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A Re­view of In De­fense of Noth­ing: Se­lected Po­ems, 1987–2011 by Peter Gizzi

The ti­tle of Peter Gizzi’s In De­fense of Noth­ing: Se­lected Po­ems, 1987– 2011 (Wes­leyan Univer­sity Press, 2014) fore­grounds a tragic sense of ex­is­tence and lan­guage, as though “noth­ing might be the fi­nal and ac­tual ex­pres­sion of it / that noth­ing at the cen­ter of some­thing alive and burn­ing.” The po­ems of In De­fense of Noth­ing span five vol­umes— Periplum, Ar­ti­fi­cial Heart, Some Val­ues of Land­scape and Weather, The Outer­na­tionale, and Thresh­old Songs— and re­veal a poet con­cerned with themes of iden­tity, lan­guage, the press of history, and the bright­ness of phe­nom­ena along­side the fragility of hu­man life (“If I break into pieces of glit­ter on as­phalt / bits of sun, the din”). In De­fense of Noth­ing shows a poet whose themes and whose fa­cil­ity with lan­guage, his par­tic­u­lar id­iom, dis­play a deep­en­ing con­sis­tency from his first book for­ward. The po­ems are mus­cu­lar, charged, in­flected with a dis­tinct Amer­i­can­ism, lyric, melan­cholic, streaked with pathos, and eru­dite. One comes away from hav­ing read In De­fense of Noth­ing with a sense of the some­times grind­ing and some­times mag­i­cal per­cep­tual ma­chin­ery of the hu­man an­i­mal at work. While Gizzi’s po­ems show a var­ied range of in­flu­ence, his sen­si­bil­ity seems to emerge pri­mar­ily from fig­ures from nine­teenth-cen­tury Amer­ica—from Abra­ham Lin­coln and Wil­liam James to Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe—and from the poetic cli­mate of the post­war Amer­i­can pe­riod whose po­ets in­clude Jack Spicer, Ge­orge Oppen, Frank O’hara, and James Schuyler. In Gizzi’s work the Or­phic phantasmagoria of Spicer are less present than the “min­eral fact[s]” of Oppen. Gizzi, like Oppen, is struck by won­der at the very fact that things and be­ings are there. Like Oppen’s, Gizzi’s po­ems pay close at­ten­tion to the things of the world; they en­deavor to evince some­thing of the word’s vexed re­la­tion­ship to a re­sis­tant world. But un­like Oppen’s won­der, which has a prob­ing, philo­soph­i­cal root, Gizzi’s won­der more of­ten arises in con­junc­tion with a sense of melan­choly, one that can quickly swing to a dizzy­ing, child­like joy and be­wil­der­ment at the fact of the per­cep­tual be­ing’s ex­is­tence in phe­nom­ena: “. . . night break­ing // over the moun­tain face // em­pur­pled, its sil­hou­ette / ragged, sil­ver // un­quan­tifi­able in pixie dust.” It is here, in prox­im­ity to the bound­ing

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