One of the great pleasures of editing the Constant Critic is that my fellow critics consistently bother me with what they say in their reviews—providing the good kind of discomfort that causes me to revisit, revise, abandon, or sometimes (admittedly) re-entrench some of my previously held pet convictions. Because I comment on drafts in progress as well as proofread and post to the site, I get quite close to their ideas and so find myself walking around nursing the knots of trouble they’ve given me until I find a way to massage them through my own mental muscles. While this work doesn’t necessarily result in a review, it is a necessary part of any review-writing that I do.
I say all of this in service of bringing the process of reviewing into the review. Which is in larger service of questioning the distinction between poetry and other forms of writing and life-lived. Particular projects like Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day and Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook—or Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence or Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget overtly take the breakdown of this distinction as their subject matter. Works of this kind, we are eager and right to say, manifest a poetry of the daily, a poetry that does not circumscribe itself in a space apart from life. However, isn’t it the case that, at least potentially, poetry that isn’t overtly anchored in representing an accepted register of the quotidian is nevertheless equally part of readers’ and writers’ daily lives? I propose a deeper consideration of text and the role that poetic materials play in the constitution of our daily realities. We are still enormously and ever-more text-based creatures and oughtn’t we take this into consideration when we consider what it is to be? What modes of being does something like Facebook, with its new timeline format organizing our personal histories, open or close for us? What modes of being-daily does a Peter Gizzi poem encourage in us? What modes of textuality act like “a room opening/ next to the head,” (“How I Remember Certain Fields of Inquiry (and ones I only imagine)”)? What modes slam the door shut? What amount of responsibility do you, dear reader, take for your text-based life? What modes of text do you invest in—and how?
Lately, two sentences of Ray’s recent review won’t leave me alone. Writing about Open Winter he tells us that the book presents a “reasoned and ultimately evocative concession to the treacheries and sweetnesses of what prompts figural language. Just as distrust of rhetoric doesn’t mean you can eliminate it, distrust of selfhood doesn’t make you disappear.” Ever since reading these lines in draft form I have been walking around nagged by the non-disappearing self and, in particular, its relationship to the question of “what prompts figural language.” I have to admit that my gut says that it is, indeed, the treacheries and sweetnesses of this non-disappearing thing that act as catalyst for making and needing the figural. But what does this mean?
The massaging I’ve given this question has, as is often the case, created more, rather than fewer, knots. And so I wonder: what condition(s) of selfhood, of being, necessitate figural language—and not only as an accurate form of conveying information to a reader. What I wonder is more important to me than information-conveyance: for what conditions of being is the figural form of expression—the act of making figural language—itself a state or mode of being. Being as figural form. Figural form as a particular mode of being. And so the question has become not “what experiences does a poet translate into figural language,” but “what form of being does the figural mode—the act of reading or writing or feeling and thinking through figural language—allow us to inhabit?” This kind of question has fall-out not only in terms of the value and conditions of poetry, but the way in which poetry butts up against lived life.
Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs has me deep-reading-writing-feeling-thinking in this direction—offering a particularly powerful occasion for mulling through questions of poetry, language and thought. In fact, moments such as this last stanza of the poem “Hypostasis & New Year” overtly position the book in such territory:
I can’t remember now if I made a pact with the devil
when I was young
when I was high
on a sidewalk I hear “buy a sweatshirt?” and think
buy a shirt from the sweat of children
I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem
and this sound
caught in the most recent coup
In this passage the heard phrase “buy a sweatshirt?” poses a question and commands a specific answer at the same time. The use-value of this utterance aims at persuasion, at procuring a purchase, for this is the language of commerce where a signifier (“sweatshirt”) stands for a thing you can buy. As such, this form of language-use proposes that what the sweatshirt is (what things are) in essence, is a purchasable object. Gizzi then gives us a contrasting “thought phrase”: “buy a shirt from the sweat of children”—a phrase that uses figurative language in a way that undercuts the purchase-aim of the heard question. Here the figural version of the phrase—a shirt being made from the sweat of children—renders the language of commerce strange, revealing a larger truth about the means of the object’s production. This is an action of language where a thing is not named by its noun, but by its process of making. As such, the figural phrase “buy a shirt from the sweat of children” invites us to perform a shift wherein we view what a thing is not by whether or not we can own it, but by the way it has come to be.
The last three lines of the stanza deepen this consideration of the how of being, applying it to subjectivity itself: “I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem/ and this sound/ caught in the most recent coup.” Who the speaker is—what the speaker is, is someone who “is just taking a walk in the sun in a poem and this sound […]” This expression of being interests me because it admits to its own textuality: what the “I” at this moment is, is a text-based thing (an I in a poem). This is a category of being that most writers, at least, can relate to: there is the I that does the dishes and the I that does the dishes in a poem. And both are me. Is one more-me than the other? Well, this probably depends on where you stand, but I would hazard to say that, at the very least, when one is writing a poem, one is more I-writing than I-dishes washing. Furthermore, might we not say that, by extension, what the reader is, when she is engaged in an act of reading, is also a text-based thing, an I-reading? Yes, also a fleshy breathing itching searching thing, but also a text-based thing who is in the moment of reading defined by the process of reading. And it is this mode of existence, the I-writing, the I-reading—the textual-I—that requires figural language. Without figural language we can afford ourselves no such identity, no such “room opening/ next to the head.”
The contours of such a room are beautifully figured by the concepts of “threshold” and “song” which together of course make up the title of the book, but also serve as a way of considering the textual-I. The book anchors firmly in the lyric traditions of voice-overheard and musicality: “I wonder if/ you hear me/ I mean I talk/ to myself through you” Gizzi writes in the beginning of “The Growing Edge,” the book’s first poem. And it is remarkable to me the way that Gizzi claims investment in lyric voice, by which I mean both investment in the materiality of making voice sound (the passage of air and syllable through the mouth) and investment in a speaking subjectivity—in the textual-I as form of being. As we have seen in the above quotation and in the last stanza from “How I Remember Certain Fields” the book considers voices overheard outside of the body as well as the voices of thought and mind, exposing the extent to which what we are is composed of both. Perhaps even when we are washing the dishes we are more of a “textual-I” than we generally admit.
If we remember the work Gizzi has done editing Jack Spicer’s lectures and poems, the I-as-threshold echoes softly, organically, Spicer’s notion of dictation and the poet as radio transmitting the “invisible world.” In part four of “History Is Made at Night,” a ten-section sequence, Gizzi writes: “Gmail/ invites me to ‘go visible.’/ Is being invisible not enough?/ A kind of vow like poetry/ burning the candle down.” As threshold, this book is full of lullaby and elegy, full of edges, shores, curtains, openings, shifting clouds, fractures, winds—all things that act as a moving-through. Here, the I-writing a poem is a state of being that recognizes that we are necessarily thresholds, places crossed when entering from here to there, past to present, virtual to actual horizon, waking to sleep. While perfectly common, thresholds are also potential states of intensity, modes of relationality that have the capacity take fixed systems (“sweatshirt”) and turn them, deploy them otherwise (“a shirt from the sweat of children”). Far from proposing that such turning is “merely poetic” or “merely figural” or abstracted from the stuff of lived-life, Threshold Songs insists through and through that process and material compose life: “A chromosome has 26 letters, a gene just 4. One is a nation. /The other a poem.” (“Eclogues”)
I’ve been carrying a hard-back copy of Threshold Songs around with me for about three months—the corners of its sage-green dust jacket are worn to white, a large black ink splotch bleeds along the creamy paper of its bottom edge. It has been a busy three months and I’ve been reading the book in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Budapest, and rural Pennsylvania mulling over Gizzi’s poems on airplanes, in cafes near the Danube, at the beach as someone surfed in a Santa hat, in bed, on the stationary bike at my university’s gym. I read and re-read its phrases, write them out long hand, type them out, say them, memorize them. I text or call friends—poets and non-poets alike—and leave them messages quoting fragments of these poems because it seems important that they have them stored in their phones, important that these phrases speak into their eyes and ears as they walk down the street in western and midwestern and foreign cities and towns. I feel that this figural language, as it speaks into these friends’ eyes and ears, can do what I, in my distance, cannot. But also that I, in transmitting the phrases out loud, am recognizing the extent to which I am a threshold of voice, actively participating in the porous edge. There is great pleasure to be had here, and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I take great pleasure, right now, in this very instant, in the action of typing for you—and knowing you will read, right now, these lines from a middle section of one of the most stunning poems of the book, “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture”:
The figure in green blossoms too next to every rotting blade,
every bleating sow, bird de-
caying with an aroma of green, word transmogrophy-
ing green, the mint
in the flame, the heat of
the brain expiring steam, steaming thought
and the piles stacked archival thinking pyre.
This is the drudge of fire.