Elegy as Tonic

On Now It’s Dark


Marjorie Perloff


is one thing.

Pain is

the same thing.

These astonishing lines from “Inside Out Loud,” could serve as the epigraph for Peter Gizzi’s Now It’s Dark. Writing pain—one’s own personal pain—is surely one of the most difficult tasks the poet has. It’s so easy to sound self-pitying, self-indulgent, or just outright boring. As Gizzi puts it earlier in the same poem: “The collapse / of interiority / happened / in my time.” Gizzi succeeds brilliantly because of his tonal and linguistic mastery. The very title “Inside Out Loud” provides us with what John Ashbery called “an open field of possibilities.” Does it mean turning things inside out in a loud voice? Or being inside an “out loud” cry? A variant on “for crying out loud”? No doubt all three, “inside / the extremes / where I / really lived.”

Peter Gizzi has long been our great elegiac poet but here, in what is perhaps his most heart-breaking book, he perfects the form. He will open a poem (“Speech Acts for a Dying World”) with what looks like a perfectly conventional observation—“A field sparrow / is at my window, / tapping at its reflection”)—and then step back and shrug at his own earnestness:

As I look at the end

and sing so what

sing live now,

thinking why not

It’s that wholly unexpected “so what” that is one of Gizzi’s hallmarks. “Speech Acts” begins in blank torpor, repeating the refrain “I thought I was done,” only to come up for air, in its final stanzas, and recognize that “when I said voice, / I meant the whole unholy grain of it, / it felt like paradise.”

Now It’s Dark is centered on death—the recent death of Peter’s two brothers, one after another—and also the purported death of lyric in our time, when the personal is so largely denied in the rush to political and public statement:

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

It is a moment all of us have experienced at one time or another, but expressing that pain is surely one of the most difficult things the poet can do. Gizzi’s new poems are as taut and spare as they are charged with waves of feeling. “Elegy is my tonic,” we read in the title poem. And our tonic as well. “Now it’s dark”—both in Peter’s own life and in the world he inhabits in this dark time. But Gizzi’s poems bring light to the darkness and “recast language in hope.”