Gizzi’s Lyrical Sublime: A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures


How come all the best thoughts/are images? How come all the best images/are uncanny?” Peter Gizzi asks in “Revival,” an elegy for beat maudit Gregory Corso, and they’re not rhetorical questions. Gizzi’s gift for shorthand sublimity could defib Rilke: The leadoff sequence “A History of the Lyric” catalogs grand impersonal archaisms from “the white curled backs/of snapshots tucked in a frame/eyes of the dead” to a “burning ship. Buckling dam” to an opening door geometrically realized as “a trapezoid in deep gold light.”

Lush description and soulful wariness are default settings for the editor of o-blek, the journal that in the ’80s and early ’90s declined to patrol aesthetic borders as it charted the progress of the language poets and their predecessors from the New York School and Black Mountain groups. Like half of American poets born after 1940, Gizzi is compared to John Ashbery, the baffling rich uncle of American poetry. While Gizzi’s earlier, more high-toned and fragmented books bear the comparison out, his third book tends in an altogether original direction, one that moves away from spiritual longing and vocabulary mix-and-matching toward a public and personal statement that you don’t just overhear, you drop what you’re doing to listen. The end of “To Be Written in No Other Country” is a bitter example: “When and whenever past Saturdays/of adolescents in faded Kodak/enter the discourse of politicians/know you are not alone and your scrapbook/will be enough in talk of resolutions/and what you plan to do this weekend/to the garage and the porch.”

Even at his most intense reliance on images, Gizzi telegraphs huge interpersonal dramas, as when he notes that a landscape of intense beauty “more sparkling than sun on brick” gives him the warning of “October’s crossing-guard orange,” or when he captures the all-or-nothing gamble of soldiers on the front lines in what, at first glance, looks like lecture notes: “an avant-garde/a backward glance.”