Death Declared, Life Questioned: Peter Gizzi Resurrects the Lyric Poem

By Hannah Niemeier

Poet Peter Gizzi doesn’t like language any more than a geologist likes dirt; sometimes it gets in the way of his meaning.

But what he finds beneath the dust of worn-out words is always precious:

It was a language to eat the sky

a language to say goodbye

 

standing with others

standing in the dust.

 

The old language

continues its dialogues

 

in ordinary dust.

-”Rime,” from “Field Recordings”

The perceived loss of meaningful language in the modern age and its resurrection through lyric poetry is at the center of “Archeophonics,” a collection that earned Peter Gizzi a place on the 2016 National Book Award Short List for Poetry. Gizzi sees himself as an archaeologist of lost language, a wanderer through the ruins of forgotten modes of expression. In “Archeophonics,” Gizzi unearths the lyric and its connections to other “languages” that point people to something beyond themselves — poetry, music, science, and silence come to new light under the careful brush of Gizzi’s words.

The title aptly describes the “digging into sound” that Gizzi considers his revelationary work; “Archeophonics” grounds his poetry in the ancient, ringing, changing sound of words, but Gizzi must coin a neologism — and dig up a neglected genre — to fulfill this time-honored calling to poetry.

But before this song comes silence; before connection is alienation; before resurrection, death. Here, Gizzi places himself at odds with his fellow poets, who often use their work to refute claims about the “death of poetry.” Not true, they argue: Poetry leads us to contemplation of higher things. It reflects us our own experience through the lens of the past, it shows us the beauty in our daily experience, and it brings our dreary worlds back to life.

Instead, Gizzi sounds the death knell. In “Archeophonics,” the beautiful old language of the past has been long buried, and the poet wanders through its ruins. A true nomad, he is alienated even from himself: “I am just visiting this voice,” Gizzi claims in his first line. He goes on to catalogue the demise of “the old language,” whose “letters / no longer anchor” as it fades away. Though it used to serve its purpose in “naming and knowing” the world, now “It don’t mean shit.” Time and change blow it away, and it softly whispers and “continues its dialogues / in ordinary dust.”

For a man who lives for words, this is hard news. All this poet-turned-archaeologist can do is dig through the ruins, looking for meaning in artifacts from the literary past:

“For debris / for damaged art / our

collective fortune …

… for as long as [there have been] poets

there has been a bridge.”

It is a lonely task, but a resonant one in an age that shouts its alienation in vain, when poet’s words often ring hollow against the walls of their minds.

And yet, this poet still speaks. Though “the project is archival,” Gizzi’s words have an echo of hope amid destruction, a silent void defined by a life-giving deity, as if the poet were waiting for a new “Let there be light”: “I breathed deep, it lit me up, it was good … Memento mori and lux.”

In the desert of a modern poetics that sees traditional forms of poetry as little more than magnificent ruins, Gizzi’s voice is spare, but powerful. His poetry echoes around short, choppy lines that allow space for revelation through suggestion, double entendre, and broken syntax as he aims to “re- /cognize” language. But short lines and spare strokes do not mean that Gizzi’s words fall lightly. This perpetual “unfinishedness” of his lines allows him to brush at the edges of language and unearth the treasures of the lyric.

After Gizzi creates this space, the reader thirsts for the sound of language. In this wasteland, the smallest connection between poet and reader is a drop of grace, the merest sympathy a new discovery. And if lyric poetry means bringing the universal to bear on the bare facts of human experience, then Gizzi has cleared the grounds for a triumphant excavation.

Gizzi’s poetry clears an excavation site to dig through language, and in this silence, the reader hears the scalpel of Gizzi’s poetry scratching in the dust. Though he claims that language is dead, Gizzi still searches through the mysteries of sound and silence, through orchestra concerts and corner stores, in a search for a new language—a way to say what he means in a world where meaning has been buried and twisted in the wreck of time.

Like any good artist, he uses tools pilfered from various teachers in his field: in his allusiveness and penchant for suggestion over statement, he is Wallace Stevens, inventing worlds through the sounds of experimental words (the title being only the first of his neologisms: “sun-slashed,” “slowcore,” “vintaging”). But in his spareness, his everydayness, his experimentation with the short line and simple syntax, he is William Carlos Williams, adding his apple cores and CVSes to Williams’s canonization of the mundane: wheelbarrows and cold plums can, indeed, lead readers to thoughts of the mysteries of the human experience.

The commonplace artifacts that Gizzi unearths often take on an air of mystery. The words that Gizzi is both unearthing and redefining are difficult to categorize; the meanings of words shift through layers of syntax and double entendre and stuttering line breaks as Gizzi explores this new language, or this old language in new context. He shifts from sound to silence to the languages of poetry, science, and music: “climb the old helix” … “Sing genetic cloud forms” … “uncompose / the self in itself. / The orchestral side / is taking away me.”

And, alarmingly, these old words seem to hum with a life of their own. One of the most striking effects in Gizzi’s spare poetry is its seemingly irresistible turn toward music: syntax and images morph into new sounds, and the content and rhythm of his lines read as beats in a complicated, twisting, turning composition. By “Bewitched,” the final poem of the collection, he has found his chosen musical form (and an appropriately dusty one):

“Po-lyph-o-ny it was

a music to me

a freaky effluvium

entering me lit

with that speak

with its thick

embryonic music

born into a strange

new light darker

than any like

I had known

before, polyphony

spoke to me.”

In this complicated music, the lyric is resurrected. Through Gizzi’s musical use of language, poetry returns again, and the artifacts of human experience sing a strange, spare, echoing song. And in the particulars of his life, in his thoughts and meditations on music and art and language, Gizzi taps into questions that transcend time.

If the goal of lyric poetry is to find the universal in everyday experience, then poems like “Google Earth” and “Instagrammar” place Gizzi in a very specific place in time’s helix (a scientific metaphor that closely parallels the twists and turns of music throughout the collection). Though one wonders whether these poems will outlast the lifetime of his pop culture references (what will Instagrammar mean in a hundred years? In 10?), they do ground him in a culture defined by new platforms and uses for language. Google Earth allows Gizzi to see beyond himself in his poetic project, “to fly to flex to think / in lines.”

Like the helix, Gizzi’s lyric is continually modifying itself, modulating through different sounds, songs, and forms of being. And though “Archeophonics” grounds his poetry in the ancient, ringing, changing sound of words, it is appropriate that Gizzi must coin a neologism to describe his time-honored calling as a poet. “Archeophonics” aptly describes the “digging into sound” that Gizzi considers his revelationary work. Cutting across disciplines, languages, and syntax, Gizzi digs through the strata of experience to show that, at our most fundamental level, our present connections and hope for the future are uncovered by “standing / with others / standing in / the dust.”

But like the helix Gizzi traces and the music he conducts in his poetry, science and sound both return to the place they began. Gizzi’s poetry echoes with refrains that tie his collection together. “The old language” returns again and again in the lyric, and by the end, it connects those who search through — and sing in — its dust.

Gizzi resurfaces from all his digging at the end of his collection: “rising through / the stratum / a question / in my brain.” As an archeophonist, he revels in song above science, search beyond certainty. His answers to the lyric’s recurring questions about human experience can never be final.

But a question is not a mere surrender to the unknowable; a question is also a sound, opening a means to understanding. It rises as “a musical joybang” from the uncovered mysteries of the past, the shifting light of the present, and the uncertainty of the future. It rings from all parts of man’s experience, a connection, a chord that has not yet played itself out.

The archaeology of sound is a delicate art, but Gizzi’s fine music resonates as he unearths old forms of poetry — and in its brightest moments, the lyric sings again.

Hannah is a junior studying English

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