After steadily increasing for much of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, real wages for the average worker in the United States have remained stagnant since around 1978, if in fact they haven’t slightly declined. At the time of this economic shift, Peter Gizzi was somewhere between high school and college. His poetry ranges across the terrain of post-Reagan America, not as witness or document, but as a register of its heartbreaking and contradictory mixture of abundance and scarcity.
Thus, the irony in the title of Gizzi’s selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, is that his writing has always reflected experiences “lit up” (to use one of the colloquialisms he likes to sprinkle in his work) by joy and pain, love and loss, satiety and hunger, which in Gizzi’s poetry are also related to the roles we’re asked to play — for better and for worse — as citizens.
Although Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poetry” is best known for its concluding line, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World” (to which poet and political activist George Oppen — who had experienced the deleterious effects of aesthetic mandates from both the right and the left — wryly replied that poets are “legislators / of the unacknowledged / world”), Shelley’s treatise is just as forcefully addressed against what he deemed “an excess of the selfish and calculating principle.” Similarly In Defense of Nothing eschews calculation for the prodigality of association. From “Pierced”:
The heart of poetry is an angry child
a decaying spider in a chain link fence
a rotten cushion at the bottom of a stream
springs busted out, a fabric torn
a shooting gallery in the basement
the heart of poetry is a ripped sock
covering that wound, fresh with it
Gizzi’s lines unravel themselves as they go, which is what all poetry does, whether this occurs from within — as in Gizzi’s verse — or is imposed from without, as the avant-garde prefers. In Defense of Nothing almost effortlessly, and frequently melodically, enacts this undoing in forms ranging from fragment to long lyric to poetry as prose.
Despite the musicality sustaining much of the work, the sense of self and the realms it records feel fundamentally broken when cracking against an irretrievable — and at times idealized — past, as if there’s a better world to be found somewhere behind this one. The poem “Revival” mourns the ways in which the United States betrayed its promises long before 1978, though it doesn’t really behave like a political poem, as if imagining Walt Whitman confronted by TV. But even here, the references to popular culture are made somewhat ghostly, or the product of manufactured desires: “How much has the world turned / since you were a girl in Troy?” “Revival” conjures what is always already lost, a motif woven throughout Gizzi’s poems with their relatively direct present tense verbs that provide an illusion of solidity while everything else flickers and then slowly disappears around them.
In Defense of Nothing collects five books written between 1987 and 2011. The first, Periplum, takes its title from Ezra Pound’s description of a voyage seen not from maps but from the voyager’s perspective. For Pound, the paradigm was Homer, but in Gizzi’s version it’s Homer’s son, Telemachus, seeking news of his absent father and fretting over his mother’s many suitors. And like Telemachus, there’s a connection in Periplum between asserting one’s voice and finding one’s place — an apt metaphorical connection for a young poet’s first book. In Defense of Nothing begins with poems that in their initial context tried on different voices as Gizzi grasped toward the language he would grow into, which isn’t unrelated to discovering a home, as in “Deus Ex Machina,” with its opening lines: “I guess if we get to be here today / and watch this movie together / it has all been worth these past thirty-odd years.” This very insistence upon home also contains the seed of its disbelief.
These themes are further embellished in the next book, Artificial Heart, as the lyric voice for which Gizzi is best known really starts to sing. The poems continue to look outward in Some Values of Landscape and Weather (in which “Revival” appears), until culminating in The Outernationale, which contains the most expansive and experimental (or maybe loosest) and also jocular poems in the collection, but in the way that, despite all of its fabrications, John Ashbery’s poetry is really just someone friendly trying to chat with you.
The Outernationale also contains one of the most emphatic poems in the book, “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures”: “The darkness bears a shine as yet unpunished by clarity / but perhaps a depth that outshines clarity and is true.” This darkness would soon turn obdurate and tell a different truth with Threshold Songs, the last book from which In Defense of Nothing draws, and written in the wake of the death of Gizzi’s mother, brother, and one of his closest friends. While very much a continuation of previous work, Threshold Songs registers a demise finally engulfing the realms of discrete objects and bodies electric that Gizzi has for decades so elaborately, digressively, and sensuously described. Instead, the poems sound a bit like scratches on vinyl in a digital age.
There’s a mordantly humorous (though mostly mordant) last will written as a list poem (“Apocrypha”). There’s a crushing song for the deceased mother (“Basement Song”). There’s another substantial long poem (“Pinocchio’s Gnosis”) that has the feeling of mortaring a crumbling brick wall. The penultimate piece in Gizzi’s selected poems echoes the earlier idea of periplum, finding the poet adrift amid the “bluing of all I see.” A deep lacuna has opened in the work, which makes the title In Defense of Nothing as much literal as rhetorical, opening a space for the next step in Gizzi’s trajectory.