Peter Gizzi, The Outernationale
Publisher: Wesleyan
2007, 111 pages, hardcover, $22.95

in eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson discusses how it is on desire’s edge that lovers find what they are lacking in love. She continues to say that there must be an absence of something in order for desire to exist and argues that successful poetry comes from the willingness of the poet to wallow, unrestrained, in such a space. In his new collection of poetry, The Outernationale, Peter Gizzi examines the elusive edge of his desire for knowledge and connection, where things come in and out of focus, where sight and language mesh, and where the self becomes analogous to others.

Gizzi’s poetry has never been afraid to ask questions or explore those things which go unanswered in the world. And though posing questions in poetry is not a new concept, Gizzi makes this device new and refreshingly honest. Where rhetorical questions in poetry often take on an air of contrivance, he asks questions throughout the collection to which he himself does not know the answers. For example, in the poem “Beacon” the speaker declares, “I lost my way. / Can I say that / and still be trusted?” Gizzi’s vulnerability is, in fact, the very thing that allows the reader to trust him and willingly accept grander statements later on in the poem, such as “All things reach / when called. That’s the law.”

Gizzi takes a new approach to the technique of asking questions with the “if” poems that have become almost a trademark of his. Take the poem “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me”: by placing the word “if” in front of an assertion such as “our wishes are met with dirt,” Gizzi forces the phrase to become conditional. The “if” also allows for multiple interpretations through doubt, but also through introspection, making for a shared exploration between reader and writer; the reader is invited onto the edge of perception where many possible, even truer, meanings come into view. And though there is acceptance in a poem such as “Fretless” – “Everything gets to him / from the edges / of the thing” – it is immediately undercut by the frustration of having to then sift through the “blurred registration” and “shapelessness” of so many meanings and find a way to reconcile them.

Therefore, while the edge of desire may at first be associated with clarity and objectivity, Gizzi seems to struggle with the power of language to convey meaning or images in a truthful way. The affluence of questions in the poems is appropriate for his ironic distrust of language and avoids becoming overbearing because it is offset by seemingly desperate directives, as seen in “Aubade and Beyond”:

Let the word speak for itself.
Let blue say its piece or a green ray alive
in a bottle inside the head, alive.
This small piece of metonymy
can speak for itself, piece of everyday sight.

There exists a desperate desire for language to be capable of standing on its own. The rhythm and repetition of the language drive the desperation, which is followed by a feeling of hope that language actually “can speak for itself.”

But in poems like “The Outernationale,” skepticism continues to creep up:

There is that field
in the window once again
and to write of this field
again is certainly a failure
of any inward rigor
or life.

The fear that language cannot completely grasp the essence of an image or feeling is ever-present in The Outnernationale, touching on the very thing that Carson says defines desire; something must be lacking, must be missing, in order for desire to be present. In his poetry, Gizzi explores the gap existing between words and the things they represent, striving to connect the two. The abundance of experimentation with language in contemporary poetry can often disconnect the reader from the text and make the reader doubt the writer; Gizzi’s sincerity and vulnerability allow the reader to delve into the space he creates, the “absence,” which reestablishes a sense of community between reader, writer and text. This can be found in the very first poem of the collection, “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me,” when the speaker literally parallels himself with others: “if you/I whisper, touch, explain // If they/you hate those phrases / if we struggle to get to the thing.” Here, Gizzi expresses a desire to make the self become ambiguous, propelling the connection between reader, writer and text throughout the rest of The Outernationale, a connection not so easily maintained in today’s poetry; the readers who often find the free verse form intimidating will find the rendering of Gizzi’s Creeley-esque lines beautiful and alluring, rather than convoluted and therefore disengaging.

Amidst all its frustration and searching, Gizzi’s collection is ultimately about hope. There is, amongst doubt and reflection, a sense of moving forward, as seen in “Homer’s Anger”:

Not to be wrong
but uncertain, to want
more than this sentence.
If I say darkness is still

when it falls, understand
I am moving toward you.

Gizzi’s poetry embraces the outer edge of desire, the unknown, the importance of questioning things; it is, in a sense, a progression in understanding the world. His writing is successful because he dwells at desire’s edge, not out of despair, but out of longing to restore hope in the future: “this writing along the edge / which is of course / writing about hope” (“The Outernationale”). Reading Gizzi’s The Outernationale not only restores faith in modern poetry’s ability to be honest and moving, but in the ability to connect with others and make sense of the world.

-Billie Bernard