Monday, November 30, 2009

Crag Hill, review: Gizzi’s "New Depths"

Crag Hill

Poetry of Many Movements: Michael Gizzi’s “New Depths of Deadpan”

Review of:

New Depths of Deadpan
by Michael Gizzi
Burning Deck, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1-886224-96-4

Michael Gizzi’s New Depths of Deadpan engenders more possible readings than most contemporary books of poetry. These poems gather strength from the new sentence, unfold in Cubist simultaneity, as bursts of fractured flash fictions, with many poems wearing their poetics on their sleeves. It is fitting that New Depths of Deadpan was published by Burning Deck Press, the venerable, eclectic press whose goal is not to bring out poetry by one movement, one coterie of poets, but to publish an array of poetries from the United States and Europe.

Much has been written on Ron Silliman’s concept of the new sentence, so I will only mention three characteristics: sentences are constructed for increased polysemy, syllogistic movement within the poem is minimized, and this suppression of syllogistic movement maintains the reader’s attention at the sentence level or below. Silliman positions William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell as an early example of the new sentence. His own Tjanting and Ketjak, Bob Perleman’s Primer, Barret Watten’s Progress are other books exploiting these poetics. Today, Rae Armantrout’s and Michael Gizzi’s work is steeped in such practices, proving their continued viability.

In New Depths of Deadpan, “Irony vs. Reality” exemplifies the new sentence. “Life, as if you didn’t know, is an open book,” the poem opens. This cliché, somewhat allayed by the aside, “as if you didn’t know,” is tossed into chaos by the second line: “Eggs possibly heavy at times.” Do those eggs suggest menstruation, a tenuous connection to the life in the first line? Or is it some kind of surreal weather prediction? Instead of rain, eggs will possibly be heavy at times during this evening’s commute. If “life” is the anchor of the poem, something the reader might hold on to as he/she negotiates the subsequent lines, then the third line may hookup with it: “Car crashes remain the leading cause of information.” Car accidents are a fact of modern life; they provide information in the forms of obituaries and accident reports, filling in the open book of the first line. And maybe the accidents were caused by the rain of eggs. The next line, “Maybe your son is a physician, I’ve no idea how,” loosely links with the previous line, physicians tending the victims of car crashes, but the next clause disrupts that syllogism. I indeed have no idea how the son has become a physician, nor can I ever be certain how this idea connects with the other ideas this poem generates. The next line, “The imperial worm turns,” scatters all previous lines to the wind. Echoing the soap opera “As the World Turns,” is the imperial worm the hegemony of meaning in the rich loam of reading? If so, what is reading turning toward? I’ll let you read the rest of the poem on your own. Suffice it to say, my reading swims in the continual present, trying to hold on to the elusive rafts of these sentences.

Many poems are built of twisting Cubist surfaces, Gizzi’s strategy to defeat Medusa–don’t look directly at the object, at the subject. Each line of the title poem displays many facets, producing different views of themselves simultaneously:

New Depths of Deadpan

Mane thickness is a response to climate control.

Your therapist, an empiricist, sends you a horseshoe magnet.

A friend of the family offers his duck blind.

Description ends at death.

A robotic realm of light bears this out:

tears don’t fall in outer space.

Delivered in classic deadpan, devoid of expression, the first line could refer to man, woman, or animal whose hair or fur length is adjusted to the climate, i.e. a woman who keeps her hair cropped short in a humid climate or a Siberian husky growing fur in the fall to prepare for winter only to shed it in summer. If my therapist is an empiricist, grounding her practice in scientific research, why did she just send me a horseshoe magnet, a symbol of good luck? Is this, too, a response to climate control or lack thereof? Following that shifting surface, the next line offers another solution to my unlucky ennui, a day of duck hunting, security in camouflage I cannot create myself. Yet that friend may be offering me his duck blind not to hunt, but so I can hide from all those caterwauling quacks in my world. I can hunker down to absent myself. The next line flips me onto another slippery edge entirely. What description ends at death? Whose death? The death of description? Of dying? Is the next surface, robotic light, the ethereal tunnel of light at the end of life, if I am even still in the poem, subject blurred, or am I transfixed in a parking lot scorched by towering light fixtures that blaze on automatically at dusk and flick off at dawn? Or am I drifting away from Hal, jettisoned in space by my guidance computer? How did I get sharp Picasso tears stuck to my cheeks in zero gravity? Each sentence of this prose poem adds to the preceding (receding) and approaching (encroaching) lines, to each reflection/deflection. Together, they create content that resists unification.

Many poems can be read as fractured flash fictions. “To A Pixie” begins with a character, Uncle, exhibiting a painting entitled “The Port of Missing Men,” which draws an unusual reaction: “Someone/aims an aqueduct his way.” If the aqueduct even has any water coursing through it, this could be the classic hose the loser off the stage routine. In actuality, the aqueduct may be dry, “the bounding main,” the sea, “stuffed under his/mattress.” Uncle has either shrunk, dehydrated, or his tall peaked hat has grown, the brim of which “seems to be everywhere/at once.” One wonders whether these lines refer to the content within the painting or in the surrounding exhibition space, or whether the setting changes at every turn. Then the narrative leaps: “Abundance//gives the air a blank stare.” Abundance of? Enough of something so the setting now has a living blankness, a passive-aggressive stare. Abundance, whatever it is, becomes the main character, acting on the scene to disappear Uncle. Looking up, one sees an archangel striding “with a harvest hook, its blade/toothmarked by stars.” Who is this archangel gleaning stars? What the hell just happened? The narrative tells us parenthetically that it occurred while we napped. But how did those stars end up “burning in an alien jam jar”? The archangel’s appearance constitutes the climax of this flash fiction. We must make our own resolution. Once we wake from our indeterminate nap, we will decide what to do with the burning jam jar. Spread it on our morning toast? Install it bedside to guard our future naps? Whatever we do, are we then complicit with the archangel hooking stars out of sky?

Lastly, the poems abound with declarations of their poetics. For example, words have been knocked off their pedestal, language no longer a precise map: “one can’t adventure with images anymore. The inner pictorial/person is pushed aside” (15). The images foisted upon us during reading, mimesis, no longer have direct representations. Or, as the title of one poem declares, “Only You Know What This Means,” meaning not absolute, dependent on the mindset/s of the reader. The first line of that poem shows the poet nudging the reader toward meaning: “I’ll tell you about it, what each syllable says,/Doors opened.” Now the reader, suspending disbelief or judgment, must enter even if he doesn’t know what awaits him within the poem. Many other poems gesture toward their poetics, exposing the creator behind the curtain, theory practiced out in the open.

No matter what approach taken in reading these poems, everyone must appreciate Gizzi’s ear. He can pile up assonance and alliteration–as in “Sap becomes shellac” (18), and in “The father in exile stripped of his sundial borrows the equator for a belt” (19), in ways that stop readers in their tracks to savor sentences for the quality of their sound before sense is pursued.

Though the book seems to lose its intensity in the last fifteen pages– sentences lose their ambidexterity, sound slackens, the poems do not sustain their spontaneous simultaneity. Yet if you read only one Michael Gizzi book in your reading lifetime, make it New Depths of Deadpan. This book embodies many of the poetic impulses of the last twenty-five years. That, my dear reading friend, is worth the price of admission.

Crag Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of the few American journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including many available on-line. His creative and critical works in-progress can be found at

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

No comments: