Reviewed March 1, 2016 by D. S. Lawson.
In the years since the 2010 death of American poet Michael Gizzi, readers have had to make do without new doses of his characteristic amalgam of surrealism and American vernacular speech. Gizzi worked in a variety of forms and registers (often within a single poem), all of which were marked by his keen ear for the ways speakers employ contemporary language. It’s easy when reading Gizzi to think, “Wait, couldn’t a drunk auctioneer say that?” or “That sounds like a fanciful thug describing the landscape” or “Why is that revivalist preacher talking about jazz?” Irony and humor and wordplay suffuse Gizzi’s work, but so do a deep attention to observation and an ability to listen closely. In the service of lyric poetry, Gizzi can employ the tools of narrative or jokes or stand-up comedy. His poems take readers on a verbal journey with sudden changes of direction; that journey through words—and not some particular destination or fixed meaning—seems to be the point of a Gizzi poem. It isn’t possible to take the wrong path in a Gizzi poem. The path itself is the point.
Gizzi’s surprisingly prolific output—including a number of previously unpublished poems—has now been collected in a handsome new volume with an introduction by William Corbett. Gizzi wrote somewhat in the shadow of his more famous brother, Peter, and more famous friend, Clark Coolidge. He wrote while raising a family and teaching and throughout a long career as an arborist. He was sometimes distracted from his writing by illness or injury or alcohol or drugs. He seemed simultaneously near the center of the poetry world—working as a poet and editor and teacher—and far off up in a tree with the tools of his practical trade. The humor and spontaneity in his poems coexist with a steady, lasting ache; he is sometimes laughing despite the pain, sometimes laughing at the pain.
Gizzi tests his poetic gifts with an amazing range of forms—prose poems jostle Olsonian “field” poems which abut an entire book of poems written in terza rima (a version of Dante at once flattened and embroidered). Gizzi works in an equally wide range of tone—Ashberian playfulness next to flat declarative statements followed by lines of Melvillian baroque.
Though his pared down work of the 1970s—Bird As (1976) and Avis (1979)—initially brought him to national attention, he first seems to stretch to his full potential in the richer, more expansive prose poems of Just Like a Real Italian Kid (1990). These poems, typically each half a page in length, assemble variegated materials: the foolish talk adults speak to children, ephemeral pop culture, Catholicism, art, and so on. The technique of the poems most often approximates a child’s attempts to make sense of the series of events he experiences: “I thought vic-trola was a longshoreman whose gill nets he’d made from his nonnie’s dress. Aria was something to help you digest when you couldn’t eat meat on a Friday. The adults all choked up about eating clams in oil from the sea where Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows was salt because something had to die for it to be Friday.” Similarly in another of these prose poems Gizzi muses, “I thought because the rich kids had mummies their dads were Pharaohs that Abercrombie and Fitch wrote the Book of the Dead and so on. I had a clavicle missing where the chip should’ve been, kept me from telling time or tying my shoes. Predigital/Prevelcro times. I lost alot of esteem along the way. Tough to be a snob when everyone’s better than you.”
These poems treat the ferocious emotional life of children with dignity and respect. Of his younger brother Tommy, Gizzi writes, “Chicken-legged Tommy who they made from my rib ’cause when he cried I felt the rain in the hole where he’d come from. Saint Joe please don’t let him go even if he’s in pink coming home for the first time. And my naturally Freudian smirk on my three year old mug in doorway meant I’d never let him hurt which he has ’cause I’d never leave his side which I won’t.” A clearly adult Gizzi (surely a child wouldn’t know about Freud) imaginatively reenacts here his understanding of fraternity from the perspective of the age of three—a mix of bad information about sex and confused notions of faith and unshakable devotion—and recognizes (“which he has”) that the fierce love he felt as a child wasn’t—couldn’t be—enough to keep his brother from hurt.
Gizzi’s finest accomplishment comes in My Terza Rima (2001), a series of thirty-four poems of five to seven three line stanzas. The poems do not observe the strict rhyme-scheme designated in their title, but employ instead an array of verbal effects—consonance, half-rhyme, transposition, and such. These effects impose a kind of order or regularity on the almost collage-like juxtaposition of subjects and wild shifts of register. Absent this verbal mastery, the poems might seem like unrevised verbal improvisation, with at best some odd associative logic linking the words together. The child of Just Like a Real Italian Kid here seems to have grown up into a sex obsessed adolescent (with a penchant for Herman Melville and modern art). On a larger scale at greater length, these poems might serve as a kind of contemporary equivalent of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, with their mixture of the personal and the mythic and the random all collated with powerfully imagined, compelling idiosyncratic language. As they are, however, Gizzi’s own voice transcends any such debt.
The initial poem in My Terza Rima begins:
Imagine you’re a myopic tree hugger
permanently attached to the buttocks
of a limousine like the one in Moby Dick
a big frontal flop lays down its pancake
orphan all future fly goo
shake mothballs from bric-a-brac
The verbal effects which replace the prosody of traditional terza rima are on full display here. The assonance of the short “u” sounds in “hugger” and “buttocks,” the consonance of the final sounds of “pancake” and “bric-a-brac,” the rhyme of “Dick” and “bric,” the alliteration of “frontal flop” and “future fly.” The speaker seems soaked in smutty adolescent notions of sex: hugger/buttocks seeming to elide to “bugger,” the “big…flop” which is presented in “frontal,” the “goo” which can “fly” from the “mothballs” which “shake.” This adolescent seems torn between trying to appease whatever adults he has (becoming a tree hugger to indicate a kind of political conscience, knowing enough to recognize that Moby-Dick is a literary classic he can mention to impress adults but ignorant enough to omit its titular hyphen and unaware that the titles of books are to be printed in italics) and a growing awareness that appeasing adults is “myopic,” that pleasing them is a kind of ongoing ass-kissing (“permanently attached to the buttocks”), that the kind of rewards an adult can offer to an adolescent (access to a car with the “limousine”) ultimately amounts to mere “bric-a-brac.” Furthermore, increasing knowledge and experience of sexuality both end one’s childhood and—by making the adolescent more adult like his parents—make him a kind of “orphan.” At most, perhaps the “myopic tree hugger” of the poem blooms into a professional arborist and the literary kid becomes the poet who wrote the book the reader holds.
Despite his extraordinary verbal inventiveness, Gizzi proclaims himself a defender of lyric. In “Absorbene Jr.” (perhaps in a single commercial metaphor encapsulating all of Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” theory), he writes, “Who said the lyric’s dead / that’s me your zinging!” In the immediately following stanza, he says,
I’m not ashamed to
tell my name. I reckon
what they call the I, head on
with hood of worship
Behold the floor its tone
of injured wood, but there you were
and ends the poem with “She’ll wetter your wickets / ye lyric killers!” Again, Gizzi uses prosodic effects masterfully: almost full rhyme “ashamed…name”; forced rhyme “reckon…head on”; alliteration “head on. . hood” and “with…worship.” Late in the poem the “your zinging!” becomes “you’re zinging,” as Gizzi toys with grammar and syntax both to enact his meaning and to twist his reader’s expectations. Gizzi explicitly endorses the lyric association with “the I” and finds “Comfort” in the poem which can “mounteth a paradise / pack your sighs.”
The poems of his final book publication, In This Skin, seem to face “head on” the difficulties and hard realities of Gizzi’s final months. The book’s first poem is “Acknowledgement” and it goes:
To guard my life I act the complete
simpleton, fearing that secretly
someone might eavesdrop.
As for the rest, keep it to yourself.
It’s a waste of time to weep
for the flaws in another’s mind.
At a vital point everything becomes impatience.
One no longer feels ashamed of wanting to die.
It happens as firmly as a hand touching stone.
What we claim is the way
is our only notion of time.
We can’t live without concealment.
Whoever loves his neighbor runs after
facts like someone learning to skate.
The fear of life is truly infinite.
Throughout a career in which his writing has revealed so much of himself and his life, at the end Gizzi is concerned with “concealment” and fears “someone might eavesdrop” and wants “to guard my life.” Given his proximity to death, “everything becomes impatience.” Whereas the poems of Just Like a Real Italian Kid recreate the emotional experience of a certain earlier period of his life, these late poems settle instead for describing such things from this quite different time (“the fear of life” or “firmly as a hand touching stone”). The gaudy exuberance of the Italian Kid poems gives way here to a more austere, almost impoverished style, though Gizzi’s expertise at mixing enjambment and end-stopping enrich this particular poem and give it a powerful sense of stop/start as it concerns itself with beginnings and endings.
To try to estimate the place of Michael Gizzi in postwar American poetry, it seems obvious to see him as “post-Beat” and as able to display both the spontaneity of The New York School and the linguistic versatility of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets or of the Black Mountain School. He certainly uses personal materials throughout his career, but not in a way that would categorize him as a “confessional poet.” He appropriates images both from popular culture and from the canon of elite literature. The musicality of his language seems as important as any meaning that language might convey. Of American poets writing in his lifetime, perhaps only James Merrill (who otherwise seems so unlike him) was his equal in terms of mastery over the “sound” employed by the poet. Gizzi’s gift is to make what must be a highly wrought work seem like an effortless bauble or an improvisation. His work amply rewards the kind of close attention on the part of the reader which must have been given to it by its author.