It would be impossible for me to write impartially about Michael Gizzi’s newly published Collected Poems. I became acquainted with Michael and his poetry when I was twenty. His brother, Peter, and his friends, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, all poetry teachers of mine at Brown, gave him reason to come to Providence frequently. From his work I learned how the sound of language had a logic of its own, how it could be the organizing principle of a poem. The handful of times I was in a room with him, he made repartee an extreme sport where few had the chops to keep up. It was like being in his private terza rima. One could get hit by a flying verb.
In the spring of 2010, I was to see him for the first time in a decade. I was arranging for him to come to town to read, when news came that he had died. The fact bewildered me. Our email exchange from a few weeks prior didn’t jive with the reasons for his sudden disappearance. His book New Depths of Deadpan had just come out and he was excited, eager to get on the road. That he was dealing with the dark spaces of illness and addiction was imperceptible in the words he had sent.
In reading through the Collected Poems (2015), I was given a lesson in how writing for Gizzi became an act of transubstantiation in the most literal sense, how attending to the aural material of language allowed lived experience to transform into bop, so that life in the poems became what Jack Spicer called the “furniture,” the flesh meant to carry a groove without contributing to the feel of it.
In the introduction Gizzi’s friend, the poet William Corbett, observes that “doors opened” for Gizzi through Kerouac and jazz, a freedom first seen in his chapbook from 1990, “Just Like A Real Italian Kid,” which riffs on Gizzi’s childhood memories of his Italian-American upbringing. Here the ear serves the narrative, the rhymes and rhythm furthering description:
And Uncle Pacifico who made the mostest of his shortness with Valentino sly smile like Christmas in July. Together we were a tough guy, spaghetti-benders from way back. I never met a man who didn’t like him. Pach was the Dago National Treasure the Boot was yet in the dark about, but Marco Polo weren’t spoiled more with women and pasta in the Orient. He told me tales of Abe Lincolni who freed the slaves and the Yankee Clipper who when he got four balls you said, ‘Walka proud, Joe!’
This love for Kerouac came via his close friendship with Clark Coolidge, one of the editors of the collection. In his book, Now It’s Jazz: Writing on Kerouac & The Sounds (1999), Coolidge’s own description of Kerouac offers us a clue to the development of Gizzi’s writing from the ‘90s onward: “Increasing density turns the mind-ear away from impulse of remembered image toward sound as material for the making.”
In “Just Like A Real Italian Kid” the “mind-ear” still is in service of the “remembered image,” but by 1997’s No Both, for instance, the attention to sound carries the reader, begging us to question the nature of meaning itself. Content is in the service of form, so that the signifier threatens to take over as signified. We see this in No Both’s opening, a kind of Saturday morning Looney Tune soundtrack riffing on A.A.’s call for an alcoholic’s “surrender:”
Only last night because I’m always growing a proboscis I said ‘Tomorrow I’ll begin this new notebook with the words I surrender.’ Like I should have a scarlet brand on my lip in lieu of a moustache that reads ‘He begins on the morrow’ or tattooed to my big toe ‘He died with his rue on.’ But even that’s a scarlet ruse. No wonder I suffer such trapezoidal travel anxiety that to put it wildly I get this visual visceral hallucination that my chest extends six feet straight out like an amphetamine puffed mourning dove. Might have something to do with flight. What’s that, Doctor Pancoat, my little fraidy cat flights from change?
In passages like these, Gizzi’s virtuosic play swells the artifice with pun and allusion so the ear entices the reader to abandon what she might for a lack of a better word call content. Instead the reader finds her mind flirting through a pleasing labyrinth of language that straddles echoes of Creeley, Hawthorne, Daffy Duck, and more. The confessional narrative is still available here, but even if noticed through the pyrotechnics of its delivery, even if the reader finds that Hawthorne’s scarlet letter here is for alcohol, the story is wrapped in an affect of humor. Gizzi’s bop makes the tragedy into comedy — a stand-up work of genius.
In later collections such as My Terza Rima and McKenna’s Antenna’s, (both 2001)such autobiographical narrative ground has completely vanished. Interestingly enough, Gizzi’s note at the beginning of McKenna’s Antenna’s, proclaims, “I’ve never felt so right writing poems, so don’t ask me to explain.” (376) Is this poetry right because it’s a liberation from self? These pieces, composed while listening to Rhode Island jazz pianist Dave McKenna, are pure play, as Gizzi’s stellar recording of them shows. Gizzi, depending on your prejudices, elevates and/or reduces words, their narrative finger pointing to pure tonality. This is the final stanza from the poem “Old Sol in Gutters”:
Go forget about hair
in your underwear though
a premature oops drops in the soup
and Herbert Lom’s pocket Seneca
fumbles for his watch
a fern-like soul makes everything butter
Of course we could list many poets who have little or no interest in whether their poems communicate anything about the life of the poet. We see this in much of the poetry of the last one hundred years, including such LANGUAGE poets as Lyn Hejinian and Bruce Andrews. What the Collected Poems reveal in presenting Gizzi’s chapbooks from the seventies alongside books like No Both, not to mention the frequent dedications to friends and family throughout the oeuvre, is that in Gizzi there was always an impulse to rehearse the forms of his life in the forms of his poetry. His concern with family life and history, the appearance of paternal figures even in the more abstract pieces, suggest that there was both a desire to keep poetry and life attached and a great liberation when the two existed separately.
His final full-length collection makes a strong argument for acknowledging this contradiction in the work. In New Depths of Deadpan (2009), which appeared eight years after McKenna’s Antenna’s, the poetic line has become discrete. It refuses to carry the reader in an ebullience of rhythms. Though it’s still full of the kind of comedic turn of phrase one expects from Gizzi, the changed tempo allows one pause, so that lines like “And what if there is nothing special/about this particular moment?” or “Some days he wants to cry, but antidepressants won’t let him” take on a little gravitas that the earlier books don’t allow. One can’t exactly laugh out loud.
In the book’s final section, a collection of unpublished poems from 2010, this relative solemnity continues. After having had the pleasure of reading Gizzi’s life work front to back, I can’t help but interpret the final couplet of the penultimate poem as a poetics. Here in “The Posthumous Life of Children” dedicated to the poet Craig Watson (the collection’s other editor), Gizzi writes “The delicate fades into/the blue sound-engineered sky.” It seems that this had been the poet’s method of composition almost to the very end — letting the vulnerability of life transform into a soundscape of poetry.
By giving us Gizzi’s work in its entirety, the Collected Poems not only makes available works that have been out of print and unpublished, but it also allows us to consider what we might risk and what we might gain when poetry offers us a field for transubstantiating the facts of our life.