Peter Gizzi, Archeophonics.
Peter Gizzi's Archeophonics unfolds in short line and staggered refrain, shot through with submerged sound, recorded archaeologies and the archaeologies of recording, haunted by the smoke and fire of the archive, woven on the "linenlike thread" uniting poetry and song. This collection, the follow-up to 2011 's Threshold Songs and 2015's selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, comes in at just over eighty pages and consists of twenty-two poems, some of which are sequences containing further, individual poems. Ordered into five sections, it is concise but rich, in a mode that will be familiar to those who've followed Gizzi's work over recent years. It is achieved and an achievement, inhabiting but not hardened into style.
Most of these poems are spoken by an insistently foregrounded first person, but this "I" is not simply one.
If I saw you and the I said, my poetry is changing, I would say my life is changing.
So who is the "I" who dominates these poems? Or (and this might be the same question), who are "you," reading it? I say that this might be the same question, given that sometimes the "you" here is really "I": the classic "personal impersonal" familiar from the work of John Ashbery, at once singular and plural, myself and another in the same word. In an interview with Ben Lerner about Threshold Songs-- of whose mournful twilight, inflected and working through intense personal loss, Archeophonics is in part a tonal continuation--Gizzi argues that the poet must
Embrace the amplification of self by standing next to oneself, outside of one's life, to look at one's self in and through the world--a form of discovery within the baffles of pronominal reality.
Belatedness and survival are concerns here: the poems as tentative answers to the questions of what to do when you survive your loves, your losses, the "names in me," tuning in and out like a (Spicerian) radio, with the precision of high gain ("the gain and its foliage"). This, perhaps, is one of the meanings of "the old language" that forms a frequent refrain and a thematic of the book. But, more generally, the old language raises the question of what to do if the "you" to whom these poems speak survives the "I" that writes: as Gizzi puts it in the interview with Lerner, "to imagine the 'you' speaking back to me when I am no longer here to read it."
The poet is surrounded by world and word: "the world around me / Around me are words saying this." To quote the resonant lines of AngloWelsh poet John James, whose 1977 "A Theory of Poetry" shares something of Archeophonics' s combination of urbanity, roughness, and melancholy deadpan: "wherever you turn / you are surrounded by language / like the air." Or, as Gizzi writes: "I wanted out of the past so I ate the air, / it took me further into air." Eating air is, in its simplest sense, breathing; like "the old language," it is also song, as a figure for that which is shared, breathed in and out by ecosystems and humans. Such interpersonal and planetary connections, which reach back to the history of dead letters and dead people, as well as forward into whatever future these poems afford, sometimes exist with the full weight of fervent belief in poetry's transformative power, sometimes as near-infantile bathos: "This ball in space emitting cries / into space."
World as word, word as world; air as breath, song, or cry; at one point, Gizzi asks, "what if it were all music?" In Archeophonics, music functions as a transmutation of loss and an antidote to political violence, but also as something that replaces living, an "inhuman conch in the ear." It is both metaphor and operative sonic principle. The poems' lines often follow a melancholy, descending cadence, leading to and landing on single-syllable words with open vowels like "song." In person, this effect is emphasized by Gizzi's deeply resonant, vulnerably authoritative readings. Indeed, it's almost impossible for me to read this book without hearing Gizzi's speaking voice, reciting the poems during his 2015-2016 UK sojourn. Despite the apparent authority afforded by a cadential movement towards a goal, however, the poems are always uneasy in their arrivals, more comfortable departing from the givens they find. As Gizzi writes in a poem simply entitled "Song," "I am willing to walk / away." The poet is always getting up and leaving. The spaces he moves through are always suspended between mourning and freshness: spring's green laced with the pathos of distance enacted by the technologies of Google Earth and Skype, the virtual barrier both reducing and enacting separation and distance; summer's heat on the verge of turning into autumn and being wrapped in a "winding sheet" of mourning. Such spaces form a kind of indeterminate, melancholy pastoral which refers less to real locations and more to the space of poetic language: a language that describes the world but also contains and replaces it, a constricted, echoic plenitude based on short lines, on words' slow morphing and return.
The book's title, a neologism about the archaeology of recorded sound, refers to a very early form of recording technology (the "phonautograph") in which sounds were captured on smoke. Such smoke connects to the "archive," which, in these poems, is often "on fire": fire trailing into wisps of smoke, containing the traces of other voices, always on the verge of disappearing even as new technologies of printing and recording try to press them into permanence. Likewise, the practice of "Field Recordings" to which the book's opening sequence refers involves taking something out and bringing it back, where it transforms. Here we come to the question of fidelity: Whether in the archive, the field recording, or the phonautographic record, what does it mean to bring things in from the "field"? Such questions are reminiscent of the concerns of composers associated with the post-Cageian Wandelweiser School, such as Michael Pisaro, whose work often exploits the effects of playing the sound of one exterior space (the "field") in another interior one (the concert hall). I'm reminded in particular of Pisaro's exquisite recent composition July Mountain, which pays homage to Wallace Stevens's late poem of the same title through the combined use of field recordings, electronics, a solo piano part, and multiple percussionists bowing normally struck percussion and rubbing snare drums to make a sound between wind and sea, rhythmless noise and pattern-based rhythmic recurrence. Pisaro's piece skirts close to the tradition of the Romantic-era piano concerto, whose conventions of drama and development leak into the general vocabulary of stasis and ambience. This interplay between dramatic or lyric declarations and a less ostentatious flattening out of affect has similarities with Gizzi's own practice in Archeophonics. Similarly, Marigold and Cable (originally published in a limited edition by Shelter Press in 2014, republished by Materials in 2016) pays homage to a piece of ambient music by Alex Cobb: music of environment, designed to constitute an environment, a background rather than a foreground, which the listener inhabits like a room. Like Brian Eno's original definition of ambient music in the liner notes to Music for Airports, Gizzi's poetry might be said to inhabit and create suspended states, as much filled with uncertainty and doubt as with calm acceptance.
Yet, however much such concerns dovetail with the post-Cageian questions of the "field," Eno's ambient environments, or song more generally, Archeophonics's epigraph (from James Schuyler) makes clear that poetry can't simply be reduced to an analogy for music or recorded sound: "poetry, like music, is not just song." Read in the light of Gizzi's previous work, this epigraph functions as a gently questioning response to the premises of lyric. Against the notion of song as redemptive, or as a melancholic cocoon against loss, there is a sense that the "old language"--poetry as burning library, fire fuelled by air, the resonant carrying through of syntax on syllable, sense on sound--might at times be a muzzle. "Reverb," from the "Field Recordings" sequence, thus ends:
It's the same but different, different now. the mouth knows the bit, the taste of it.
Like the bit put in a horse's mouth to clamp the reins, the poet is ridden beyond their control. In this poem, the old language-as-archive becomes a record of murder and the knowledge of "murder ... all that blood in the mouth," recalled and somehow relived by the poet, who acts as something between exorcist and medium. This is the secret horror, the originary trauma that language half invokes but can never quite fully bring itself to disclose: "none of its letters / produce the horror / at the heart of the index." In response to this, the "old language" becomes knowing, even snarky, but such knowledge is useless: the old language speaks forever from the point of recursive retrospection, mocking the poet who it's using and who's using it for the personal losses it impersonally records.
The old language could have told you, it's too late, we watched you die, watched you move through shocking losses and the solo flight you are taking back into the old language.
In response to this, the poet must work through the process of transmuting melancholy into mourning, the absence of the loved object leading them to look "for other structures to love." Hinging on conditional terms such as "when" and "if" (a Gizzi speciality), these poems appear to be searching for something that they cannot always name. At its simplest, that thing is "you": "you" as reader, "you" as lost love object, "you" as the world itself, the figure of relation. As Paul Celan wrote in 1958: "Poems are en route: they are headed toward. Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality." Even in absence, the poet is always looking. Here is the first stanza of the book's final poem, "Bewitched":
When I look to the east I could not find you in the west where the light was dying you were not there northerly the sky grew pitch silence to the south there was only billowing
These lines, lightly lit by reference to Job 23, are exemplary of Archeophonics' s great openness, its generous density, its numinous clarity. The "billowing" to the south is the air the poet eats, breathes in and breathes out, song of living and dead, and we as readers can breathe it and hear it and maybe even sing it ourselves. "Lyres" may sometimes be liars, and the poet "full of bluster" (another kind of air), but they are also "full of vision." Or, to take Gizzi's own words: "Someone saw it, I love them for seeing it. /1 love seeing it with them."