hart Crane. Threshold Songs is riveting as a master class in which its own lost teachers and antecedents, for all their splendor, lead one only so far. There is no mastery, just fumbling at the largesse of a viaticum dwarfed by the appetites and confusion it was given to appease.
To call Peter Gizzi one of Whitman’s heirs risks missing the point both of Whitman’s temporal disorientations and Threshold Songs’s meditation on the unavailing consolations of inheritance and outliving. The presence of a certain Whitman in Gizzi’s previous collections—charismatically in the world, of it, and beyond—might, in the spirit of Whitman’s what I assume you shall assume, go without saying. In terms of Whitman’s presence in Whitman’s own poetry—as ambivalent and equivocal as it is ubiquitously effulgent1—what is able and unable to go without saying illuminates the particular self-inhabitings and withdrawals to which Gizzi’s Threshold Songs lucidly, feverishly lays claim. That one ought not too quickly think one has “found” Whitman in any contemporary poet is underwritten by the challenge of finding Whitman in Whitman. And so trying to find Whitman in Threshold Songs comes to feel like a breathtakingly haunted game of monte thimblerig as played with (or by) matryoshka dolls:
The grass inside
the song stains me.
The mother stains me.
That was the year
they cut my throat
and toads bloomed
on my voice box.
I have kept my head up.
Have kept myself
out of trouble
but deep is trouble
deep is mother.
Deep the song
Did I tell you it hurt
accepting air in a new body?
And since the change
the air burns.
(from “Basement Song”)
Such lines echo Whitman—our fate (our luck, our curse) as readers is to find grass in a poem and conjure Whitman, nearly without effort—but only echo. The conundrum, at least structurally, recalls the psychical tenacities from which arises the wavering “victory” of Dickinson’s “I got so I could take His name”—except in the case of Gizzi’s poem, we are not sure whether to celebrate or mourn that we can or cannot take “his” name (or the image-repertoire that takes its place) without tremendous gain. As Gizzi, echoing Dickinson, writes in the collection’s opening poem, “what does it mean / to enter that room / the last time / I remembered it / an un gathering / every piece of / open sky into it / the deep chill / inventing, and / is it comfort.” That “the air burns” means we acutely feel its Lear-like circulation from one body into another and out again. Every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me: maybe, but not, in Threshold Songs, without consequence.
I am not alone in thinking about Whitman’s poetry in terms of magnanimities (somatic, affective, temporal, et cetera), and likewise not alone in thinking of Peter Gizzi—as both poet and ceaseless poetic world-maker—in terms of Whitman. More succinctly, in reading Whitman or Gizzi, I feel less alone than otherwise, even as Gizzi’s new poems trace abandonment with abandon, a grief whose spaciousness recalls that the Emerson who saluted Whitman wrote not only “The Poet” but also the searingly stricken “Experience.” How one knows one is adequately feeling loss blurs into the predicament of loss as an experience that feels (and continues to feel past its own wake) experientially self-depleting.
Emerson, in “Experience,” grieves the death of his son Waldo, but the essay’s implicative force washes across biographical particularity (in part because Waldo’s death already has riven biography) into unassuagingly brilliant further radii. Threshold Songs likewise takes as point of departure a particular grief which the poems hold and cannot hold—Danaides condemned to carry water in sieves. Attempts to grasp (an enterprise that is lyrical to the degree that it is unable or refuses to distinguish the somatic from the epistemological2), in Gizzi’s new work, are as keeningly rigorous as is the grasped object (somatic, epistemological) untenable. Untenability yields further uncertainty, which spurs (rather than vitiates) the poetry’s stabs at precision. Stabbing nearly describes a phantom memory of violence that Gizzi’s poetry (like the phantasmatically emptied actions of Dickinson’s “I got so I could take His name”) reproduces as shadow puppet or Kara Walker cut-out. This happened; this continues and can’t/won’t continue to happen. The non-recuperability of some anterior scene of loss makes possible the awful quiet intimated by the book’s epigraph by Beckett: “a voice comes to one in the dark.” So subtractive a primal scene refracts ghosts upon ghost, although feeling haunted at best approximates the conditions under which one skulks through one’s own poems. A ghost makes of one a ghost, but of a different order than the ghosts one most misses:
I’m with it, it’s with me
I am quelque chose
something with birds in it
a storm high above Albany
I am ghost brain I
sister to all things cruelty
the mouse-back gray
of every afternoon
and your sorrowing
now that you’re gone
and I’m here or now
that you’re here and
I’m gone or now
that you’re gone and
I’m gone what
did we learn
what did we take
These poems don’t recuperate what the lived and unlived world no longer can maintain; their generosity (their importance and beauty) lies in giving us more and less than what conventionally we wish of poems. The more and less—the exorbitance of austerity measured even in the stringence of Gizzi’s clipped Spicerian enjambments—speak to the book’s titular threshold. The grass in song, neither underground nor above it, finds itself unmoored from the figurative terms by which it was previously viable. Gizzi’s threshold, as ought be the way of thresholds worth the name, is brightly, phenomenologically uncanny. As Gizzi announces in the poem just preceding the one cited, “We have entered the semantics of useless things” (“Pinnochio’s Gnosis”).
Following Emerson’s “Experience,” the loss out of which this book is carved grieves that it cannot grieve, even as its putative apathy communicates an ardor in excess of the affective field across which it ranges:
23. In space the letterforms “I love” oscillate in waves.
24. I lose myself in waves speaking the half of me that forgot to say “goodbye” when I meant to say “how come.”
25. Memory continues to bloom. More songs about death and dying, songs of inexperience.
26. More songs about being and loss, being in loss, more songs about seeing and feeling.
27. If you are critical, all the better to see and to miss it, to misunderstand, to fail at empathy and love, to not understand love and to love, to be diseverything and to love, whatever.
28. To mercy I leave whatever.
The above lines conclude a poem that looms in and out of the problematics of inheritance already invoked in the context of Whitman. The pathos of a will—I can give you this or that, because and only when I have died—forecloses the variously elusive gift economies which Whitman mobilizes in relation to the lyric premise that one never knows where or when Whitman will next surface. The felicitous execution of a will’s generosity requires the death of its author, even as there are too many authors, too many beneficiaries, and at the same time, a confusing paucity of either (to mercy I leave whatever). We find, earlier in the same poem, an echo of Whitman’s “signature” camerado—“to write is an equal and opposite reaction my comrade, communard, my friendo”—even as the conditions of this lyric will, like the conditions of apocryhpa for which the poem is titled, remain unclear. This Whitmanian friendo feels less like non-problematic channeling than a correlative to Allen Tate ’s account of Dickinson’s relation to New England Christianity. Dickinson’s poetry, following Tate, made use of theology and its tropes less out of belief in them than in a familiarity perhaps adjacent to but never equivalent to belief. She inhabited a structure of faith that was as broken to her as it was immanent. And thus we might imagine Gizzi’s relation to Whitman’s poetry (in the context of poetics, its own structure of fidelity and belief), immanent and broken, endemically irreparable. Because it returned to us as air doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just as its bare existence can’t rule out its burning.
These poems don’t grieve Whitman so much as take the ruins of Whitmanian promise as point of departure—we wander through a broken world that is most veracious in its breaches and our ambivalent relation to them: “I come to it at an edge / morphed and hobbled / still morphing. There is also / the blowtorch grammar’s / unconquered flame.” Emerson, grieving that he can’t feel grief, inhabits an affective world without (or so he feels) being of it. Being in such a world or on the verge of it describes one of Threshold’s Songs hobbled triumphs, no less triumphant for its attenuated, careful collapse into finish lines (what to do) whose own volatile thresholds bloom further threshold, song swimming to echo and back again.
1 “Nor will my poems do good only—they will do just as much evil, perhaps more; / For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit—that which I hinted at; / Therefore release me, and depart on your way.” (Whitman, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand”)
2 The bleeding of bodies into the epistemologies that make sense of them (and nearly vice versa) materializes (again, nearly) in the dissolving final lines of “Oversong”: “starless, swart, tenebrous / inky, Erebus, Orpheus // vestral, twilit, sooty, blae . . . .” Whence this Middle English blae that trails off into just one of the book’s two elilipses, which seems less a word than the bolus of one; the somatic integrity of the word, if we can imagine it, showing the wear of our ruminating of it? Blae, a non-word, lost word, recoverd word, reduces the project of Threshold Songs to a single morpheme. As the OED notes, blae designates the color of lead (commitment of the epistemological to the written) and, as applied to the human body, the color of bruises and exposure, “affected by cold or contusion.” Were Threshold Songs chromatically intelligible beyond the auspex-brightness of a sun, its color would be blae. I am written and bruised. I am the articulation of coldness and contusive proof of a body that cannot feel itself. If after pain a formal feeling comes, then after that formality, or in the interstial, acute honesty between pain and formality, we find the deforming threshold of blae.