At the threshold of this intense, visionary book, stands an epigraph from Beckett’s homage to his father, Company, like a lean solitary dolmen marking the descent to the underworld: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” To stand at a threshold, to hover in its precincts, on the verge, at the cusp, means to invite a certain kind of transmission; a certain porousness. It is to place oneself in between, belonging neither to one place nor another, but committed to the more difficult site of unease; an unease between self and other, nearness and distance, present and past, the dead and the living, logos and its ghosts. To write at the threshold is to consent to Stevens’ assertion that in the poem “we live in a place that is not our own.”
Part of the reason Peter Gizzi’s remarkable new poems, his most powerful yet, have stirred such unease in the form of back-handed praise by reviewers like Dan Chiasson (who smugly labels Gizzi “a lunch pail mystic”) is that they dare to inhabit a psychic and spiritual terrain where language confronts with stark, uncompromising honesty the threshold of song as it pushes against the enigma of loss, the place where the acknowledgement of language’s finitude is, finally, the horizon of our exile and belonging.
What is so startling about these haunting poems is the ecstatic charge they give to this recognition. The pathos of desolation is harrowing, but also renewing. For if the trauma of loss rends us, out of this gash a strange gnosis may emerge. It’s as if Orpheus, after losing Eurydice, began to speak in her voice. Gizzi is not merely elegizing here; he is rethinking the very basis for lyric, testing it continually against its subjective limits by making the experience of the irretrievable the core of the lyric voice. "Pinocchio’s Gnosis" is a case in point: a tour de force, yes, but calling it that suggests it’s merely a display of ludic virtuosity. Here the poet enters a vertiginous free fall. The catastrophe of loss threatens all signification. Yet the poem also reminds us, as Rilke says of Trakl, that “falling is the pretext for an inexorable ascension.”
"Funny how being dead troubles the word. I am trying to untie this sentence, to untidy the rooms where we live. No words in the soup, no soup in this sky, no more history written onto onionskin, peeling onion skins …with a magical broom, the wind sang sweep, like an oar in air we ascend. We power the instrument and apply a salve, uncover the ghost behind fig. Mistake it for an omen then quiet the cloud, the cloud just there seen through a cataract.”
And in a magnificent riff on Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” speech, the poem asks:
"What is a man but a paper miscellany, a bio furnace blowing coal, a waste treatment plant manufacturing bluster, an open signal full of seawater, a dark stranger turning over the dark next to you."
Threshold Songs attends to this miscellany, the messiness of contingency, with a grave and urgent nuance, a careful listening for where syntax can reach into affect. Reading these poems is like being overtaken by the uncanny feeling that, as Gizzi writes in “The Growing Edge,” “it’s Sunday in deep space.” To claim, as one reviewer does, that they foreclose discovery, is to deeply misread the cognitive work they do, which is undertaken as the pursuit of the limits of elegy and its weak messianic power to intervene.
Lyric is typically understood as the consoling affirmation of voice. These poems drive beyond that. In Adorno’s words, they “sound forth in language until language itself acquires a voice.” Undertaken not as attempts at closure, but a witness to the impossible crux of song’s burden, they sustain the power of the threshold between mourning and melancholy, striving to metabolize traumatic loss without dissolving that loss entirely. To paraphrase Kierkegaard on anxiety: “whoever has learned to live with loss in the right way has learned the ultimate.” To assimilate loss completely would be to falsify its meaning.
Consolation – the thing we go to the poem for – is here, but in a different key: dissonant, refractory, circled uneasily, sometimes nearer, sometimes only felt from a distance. The loss persists, reverberating, expanding to encompass a larger measure of the world and how the self undergoes even its own dissolution. The music derives from the acuteness of this weird, humbling pitch. It penetrates everything without quite destroying it so that it becomes its own form of consolation. As in the opening of “Analemma”:
"That I came back to live
in the region both
my parents died into
that I will die into
if I have nothing else
I have this and
it’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it"
Or the plangent imperative which closes “History is Made at Night” (a nod to Frank Borzage’s exquisite 1937 melodrama):
"A kind of vow like poetry
burning the candle down.
Bring back the haloed reverie.
Music, retake the haughty
night sky. Its storied rays
its creak and croak
its raven’s wing tonality."
The short lines compress anguish into a flat plain voice, the syntax bending the argument with loss into something else, lifting loss against the walls of song where language strains but doesn’t quite break. In poems like this one, and "True Discourse on Power" (“Because a sound a poor man/uttered/reached my ear I fell into song”), the real task Gizzi takes up is how we know and experience our categories for knowing, which are, finally, categories for tabulating and confronting loss. Death challenges epistemology at the most fundamental level. The result is a poetry of relentless, even excruciating, inquiry, tempered by a tenderness for what is broken or hurt or incomplete. A kind of nakedness emerges – a laying open after history – that is complex, rather than simple, and utterly necessary.
Threshold Songs has been misread by reviewers because the contemporary critical vocabulary for understanding a genuinely spiritual poetics is so impoverished. Written under the sign of Beckett, whose complex sense of failure endows the via negativa with a comically forlorn sense of hope, a difficult gnosis of unknowing permeates Gizzi’s defiantly open, questioningly elegiac tone. These poems achieve a lived sense of finitude that is at once anchored in the body and dispersed by spiritual longing, a desolate hunger for intimacy which is ratified by its own search.
“Bewilderment,” Fanny Howe tells us, “is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconciliability.” Or, as Gizzi writes in an earlier poem, “The Outernationale”: “Start from nothing, and be/long to it.” To sing at the threshold is to suffer the shipwreck of that enjambment, then stand in bewilderment at how far a song might go.