Music of Survival


Terence Diggory

Review of Peter Gizzi, Now It’s Dark (Wesleyan University Press, 2020)

       Peter Gizzi could not have known how dark existence would seem to the first readers of Now It’s Dark when it would be published amidst pandemic and political crisis in December 2020.  But the “now” that concerns Gizzi is not fixed in any particular set of historical circumstances. Rather, it is the constantly moving “now / of blur” from which we look back to “the cold dream / of the past.”  We experience darkness simply through the passage of time, and the poet employs language, as Gizzi has explained in an interview, to “give some form of relief to this otherwise dark process of time and its passage.”
       If darkness is a constant, we may still experience it with greater intensity—now it’s dark—at particular moments of loss that are felt to be unique.  Gizzi pushes gently against that sense of uniqueness by assigning the book’s title, Now It’s Dark, to two different poems.  The longer of the two, and the first in order of appearance, centers on a loss that we might assume was the book’s occasion: the death (in 2018) of Gizzi’s brother Tom, to whom the book is dedicated.  The poem offers an amount of autobiographical detail that is rare in Gizzi’s work:

        When my brother could no longer speak
           I said Tommy I got this
        even if I don’t want this, I’ll sing for you.
        When my brother had no voice there was only the couch
           and a wooden floor
        the ceiling and the TV with nothing blaring.
        When my brother lost his voice I lost my childhood
        lost the sun over sand in some place I can’t remember
           in Rhode Island summer.
        So far from myself in a body I can’t remember.

This lament has a classical air, but the classical name for it, “elegy,” shows up in the second poem called “Now It’s Dark,” where the occasion for lament seems less traditional:

        The world is close today
        and elegy is my tonic.
        I recast language in hope
        of recovering the red oak
        my neighbors felled.

Gizzi  knows that “the ultimate mission of the poet in the Western tradition is to bring back the beloved,” but he seems to have expanded that mission to the goal of recovering “the world.”  And success in achieving that goal will depend, his poems suggest, on the poet’s ability to “recast language.”
       While Gizzi’s work is deeply traditional in its disposition toward elegy, it is at the same time up-to-the-moment contemporary.  Some critics define this moment as “post-Language,”  that is, coming after the movement of Language writing that seized the standard of the avant-garde during the 1970s and 1980s.  Since the publication of his first collection, Periplum, in 1992, Gizzi has been redirecting some of the basic tenets of Language writing back to the traditional purposes of poetry, “the beauty of expression and form, plaintiveness, clarity, and song,” as he has described them. In Now It’s Dark, his seventh collection of new work, we see those purposes inflected by an insistence on the materiality of language that is characteristic of Language writing.  As an example, “The Afterlife of Paper,” one of the shortest poems in the collection, may be quoted in its entirety:

        the last best love is language in the mouth

        the last best hope for joy doesn’t forget

        a besting sensation

        the last stranger blooming on the tongue

        a compass rose blooming internally

        laying down track

        riding the rails

        wake unto me

        Here, the purpose of song is most obviously evoked by the recollection of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” in the final line.  Along with the modulation from irregular to regular rhythm, the repetition of words, word forms (-ing) and sounds creates an internal musical structure as well as establishing a ground in textual material: the repetitions function as self-citation, as the line from Foster is citation as well as evocation.  The materiality of language can be sensed physically in the images of mouth and tongue, but also in the image of paper in the poem’s title.  This is one of several instances in this book in which Gizzi refers to the material of the pages on which the reader encounters his language.  Rather than reducing the book to a mere physical object, however, the effect of these references is almost magical, suggesting the power inherent in language beyond its material condition, in an “afterlife.”  “I was down with materialism but / wanted mystery,” Gizzi writes in the first “Now It’s Dark” poem.
       An especially mysterious manifestation of the materiality of language in these poems is the projection of voice from, or into, the material world.  Repeatedly, at special moments, things speak:   “the hollyhocks spoke”; “Freezing rain with silver seems to be speaking”; “these colors speak”; “The sky speaks to me”; “The roofs speak”; “the room alive speaks when the corpse speaks…  and the earth speaks”; “the trees and grass are speaking”; “the old sun / is speaking.”  This eruption of voice from things—Gizzi calls it “thinging,”  in a pun on “singing”—seems to mark that recovery of the world that Gizzi associates with elegy in the second “Now It’s Dark” poem. However, in the volume Now It’s Dark,  that recovery is purchased at the price of another loss, that of “the speaking subject,” as it is called in psycholinguistic theory, or the one who says “I,” in the traditional view of lyric poetry.  Drawing on that theory, Language writers accused lyric poetry of escaping into an illusory interior world inhabited by an equally illusory “I.”  As a “post-Language” writer, Gizzi accepts the consequences of this critique:

        The collapse
        of interiority
        in my time.

But he reanimates the “I,” after its death, by projecting it into a worldly afterlife, relocated outside, among things previously thought to be dead because they did not speak.  Now they do.   The title of the poem just quoted is “Inside Out Loud.”
       From such premises it would be possible to deduce a range of philosophical propositions; the implications for environmental ethics strike me as especially intriguing.  But I am reminded of the response Yeats received from his ghostly instructors when he offered to devote the rest of his life to expounding the cosmic system they were imparting through his wife’s automatic writing.  “No,” they replied, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” Gizzi’s work is all poetry and it deserves our attention for its metaphors as well as its music.
       Now It’s Dark opens with a section of twenty shorter poems, under the collective heading “Lyric,” from which I have drawn most of my examples so far.  Each of the three following sections consists of a single long poem under a generic heading, “Garland,” “Nocturne” and “Coda,” but with each poem bearing a distinct title apart from the heading.  “Garland” is the heading for the poem “Marigold & Cable,” in which the “musical ground” underlying all of Gizzi’s work is especially evident.  It was commissioned by the composer Alex Cobb to accompany a recording of his music.  Its structure recalls musical fugue or visual “braiding,” as is suggested by the imagery of the title.  Each section answers the previous one by rearranging its verbal material.  For instance, the end of one section,

        in morning’s scatter,
        a musical ground,
        speckled glass reflecting

becomes at the beginning of the next section,

        A musical ground,
        the speckled glass
        reflecting the fine-string
        half-tones of ens

        The poem is full of musical terminology, such as the “half-tones” just quoted, yet we also hear, in a kind of counterpoint, a music of things recalling the speech of things released  by the death of the lyric “I”:

        Stinging chimes
        evolve into a
        hypno-blur, bees
        attending the bell,
        regular sounds
        of circadia buzz
        then bang  

Alex Cobb is a composer of what has been called “ambient music”: “music of environment, designed to constitute an environment, a background rather than a foreground” (Grundy).  The “hypno-blur” that the listener hears in this music is really not so much of separate things, entities, as of ens, or “mere being,” to quote Wallace Stevens, whose presence is strongly felt throughout “Marigold & Cable.”
       D. H. Lawrence is not a poet whose presence we might expect to feel in Gizzi’s work, but “Ship of State,” the prose poem that appears under the heading “Nocturne,” follows in the wake of Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” whether intentionally or not.  Gizzi acknowledges the traditional metaphor of “the night boat on its way with the soul,” but he de-emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual soul by multiplying the types of boats: “there are many boats and glutted waters…    see the yachts and liners…  gondolas…  and tugs… .”  The poem starts out from the death of the “I”: “I wandered all night with my corpse.”  If there is a political connotation to the “state” in the title, that state, too, has collapsed amid “rubble and war debris.”  The state that the poem goes on to explore is metaphysical, though that term does not adequately represent the physical conditions of an afterlife manifested, once again, in the speaking of things: “when I spoke to the corpse it was as though I spoke to the curtains or the rug…  the body lay there in permanent discourse with the object world…  the curtain…  the rug…  the candle…  the ring…  now on speaking terms with the corpse…  and they were singing to each other… .”  This song is elegiac, but it celebrates the recovery of “the object world” more than it mourns the loss of the “I.”  In being released into this world, the “I” has been liberated: “I was happy to be free with my corpse…  this was the total…  the ongoing…  I was deranged and deregulated….”  Another poet is invoked here in the allusion to the dérèglement through which Rimbaud sought to gain access to the unknown.
       Under the heading “Coda,” the poem “From this End of Sadness” serves as a kind of afterlife to the book it concludes.  We can almost hear Gizzi passing from the present time of writing to a projected future, when he returns to the text as a reader “in some posthumous time,” as he expresses it in an interview.  In the poem, he declares,

        I identified
        the voice as dead,
        it was companionable

Being both “dead” and “companionable,” this is the voice of a “companionable ghost,” another allusion to a prior text (Yeats’s “All Souls’ Night”).  In the interview, Gizzi refers to the writing of poetry as a “haunted occupation,” because it is inhabited by the voices of previous poets, like Yeats, and because the writer imagines his voice surviving into a future time when he will be present only “posthumously.”
       We might expect that the writer’s experience will differ to some extent from that of the reader for whom there has been no prior time of writing.  As a reader, I find the closing lines of “From this End of Sadness,” which are also the closing lines of the book, to be intensely moving, but I do not feel them as “ghostly.”  Their companionable, intimate tone seems entirely human, mortal.  No longer “wandering,” like the “I” of “Ship of State,” the speaker seems to find direction by addressing a “you,” unspecified by name but felt to be specific.  The time of meeting remains unspecified.  It is “the now / of blur” that I cited at the outset.  Thus, the speaker invites the listener to:

        Blur with me
        when I am sick
        of dying,
        fearful of failing
        the song I love.

        Be with me
        whenever I sit
        wasting days.

        Comfort the hours.

When I read these lines, “the now / of blur” comes into focus as the present time of reading.  And I have no trouble occupying a double position in the structure of enunciation.  I hear these words as spoken to me and as something I would want to say to another.  From the interchange of “I” and “you,” a “we” emerges that transcends the darkness of now.  Gizzi must have responded in this way to the words of the musician Jason Molina that stand as the epigraph to Now It’s Dark: “I’ll meet you where we survive.”


Gizzi, Peter.  “In Conversation with Peter Gizzi.” Interview by Anthony Caleshu.  PN Review 209, 39.3 (Jan.-Feb. 2013): 50-51.

Gizzi, Peter.  “Poetry at the Threshold.”  Interview by Ben Lerner.  Poetry Foundation.  March 15, 2012.

Gizzi, Peter. “Statement.”  In Anne Kenniston and Geoffrey Gray, eds.  The New American Poetry of Engagement: A 21st Century Anthology.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.  218-19.

Grundy, David.  Review of Peter Gizzi, Archeophonics.  Chicago Review.  May 2019.