The Poetry Project

On Fierce Elegy by Peter Gizzi

John Steen

Fierce Elegy by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press, 2023)

When it is surrounded by destruction, can the “I” still sing? Or are any of poetry’s old answers to death’s constant questions applicable now, when extinction looms? Or just how useful is a monument more lasting than bronze when it’s underwater? Peter Gizzi’s latest collection of poems drafts elegiac answers to these questions by suspending autobiography in favor of collectivity. Instead of private attachments, Fierce Elegy mourns some of what we’ve all lost and what we continue to lose simply by staying alive. Unlike so much writing about loss, Gizzi’s poems don’t prescribe burial rites or exalt fixed forms, as comforting as it can be to have those. I take Fierce Elegy to say, instead, “This is how I lose the world we share. What about you?”

As Gizzi splices it, “No ideas but in wounds, I is that wound.” Adapting both William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things” and Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is an other,” the book wagers that a single voice can sing the catastrophe of the collective if it finds a way to make the general injury legible. With this goal in mind, elegy becomes an orientation, not a subgenre. “To be in the yesterday of today, / Lost in the morning’s psychotropic green,” says the poem “I Am Who sent Me,” which concerns itself with “words for lost things.” In another poet’s work, the descriptor “psychotropic” could be read in the confessional grain, leaving us just one step shy of knowing the exact dose of Zoloft responsible for the visual distortion. But for Gizzi, psychotropic green is a color that changes your mind, that makes it possible to live through days undone by their yesterdays. The abstract heft of a receding world becomes momentarily sensible through the image Gizzi projects, magic lantern-style, onto the screen of the poem.

Over the last thirty years, Peter Gizzi’s poems have constructed a series of non-autobiographical poetic selves and submerged them in emotional, cultural, and political environments that tend to resist speech. In his last three books—Threshold Songs, Now It’s Dark, and now Fierce Elegy—the “I” practices the dark-bright arts of losing quite explicitly, but his poetry has always known what to do with the tears of things. Starting out as a kind of roving burning bush (Periplum: or, I the Blaze), Gizzi takes stock of the broken world (Some Values of Landscape and Weather), assists in its enfeebled circulation (Artificial Heart), sings of community and the specters haunting it (The Outernationale), dwells in the bardo (Threshold Songs), orients us within the void (Now It’s Dark), conjures sound from original silence (Archeophonics), and, in Fierce Elegy, posits a tentatively fierce and fiercely tentative resilience in the face of annihilation. “I” appears here as a kind of desire that wrests something less than clarity but more than chaos from death, which never leaves the poem’s field of vision and action:

I want new vistas, visions, earth in my mouth,

a collective breath, sweet noise of becoming,

a kind of testimony

a disordered proof, a part of sex, more than sex, it was

time, the nature of time, I sensed happening

that death is happening

all that was left is where I am now


If wordless space precedes the poem, the silence from which elegy emerges is figured as the death that calls the poem into being. The wordlessness that follows in the poem’s wake signals that the dead must return to their graves. For Gizzi, though, silence lives inside the poems, its words charged by it just as, for Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Fierce Elegy anneals its phrases to the clotted silences that surround them, so that rather than a continuous utterance, Gizzi’s rhythms are those of words teased, wrested, chiseled, and siphoned out of the darkness, with all of the nuances of sound those operations imply. The closest parallel may be Wallace Stevens, who argues that poetry isn’t a search for pure silence but the act of making silence “still dirtier.” Gizzi’s poems are proof that these phenomena of sound can be not only named, as in Stevens’s “skreaking” and “skrittering,” but put to use in something like dance, which figures often here. Gizzi lived in the East Village when The Saint, the gay club known as “the Vatican of disco,” sat four blocks down 2nd Avenue from The Poetry Project, and I take the proximity as a loose context for Gizzi’s imagining of poems as “words to dilate and amplify the total disco night.”

Fierce Elegy differs equally from elegies that establish strong ties to a tradition (e.g., Milton) and from those that imagine themselves as wholly anti-elegy (e.g., Plath and Ginsberg). It omits not only proper names but dead addressees altogether, and the affect set in most salient contrast to sadness is actually ecstasy. These poems betray Gizzi’s improbable emphasis on “wonder,” “beauty,” and “joy,” all of which reminded me of another not-quite-elegy, George Herbert’s “Joseph’s Coat.” The speaker of the poem, the biblical Joseph, is alive and well, but thanks to his brothers’ machinations, his father is currently mourning his death. Herbert’s Joseph, a little like Peter Gizzi, sees providence at work in the irony:

.......... But he hath…giv’n to anguish

One of Joy’s coats, ‘ticing it with relief

To linger in me, and together languish.

I live to show his power, who once did bring

My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

Herbert’s closing line maps what I take to be one trajectory of Gizzi’s work. In a trenchant reading of The Outernationale, Ruth Jennison argues that poems like “Bolshevescent” “undo the revolutionary impulse” of their avowed forebear, Osip Mandelstam, by falling prey to a melancholy resignation about individual life. But even if they once were, Gizzi’s tears are no longer quite so desolate. When “I is that wound,” negativity serves to reconfigure the inconsequential individual life as an inscription on the surface of history. George Oppen is another of Gizzi’s Marxian forebears, and as Rob Halpern points out, Oppen thought of poetry as the privileged route by which the individual becomes “a patient of history.” Gizzi’s poetry is patient, which is not to say that it’s complacent, but rather that history operates on it like a surgeon. The reader is a savvy coroner who inspects the corpus and goes on record as a witness for the defense.

Consider a poem like “Revisionary,” which begins in the key of grief, “I’ve decided to let my inner weather out,” but torques its irony toward epiphany, that place where the poet’s task is “to parse the velocity of trusses and stars / flowering here at the edge.” Threaded together, these registers produce an idiosyncratic blend of the hieratic and demotic vernacular where the poetic vocation is tantamount to collecting syntax at the intersection of nature, art, history, and cosmos. The poem sings “the prismatic systems of loss” but ends with a rewriting of Marx’s oft-quoted remark about the world, “the point is to change it.” Gizzi says, “FTW. / There’s nothing like it.”

Gizzi has words for this kind of poetry: it’s “sorcery,” “sweet noise,” “spooky action,” and “carnal dance.” This unrelenting grimlessness isn’t the same as unthinking ease, or careless love, or endless bliss. The poems spin frustration, exhaustion, and ordinary wretchedness, but not into Rumpelstiltskin’s gold. They generate light in the presence of wounds otherwise shrouded in darkness, those places where history crouches,

welding the triumphal history of the industrial dawn

to the soft tissue of the body

a full bleed[.]

When Dante’s pilgrim emerges from the underworld in the final canto of Inferno, he tells us that he and Virgil see, once again, the stars. Gizzi’s pilgrim emerges anew in almost every poem, but not to clear skies. It’s cloudy, at least partly. Sometimes you get to see the stars, but sometimes the light pollution prevents it:

I saw a better life, it was far off,

sun on moss next to a friend,

the softening air, the dandelion fluff.

It was kinda real, and kinda not.

Can’t see it today.

Consider how difficult it is for anyone, at any time, to give voice to this middle range of affect in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky and bathetic, that feels briefly sustainable as a response to the loss of a future. When a mind observes itself not getting the opportunity to observe what it desires, it often falls apart, especially when it’s not the first time the holder’s hidden the football. But here we have, as a statement of hope having receded but not wholly lost, “can’t see it today.” As in, it sucks, but no big deal, maybe tomorrow, you never know.


The poet’s vocation in Fierce Elegy includes—incredibly—a search for “Ecstatic Joy and Its Variants.” The wounded “I” sees death in its American Arcadia and responds, “in my outrage, I am immortal / because I love, I am here.” This is one way, the poem says, to approach dying. Enjamb your immortality, you who enter. Or maybe “cut a hole in the poem to play peekaboo with the afterlife.” As in Keats’s “This Living Hand,” the poem’s recto extrudes life right where death had planted its flag. “See—I hold it toward you,” as the hand has it. Gizzi’s poem doesn’t specify who’s playing peekaboo with whom, but it might be God, specifically the one whom Holderlin calls “near…and yet difficult to grasp.”

Is there more

sadness in beauty

than beauty

in sadness

the fluorescent

afternoon sang

We don’t get an answer to what isn’t even punctuated as a question. What we do get is knowing that the question came to us bathed in music and light. This is the signature of Fierce Elegy, and of Peter Gizzi’s oeuvre more generally. Fierceness comes to name a poetic approach to dying, death, and loss in which entanglement with the world replaces detachment as the necessary posture to assume as we go about the work of mourning, together. The rooms where this work traditionally happens are, perhaps, too dark and too eerily quiet. Turn on the lights, put on some spooky music. There are songs to dance to on the other side of disco.

#276 – Spring 2024