Vibe. Archeophonics, the National Book Award finalist and sixth collection of poems from American, Peter Gizzi, is a book about vibe: the vibrations in the air we call sound waves; the vibrations of history we feel through time; the particular emotional vibrations that give certain people or objects or occasions what we call an aura, a vibe. The lift in Gizzi’s lyrics is less intellectual, or even revelational, than vibrational. In Archeophonics, the insights of the poet, how exactly the poet sees the world anew—and Gizzi certainly does, in his own paradoxical way—take second chair to how the poems feel. These are poems of the body, both his own and the public body of Whitman: “That’s the story / The sun and the body in the sun,” Gizzi writes in the eponymous poem that opens the book. In that poem, the world is on fire and it has “always been on fire.” That is the vibe: fire, heat; part Peter Gizzi part “Song of Myself.” “I’m just visiting this voice,” Gizzi ventriloquizes in the first line of the book, at once the puppet and the dissembling puppeteer, the dancer and—to update Yeats—the DJ.
Archeophonics includes a set of short lyrics enveloped by three long(er) poems, each in their own sections—“Field Recordings”, “A Winding Sheet For Summer” and “Bewitched”—the first at the front of the book after the prefatory pitch pipe of the title poem, and the other two in the above order at the end. “Field Recordings” comes via instalments with titles like “Wrapper Frag,” “Wind Instrument,” “Strangeness Becomes You” or “Reverb.” A repeating phrase—“The old language”—gets passed around the sections like a musical idea, something ironically less semantic than sensory:
The old language / dosing in the sun.
The old language is / the old language. / It don’t mean shit.
The old language / continues its dialogues // in ordinary dust.
The second section, titled “Thrall,” turns the lyric voice over to an apple in a move that is at once symbolically rich—in Europe and North American traditions at least—and vibrationally ridiculous:
The old language
says the apple
is the old apple,
and gave her all
the dance floor
Part of Gizzi’s project is to listen to the deep sounds of language, the workings of the body that compose a voice, and the workings of a culture that compose meaning. According to the publisher’s weirdly undergraduate sounding press release, “Archeophonics,” a Peter Gizzi neologism, is “defined as the archaeology of lost sound.” It’s a curious title for poems about the reach of sound across, and even outside of time. What’s lost about the sounds here is their temporary pasts, a perspective only available from within Time, a perspective these poems often try to slip. “It was like this just like this / The world that’s coming towards me / And the world around me,” Gizzi writes in “Archeophonics”. Later, in “A Winding Sheet for Summer,” he confesses, “I wanted out of the past so I ate the air, / it took me further into air.” Gizzi’s performance in these poems is quasi-vatic, oracular; his pronouncements on the future are not really about the future but about how things are (“on fire”) and have always been (“on fire”). The oracle doesn’t tell you the future; she looks through the vibration we know as Time and tells you what she sees, what is always there beyond Time.
In an early review of Archeophonics printed in The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich writes that Gizzi is “engaged in a complicated, sometimes critical conversation with the entire history of letters, including his own.” And I’m inclined to believe her as she has eaten hamburgers with Gizzi and talked with him about Ezra Pound, Townes Van Zandt, and the Boston Red Sox. I first heard Peter Gizzi’s name a few years ago from a young American poet I’d met over lunch at the English Market in Cork, Ireland. On Skype a few weeks after that first meeting, my would-be new friend asked how I define a poetic line. It was a test more than a query. He was talking, really, about the poetic line, the idea of a poetic line. How, in other words, should a line of poetry be? I don’t remember my response except I know it was unimpressive, and shortly before our conversation ended, my interlocutor suggested I read Peter Gizzi.
It’s true that Gizzi writes lines. I don’t mean that facetiously; there’s a sense I have that the line is the primary unit of composition, followed by the sentence, then the stanza. He has an appealing ear and a knack for diction that ticks between registers, but it’s the way the lines appear to accumulate apropos of nothing rather than propagate from carefully cultivated rhetoric that creates the most intoxicating aspects of his work. I say “appear” because in art, verisimilitude is as ratifying as proof. Sometimes the line floats on its own; sometimes it gives way to a riffle of rhetoric, usually accompanied by grammar; sometimes it eddies in a stanza. Here are some lines from the short lyrics that make up the middle of Archeophonics:
From “When Orbital Proximity Feels Creepy”:
That I saw a blood-orange ball caught
out my window.
That I’m listening to light and it said time.
I’m listening to time, it says, ha.
You need to be howling at bloody torn space.
Need to be spooked out of you hidey-hole
and its glowing mess
From “This World Is Not Conclusion”
When I look out your window I see another window
I see a wedding in my brain, a stylus and a groove
a voice waving there
The hardest part
is the songbirds
And their fugue state,
fug state, fuck it.
The world is neon
in the gloaming quiet.
Recently, I tried to describe Gizzi’s poetic persona to another poet over text message: “He’s Frank O’Hara nursing a hangover in an English Department office, twenty years deep into a forgotten residency; he’s John Keats, tutored on Paul Celan and The Black Mountain School, drinking milkshakes in New York; he’s Don McKay if he’d been an American.” To another writer friend I texted, “Peter Gizzi is one of the few poets who could call a book Archeophonics without me immediately nodding off.” Gizzi is at once too intellectual to be entirely emotional, and far too emotional to maintain any kind of intellectual cool for more than a moment. He is, after all, a poet of sound over sense—of soundings and the sensory—but he’s also attracted to critique, to saying something about the world in which he lives and the means by which he thinks and depicts that world. “Strangeness Becomes You,” the sixth section of “Field Recordings” ends with these stanzas:
The syntax breaks down
its mangled draft and says,
one day the poor
will have nothing
to eat but the rich.
I hate that, when syntax
connects me to the rich.
Here I love how the cliché of “eat [but] the rich” (which recovers for me the “lost sounds” of Steven Tyler rapping—so to speak—the opening lines of this 1990s Aerosmith track) is transformed, in the final couplet, into a commentary on the power of syntax to, along with line and rhetoric, suggest utterances, reveal identities, and shape thinking. The cliché is outed as a cliché and not in an ironic, overly self-aware manner, but in an honest, self-implicating one. The sensitivity of the poet to know when an otherwise ill-advised phrase can be an advantage is lovely. And what an advantage. Here are the opening lines from “Reverb,” the seven and next section of “Field Recordings”:
I hate how syntax
connects me to shit,
or say the day
is jewelled and burning,
the fires banking,
and none of its letters
produce the horror
at the heart of the index.
Reading any book, especially a book of poetry, is to engage, wittingly or unwittingly, in Archeophonics. What we recover from any reading depends on how we listen. How we listen depends on the instruments we have for listening. Those instruments include culture, history, language, geography, social positioning, and embodiment. We listen for what we know we can hear and within the range of frequencies our instruments afford us. For example, the title “Release the Darkness to New Lichen” excavated for me the homonym “liken” which, sounding like an imperative, sent me to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Shampoo”, another lyric about Time and the body. It opens:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And then this morning, typing this and listening to the tick of the electric heater, the careening diminuendo of cars in the early dark, the start-up hum of the refrigerator, I remembered, after more than 30 years, being six years old in a rural school on Vancouver Island and my teacher explaining homonyms: hear, here.
In 2014 Peter Gizzi kindly granted me permission to use a few of his lines from Threshold Songs as an epigraph to a collection of stories I published with a small Canadian publisher. I paired those lines (“Hey shadow world when a thing comes back / comes back unseen but felt…”) with this stanza from Thomas Hardy that concludes Hardy’s short lyric “Going and Staying”:
Then we looked closelier at Time,
And saw his ghostly arms revolving
To sweep off woeful things with prime,
Things sinister with things sublime
It has always been the tonally awkward, nearly archaic word “closelier” that cinches this stanza for me, it’s cutesy necessity testified to primarily in the metrics of the stanza (for Hardy, as opposed to Gizzi, the primary unit is always the stanza). It’s the kind of choice that good sense should tell a poet not to make, and yet, it is the on-the-whole unwarranted move that somehow ratifies the whole poem for me, in the same way that the last stanza of Gizzi’s “Strangeness Becomes You” does. Hardy here, and Gizzi throughout Archeophonics, plays the subtle vibrations of language in the mind of the body, plays how the mind of the body hears the liquid shock of the two accentual beats (“looked close…”) ring out in the rest of the word (“looked close[…]lier”), hears that moment of weight (and wait) against the satisfaction of the stanzaic measure.
“I trod the path / dissembled / with leaves / under the ghosting / shades an elm made,” Gizzi writes on the final page of Archeophonics, “and discovered / the pages of / my book / open to greet me.” It’s a cooling of the vibe both literally and idiomatically, but one that’s in keeping with the fire: the right vibe, of course, is often both cool and hot. The poet trods the path of his work like all workers, but always in the presence of the Mysterious. He’s too human at this moment to see, like Wallace Stevens’ snow man, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” But he feels it. And that feeling unfolds in the sounds of the language: the short “a” of “path” giving way to the long “a” in the rhyme “shades/made” and in “pages”; the vowel sound of the mendacious “leaves” transformed into the welcoming book (“greet me.”). He knows that he’s in a poem—“In the poem / I am thick / with dream”— but his knowing also casts him out so that we understand that he is both within poem-time and without. Poetry, as Stevens had it, “is violence within protecting us from a violence without.” Archeophonics is a moving—and yes, timely—document of those two shifting coordinates.