Writing that leads to pondering

Threshold Songs
, Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan)
Songs & Stories of the Ghouls
, Alice Notley (Wesleyan)

Peter Gizzi's poetry was largely unknown to me before I read this collection; but after reading this fine collection, I feel I'd like to explore his work more. Like much of what could be called the contemporary post-avant scene, this is an abstract poetry but with its feet placed in the world. His poems are at once simple and complex, leading the reader to ponder the nature of experience rather than being about a particular experience.

The simplicity at times becomes almost song-like, as in 'Gray Sail'

     If I were a boat
     I would probably roll over
     If I were a prayer

     If I were a beech stave
     Beech bark
     If I were a book

     I would sing in streets
     Alone in traffic...

which has echoes, of course, of 'If I had a hammer...' but which is stranger and more mysterious than its source. There is  a metaphysic going on here which full of echoes, of ghosts and questions at the edge of understanding. Sometimes, the poems have an epigrammatic quality in which each line leads the mind into the a new thought:

     Everything's the same just faster.

     An unusual amount of fracture, office worker, and eclipse.

     Time wigging into amperes about me.

     An unusual collar starched and pulled taut over the skin.

     The genesis text has become real touching me, touching down.

     Are we not born of iniquity, property, loot, grandeur, flinty grammar?

     Are we not bread-like, soft tissue, heat-seeking, and fragile?

     In a room of heady effort tomorrow is indeed a fabulous sail billowing.

     Any porous room billowing may be feathered and lines with French verse cobbled from the vender's broute cries.

     Not a jeering mass at mardi gras but telepathy.
           ('A Penny For The Old Guy')

These poems don't give up their meanings at first glance, they hint at meaning, they suggest, and they sound like proverbs or parables without specific interpretation. There is a lot of space for the reader in these poems; like Rae Armantrout and Michael Palmer, Peter Gizzi is opening out the poem for the reader to ponder their own experience.

Alice Notley's Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is, at first sight, a very different affair. This is a book length sequence which invokes the ghosts of ancient history, of war, of violence against women, of political and economic exploitation. It rewrites the myths of Dido and Medea to comment on the way that the constant wars of civilisation not only destroy lives but whole cultures and ways of thinking. Throughout, she confronts and plays with the concept of the epic, with its glorification of 'great deeds' and violence.

This makes for a not very easy, or quick, read, and I can't say I've got my head around the whole thing yet. The book is divided into three parts, mixing verse and prose, narrative and more abstract passages, is set partly in the world of the living and in the world of Dead, where the ghouls live.

What it shares with the Peter Gizzi book, however, is its sense of 'hauntedness'; there is throughout this book an apprehension that the ghosts of the dead are all around us, just at the edge of memory. Even though we forget, there are always scars.

Here's an extract from the first part, which mixes lyric and prose:

   There was power in that room. I saw
   it, because my eyes were crushed out

      It's my judgment on this almost face
      holding the mouth so.

      The scars on my right side won't fail.
      I've come back wearing them
      instead of a conscience or a guide

      In order to cause
      a breakaway culture.

      trembling white vertical lines
      in black sky above sea. they
      spell what it might be; the

      emotional tone of the old
      universe was vicious. 
      it had no care for me
          (from 'Introducing Carthage')

I'll confess to struggling with this poem/sequence; but I think it's worth struggling with. Sometimes, poems can just wash over you; one can enjoy the play of wit and the language play, one can nod at a particularly brilliant image. But this book seems worth engaging with and thinking about and around. Its use of ancient myths and its seriousness of purpose may easily have made it seem elitist but throughout the book, the writing is often spiritual and deep and full of resonance in a way I very rarely find in contemporary poetry.

In fact, both of these beautifully produced books contain the kind of writing that leads to pondering, to thinking further, rather than to just experiencing and then moving on. That seems to me to be a rare commodity in the poetry world, and I welcome it.

    Steven Waling 2012