Monday, September 21, 2009

Someday there is going to be a big edition of the collected poems of Michael Gizzi & readers are going to gasp at the size, scope & quality of all that he has been doing now for more than 35 years. Since 1973, Gizzi has published 20 books of poetry, nine of them coming out from either Burning Deck in Providence or The Figures in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Both presses – Geof Young characterizes The Figures as “defunct” – have reputations for tremendous books of poetry, but neither have ever gotten the sort of wide distribution their catalogs deserve. Each press focuses on the post-avant, but if you were to try to find that point in either’s aesthetic universe where their enthusiasms overlap, Michael Gizzi would be it.

Which itself is interesting. I’ve always thought that a casual outsider looking at Gizzi’s work would be apt to place him somewhere amidst the 3rd generation New York School scene, alongside the likes of John Godfrey, Michael Lally, Ed Friedman, Elaine Equi, Reed Bye, Barbara Barg, Eileen Myles or Frank Lima or, for that matter, Jim Carroll. But what that list suggests – and Jordan Davis’ sketch of the generations of the New York School¹ bears this out – is that by its third generation, the NY School, so-called, was both more aesthetically & geographically diverse than either of the two more tightly defined age cohorts that came before. The Figures has always straddled a position halfway betwixt that side of the New York scene & langpo, but with a couple of notable exceptions – Harry Matthews & Barbara Guest, neither whom could be called 3rd generation – Burning Deck has looked elsewhere.² Thus Gizzi, not unlike Bill Corbett, has mostly lived & published north of the context in which his work might most clearly resonate. This, so far as I can tell, is the only reason he’s not flat out famous, capital F.

In my imaginary Big Collected Michael Gizzi, New Depths of Deadpan is going to stand out just possibly as the very pinnacle of his work. It’s a great book, period. Its genius is not just the degree to which Gizzi can make great complexity appear breath-takingly simple, but rather the great sense of humanity in whose service he does this. Here’s one of the shorter pieces from a volume in which none of the 55 poems extends to a second page:

Attention Deficit Flypaper

The Italian matriculates with the usher under the chapel.

Masturbation covers a small portion of the audacity of lust.

Like an aphrodisiac in daycare, he cut his eyes on onions.

Some days he wants to cry, but antidepressants won’t let him.

This poem could be read in a number of ways (for example, as a series of concentric statements, starting with the outermost – alternately, starting with the inmost) but the underlying dynamics are not necessarily going to change since they must be wedded to the two poles around which poem is constructed: desire & despair. The polarity of what follows is evident from the title, the problem with ADD being that thoughts (the foci of our attention) are not inherently “sticky.”

Each of the four sentences of the poem entails either lust or despair in some manner that is thwarted, inappropriate or incomplete. The coldness of the first sentence, the directness of the second, the overdetermined nature of the third (for this is where the two poles meet) & relative objectivity of the last take us on a journey, each of whose frames are sharply etched, but the sum of which occurs on an entirely different plane.

This is an exceptional work of hard-edge post-surreal thinking. I would say that it reminds me, more than of any of the other NY School poets, of the early masterpieces of Bill Berkson, but with a notable exception. This poem – and most of the others in Deadpan – feels wilder. If Berkson’s short lyrics were the perfect petits fours of a particular aesthetic, Gizzi’s often look similar at first glance, but only until you notice how they’ve been filled with explosives or broken glass.

Underneath the beautiful debris, one finds that Gizzi’s not kidding. There is an undercurrent of loss or sadness behind many of these poems. Here is one of the simplest & perhaps the least gaudy:

Only You Know What This Means

I’ll tell you about it, what each syllable says.

Doors opened. You must have been in there. We halved the distance, lost in a weightless environment.

One hotel contained a clipper ship. We must have been on board.

The only heroic thing was a dot, emerging in the sky.

A still from a silent movie about the sea,

a towel by the edge of the sink.

This is a landscape unpeopled by absence: You must have been / We must have been. But the one clear close-up on the human is that of the abandoned dish towel.

The New York School has often been treated as if it were flip or happy-go-lucky, or (at the least) unwilling to own its pain. But for every Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch or John Ashbery, whistling in the darkness, there has also been a David Shapiro, Jim Carroll or Joe Ceravolo who have no such trouble showing you their scars (and sometimes your own). Gizzi feels to me like part of this latter group³, yet his penchant for tight, well-polished verse suggests that he insists that his poems must be fabulous as well. The amalgam is unique. There is nothing quite like these poems.


¹ “Peeling Oranges on Top of the Skyscrapers: Towards a Name-Blind History of Poetry Since 1960,” Vanitas 1: The State, New York, pp. 5-13, cf. especially pp. 7-8.

² It would in fact be interesting to contrast the France of the New York School & that of Burning Deck – two very interesting, albeit different, nations. In any event, Gizzi’s one volume of translation is from the Italian of Milli Graffi, which he collaborated on with Giuliana Chamedes.

³ Which may account for the devotion that The Figures has shown to Gizzi’s work, given Geof Young’s own proclivities in this regard.