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Martin Stannard

Periplum and other poems (1987-1992) by Peter Gizzi (Salt, £9.95)

periplum, not as land looks on a map
but as sea bord seen by men sailing.
Now tarters in the murk night
sent great numbers of sojers with lanthorns
which they held up very high
and thus spread light on the proceedings
causing great fear in Nanking.

(Ezra Pound, Canto LIX)

[Periplum] implies not only a voyage of discovery . . ., but in the case of a poet, a voyage of spiritual discovery. (Daniel D. Pearlman, The Barb of Time: On the Unity of Ezra Pound's Cantos Oxford University Press, 1969)

“…. it is poetry's function to aspire to the impossible, because poetry works through a human agency—the generosity of a reader and a writer. Poetry demands that a risk be taken, and from this act of intelligence courage claims precedence over poverty of spirit." (Peter Gizzi, 1993)

And, to conclude this preamble of quotations, here is Peter Gizzi in “Periplum”:


faith enters
and must be pinned and sighted

A church tower is good for reference
but losing ground


satellites orbiting the earth
track a true arc

but perhaps too grand
for everyday distances

And never mind about the bewilderment

“I’m at sea”

Never mind about the bewilderment. One should be more concerned with the acts of intelligence. Peter Gizzi’s poetry says this all the time. Not that one would (or could) paraphrase any of the poems as such, but that’s what the entire enterprise is based upon. That’s what one has to remember. We forget it, I think, at our peril.

It is not new, particularly, to be concerned with one’s place in the world, or “our” place in the world, or with how we perceive this and these things. Neither is it new, particularly, to write poems in which language and its components (which for the sake of it I will call “words”) are somewhat hauled out of their more familiar environments and patterns and usages in an effort to get to some kind of place where you can wrangle with it all. To write poems, in other words, that are “difficult”. Nor is it new, particularly, to write poems in which this (let’s call it for now) “difficult” rubs shoulders with (let’s call it for now) “the easy”.

Here is the ashtray and here
the plastic cup of cool water.

And here is the known world.
As fingers duplicate the event

of hunger. Get up. Go
to the division of various

stories and look for the naked
man beneath the stream

behind the house. The same
house that
I does not inhabit.

(from “The Locket”)

But “new” doesn’t matter, particularly. I am one of those who is happy to think that philosophical and personal endeavours to figure out bewilderment are timeless, and can carry on (and will carry on) pretty much for ever. And as for ways of pursuing these fireflies in poetry, they come and go and mutate and flower for ever also. The differences one notices in poetries, however, is that some shapes and forms are more prepossessing than others and, so it tends to follow, are more pleasurable to spend time with. “Hard as Ash” is one such. Seven or eight pages of such.

When objects becomes the subject, a veritable
picnic of description that spells glee on the new
horizon. Time is our only subject
and the mutability of forms. Time compact
and out of sight. I want the whole essay.

To want the whole essay is a big want but the best poetries, the rarest poetries, also want that impossible thing. It may appear a small event, and may go unnoticed, but somewhere in a little room, with the curtains closed on a dark night, a chap or a chapess is alone and reading, and there comes a poem, or even a few lines of a poem, and suddenly the whole essay is there, and even if it’s only there fleetingly the chap or the chapess holds on to this proof, this proof of the possibility of the impossible. They are alive. And the next day, their hair washed but eyes bleary from not enough sleep, still they are able

to think we get to have coffee

together now and then is pretty terrific
don’t you think? I have come to tell
of the discrepancies of light, material
or otherwise.

And the brilliantness of the whole essay informs the day. It’s not that anything becomes clearer, necessarily. Perhaps it’s that something becomes more bearable.

This is only a poem to say I love you.
I love you too. I’ve been so happy.

There is a sense throughout these poems of the individual constantly pressing to assert presence, and fathom it, in the face of – well, in the face of what? Some otherness? Things? There is always what my mum would no doubt not call ambiguity or “the slipperiness of language” and whatever that results in. The first section of “Music for Films” (yes, it’s title is taken from the Brian Eno record) packs quite a lot of this into its first four lines:

the tear and breath
devouring of girl and granite

they breeze to zero
withstanding street

So, is this ‘tear’ as in crying or tear as in rip? Does ‘they’ refer to the tear and the breath or the girl and the granite? Or all of them? Or none…. There are other questions one might address regarding the second couplet. What it means might be one of them. Much of this long poem sequence (it stretches to some 30 pages of brief, often minimalist sections) has one addressing issues of language and permanence (“day persists on paper/ as twinning evaporates”) but Gizzi, fond as he is of abstractions, never goes for very long before the ground re-attaches itself to your feet:

to arrive here
begin to die

One of the things that strikes me about Peter Gizzi’s poems is that they occupy a very fine and subtle territory which is both a recognisable world and one that is less so, one that is obscured by abstractions and ambiguities, doubts and, I suppose, words, but is no less real for all that. These two worlds are, of course, the same world, but we have problems with both of them. Anyway, Gizzi’s poems tend to do one of the things I sort of wish poetry didn’t, which is provide free food and drink for those who would like to talk about it using the language of literary critical discourse and the jargon of analytical linguistics. I’ve read, for example, a review of this book which talks about it from a deconstructionist’s point of view. Signifiers and signifieds abound. Which is fine, except it rather reduces the poems to a long-winded statement of theory rather than what they are, which is poems rather remarkable to encounter and experience. And that, for me, is it. They are poems, and often quite fascinating ones. They are never less than interesting, and often they are a delight. Here is the ninth section of “Façades for Theron Ware” :

It was a difficult beauty, tracing
a shadow cast from fragments
of broken narrative. I heard tell

of a man who asked for help, hanging
from a cliff face. A voice replied
“let go” as if faith were a free-

fall unto this couch. No matter
what I believe, the door to my head
will not open from the outside.

One of the epigraphs to the book is Emily Dickinson’s

I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —

which, among other things, is about how difficult Life is, and how disconnected. And sometimes how Other. It’s living the Other which is sad and beautiful. I don’t know if the tension of it is where art comes from, but Peter Gizzi’s “Periplum and other poems” is about much the same thing and is not, I have to say, always an easy book if one is looking for poems to understand and leave behind so you can move on to the next one. My progress through it was, on first reading, somewhat slow and halting. It does contain obvious pleasures, but less obvious pleasures become apparent only upon gaining a familiarity, kind of like finding the groove. This afternoon it was pretty hot, and I strolled down the road to the park to sit on the grass. I had Gizzi’s book with me. I wanted to have a look at a few things again. The sun was too hot to sit in, so I sprawled in the shade of a small tree. Some old people were playing bowls on the green a few yards away. One of them had a towel on her head to protect her from the sun. Some Council workmen were digging a hole under some trees nearby. And I found myself reading this:

and green mixes in
into all
colors belonging

to breath

for there is earth
and to dig

as the day transpires

Sometimes I fall in love with poems, because the best are simply beautiful and true.

Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2005