“To Wonder Without Becoming Dry”

Artificial Heart by Peter Gizzi.Burning Deck.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Boston Book Review, 5-6 (August 1998): 34-35.


In 1959 Frank O’Hara wrote an ode called “Hôtel Transylvanie,” which begins:

Shall we win at love or shall we lose
can it be
that hurting and being hurt is a trick forcing the love
we want to appear, that the hurt is a card
and is it black? is it red? is it a paper, dry of tears
chevalier, change your expression!

In Artificial Heart, Peter Gizzi has a version of this poem called “A Textbook of Chivalry”:

Learning how to give in to hate, or how to take, in love,
won’t recuperate joy, or avoiding joy
might become a paradigm easing a pain unwanted
to dissipate. . . .
These slums speak to everyone, don’t they, though
no one is listening
are they, chevalier, are they? The tribulation of water is heavy.

Gizzi’s “Textbook” refigures O’Hara’s “personism” through the lenses of Language poetics, and the crossing has produced a tantalizing new lyric mode. If, like most of the poems in Artificial Heart, “Textbook of Chivalry,” can be read as a love poem, it is certainly a love poem with a difference. “Love,” in the dystopian 1990s, is no longer a matter of “winning” or “losing”; it is how one “learn[s] to give in” to one’s emotion that counts, how one deals with the recognition that love in itself “won’t recuperate joy, how, for that matter, love “might become a paradigm easing a pain unwanted to dissipate.” The “winning” (or “losing”) of the beloved is, after all, only one item in the myriad conflicting demands on one’s time, energy, and mental activity. O’Hara’s unalloyed “joy” (or misery, as the case may be) thus gives way to the sense of “never to understand why one is here, or why now, / or who or what they shall become, whence written down.” The emotions, love among them, are here seen as always already textualized.

Hence the notion throughout Artificial Heart that the lyric poet is once again writing trobar clus–the allusive, oblique, hermetic lyric of the troubadours–a poetry of secrecy. Peter Gizzi, whose Periplum (1994) won the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets and whose “little magazine” o*blek and anthology Exact Change Yearbook have given us some of the best indicators we have of new directions in poetry, might be dubbed a post-language poet. Verbally, structurally, syntactically, Artificial Heart is written under the sign of the language poets with whom Gizzi studied at Buffalo and Brown. But in his visionary quest, his raw emotion, and his New York school spontaneity, Gizzi performs a clinamen that relates him to O’Hara, John Ashbery, and, beyond these poets, to Rimbaud and Hart Crane rather than to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, or Louis Zukofsky.

Take, for example, the opening poem, “New Picnic Time.” Gizzi’s note tells us that it takes its title from a Pere Ubu album (“parts 5 & 7 of the poem sample the lyrics of David Thomas”), and that “the album’s title evokes the punk exuberance of Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’.” But the tutelary spirit here (and often elsewhere) is surely Hart Crane, especially the Crane of “Faustus and Helen,” as in section 2:

At zero hour an earth unwrites itself.
Becomes an indelible number line
counting backward to embrace its new horizon,
indefatigable zero. The high lit window.
A person tethered to a desk. This city and its outline

its rivers, its cemeteries.

This is Cranean with a difference. For however ambiguous and syntactically odd “Faustus and Helen” may be, it retains a temporal and spatial continuity that Gizzi does away with. “New Picnic Time” has neither specified setting nor narrative thread. The poem’s opening image is of a page in a childrens’ book–”animals / breathing,” “Orbiting circles with brown x’s,” “pedestrians [who] make parallel lines and collapse / into distance,” “skylines / in charcoal or finger-paint.” But the relationship of that child’s world to the “person tethered to a desk” in #2 is left open, and #3 shifts to an “orchard keeper’s mansion” that, although “Invisible,” “is everywhere.” In this context, “the heart becomes one, last stone / of an existing grove and a squatter’s earth.” Here punctuation produces an ambiguity: the heart may become “one” in the sense of whole, or again the heart is seen as turning into one last stone–a common enough romantic image (witness “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” in Yeats’s “Easter 1916”), but here linked oddly to “the brilliant element of fire and to the helix.” And then, in an abrupt line, set off by itself, “and throughout the electrics: salt.”

As in Rimbaud’s Illuminations where flowers speak, leaves open, and red meat gives off enough blood to flood the sky, Gizzi’s disparate images are emblems of desire and its failures. The young father dreaming” in #5 is soon replaced by “The way of earthworms and coffins of dead infants, / cobwebs and deformity.” Not much of a Dejeuner sur l’herbe here. The “windows” expose children and “the signs they carry (shame), / of sibilants and crossroads.” Is it a dream? Maybe, but also “a tin can” (again, a Yeatsian echo, this time from “The Tower”), “a funny thing to feel,” perhaps “a simple garden, evergreen, a green car out front.” And the poet remarks that “There is no space. Only sky and water.”

There is literally no “space” in this dense network of images, for ellipsis is central to their deployment. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are even more unsettling. Gizzi’s poems are fixated on death and absence. “Another Day on the Pilgrimage,” with its Ashberyian title, is more somber, less parodic or jaunty than Ashbery’s comparable poems:

There is an I in space, I am, space
where a sparrow falls. Who can tell it?
When goodbye is the operative word
forgiveness is either easy or impossible.

Here the poet gives in to the Hamlet mood: the irritation with those who assume “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” And lines 3-4 are especially poignant: where separation and atomization are the order of the day, where relationships are increasingly impermanent, what can “forgiveness” mean? One gives in to cliché, as in “Hoping to meet again / some other day,/ hoping for the refrain to conduct us all into a neighborhood / not furtive, but rich with color.”

But as the poem progresses, that “neighborhood” never comes into sight. The “pilgrimage” passes “crowds gathered with faces / pressed against the sill, so many / faces at the sill. I wish I could tell them / what we are and where we are going.” One thinks (perhaps too handily) of Dante’s (and Eliot’s) “I had not thought death had undone so many.” But for Gizzi, explanation must be replaced by “our need for description, the apex/ where nerve net and hair stem meet.” And the pilgrimage ends on a note of hope, with the “tiny voice” of a distant bird that “has begun to sing the background / of everything the foreground blurs. Ecstatic in its trill.” A romantic conclusion? Almost, although the poet now remarks that we accept such intimations of immortality only “because we seek / less and settle for more . . . in our distracted way.”

Here and elsewhere in the book, Gizzi shows himself to be a master of the mot juste and of sound structure. Take that line just cited “where nerve net and hair stem meet.” Seven monosyllables, all of them except the word “and” demanding a primary stress, thus seeming to emphasize separation, stress followed by stress. And yet the rhyming of “where” / “hair”, the eye rhyme of “where”/ “nerve”, alliteration of “nerve”/ “net”, and “assonance of “where,” “net,” and “stem,” produce a tightly interwoven echo structure, a mimesis of that “meeting” of nerve nets. A related sounding is found in the charming shorter poem “Lonely Tylenol,” r poem that again takes its cue from O’Hara, with the epigraph “There I could never be a boy.” The title “Lonely Tylenol” is a palindrome, centering on the “lonely “T” between the mirror units. It begins:

You have to begin somewhere.
The devil of our empty pocket moves as escargot
up the artery of a hollow arm,
ending on the lip of your dismay–it shows
in the Brillo morning of a shaving mirror.
It is that morning always, and it is that morning
now, and now you must fight, not with fists
but with an eraser.

Here palindrome is, so to speak, meaning as well as form. in “The Brillo morning of a shaving mirror, what goes round comes round: it’s always morning, always time to begin, and the “battles” of the poet-teacher’s life are “not with fists / but with an eraser,” not with a “slingshot,” but with words.” “You have to begin somewhere” but there’s “No place like home,” so the palindrome goes nowhere, even as the form is used so brilliantly.

Not every poem in Artificial Heart is as successful as the ones I have cited. Some, like the canzone “Decoration Day,” which tries to deploy a twelve-tone row after Schoenberg, are a little bit forced in their foregrounding of formal device; some, like “Ding Repair,” are perhaps too closely modelled on Ashbery’s particular lyric signature. But most of the book’s poems–for example, the wonderful “Utopia Parkway,” which produces a kind of verbal equivalent for a Joseph Cornell box– are as memorable as they are moving and spare. Gizzi’s is the domain of grown-up children, who can’t quite give up childhood despite its frightening memories, a world where love is threatened, not so much by rejection, as by a disbelief in its possibility. Can the “Artificial Heart” continue to beat? And, if so, does it matter that it isn’t a real one?

There is an I in space, I am, space
where a sparrow falls. Who can tell it?
When goodbye is the operative word
forgiveness is either easy or impossible.