A Journey Through Lyrics of Reality

The City, Fernand Léger

Peter Gizzi’s Archeophonics (Wesleyan University Press, 2016) starts with an epigraph of the poet James Schuyler– Poetry, like music, is not just song. Yes, Archeophonics is not just song, not elegy but a soundtrack of reality of present moment, the moment where we dwell with our tradition, culture, politics, language, love, and losses. Gizzi believes in “lyric of reality” to ensure the reality of the lyric as a means to uncover mystery, presence, and intimacy. He is interested in the mystery of expression to gain a new reality that surrounds us to go beyond the traditional conflict between lyrics and narratives. This is the Poet’s reality, which take a stance against the reality of popular social consciousness, as said by Swapan Roy, one of the most celebrated voices in the world of Bengali new poetry, who uses/edits the inherent sound of words in his poem to make resonating moving images.1 Poetry is neither poet’s imagination nor reality. A poet has to be in solitude, in the state of isolation with the common people and quality of masses. And in this mental level of being isolated the poet’s reality takes birth with its imaginary qualities, with its complex experience with the pressures of reality of life. The sound of each personal loss and love, emotional turbulence, groundlessness, uncertainty creates resonances in his brain and listening to the world anew, listening to the words of silence to make the sound of his poem. This is Peter Gizzi’s lyric of reality, where there is no artificial rhyme, but a rhythm can be felt with its words, its vibration and resistance or social disobedience can be heard as we see in the eponymous poem commencing Archeophonics:

I am just visiting the world at this moment
            and it's on fire
It's always been on fire

‘Archeophonics’ is a neologism coined by Gizzi, it combines archeology and phonics to mean archeology of lost sound. It’s an observance of lost and buried sound, in a personal way with an impersonal tone. It’s an expansive process to look at one’s self from outside of one’s life so that I and you, poet and reader move into the mystery of realism. And the third ‘I’ is visiting the lost voice, “Au Clair de la Lune” – the French folk song. A history of an ancient technology, phonautography, for creating an archive of sound recordings, lies in the heart of Archeophonics. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian bookseller, discovered the device and named as phonautograph in 1857 to record sound and to make it both visible and permanent. Phonautograph is an analog simulation of ear canal, eardrum, and ossicles. Scott constructed it by a small open-ended barrel with a flexible membrane and a stylus, connected to the membrane. The stylus traced a line through a thin coating of lampblack on a moving surface of paper or glass. The sound collected by the simulated ear and transmitted to the stylus caused the line to be modulated in accordance with the passing variations in air pressure, creating a graphic record of the sound waves. The pattern made on the paper was then fixed by chemical to produce the visual image of sound. Since tracing was an insubstantial two-dimensional line, direct physical playback was impossible in that time. Only in 2008 David Giovannoni, Italian audio historian, created a playback of the sound image of the French folk song recorded by Scott with the help of optical imaging and virtual stylus. This is the Archeophonics and Gizzi is visiting the old voice, coming through a membrane of smoke, which associates with the questions of reality and mystery, stability and existence of life, of language, of poems.

The phrase “the old language” could be repeatedly heard in the poems of Archeophonics. Gizzi’s interconnection with the old language as an archive which records personal losses, loves, traumas of past as well as social turbulence, resistance in his time, and then playback or reverberate them through the poet as a medium, as we see in the poem “Reverb”:

The project is archival,
all that blood in the mouth.
The old language
could have told you,
it’s too late,
we watched you die,
watched you move
through shocking losses
and the solo flight
you are taking back
into the old language.

With this knowing of ‘the old language’ the poet is looking to accommodate the not-knowing, an alterity or outside in the sense of Spicer, for the creation of endless meaning in poem, which can be called as afterlife. Standing at the very present of the poem, it raises question about its future existence and transformation with a language, a pet-tool of the politicized force of the official verse culture, as he writes: “It’s the same but different, / different now. / The mouth knows the bit, / the taste of it.” A possible answer may be there in Spicer’s proposal of “afterlife”, as Gizzi describes in his afterword of The House That Jack Built: the collected lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by him, “the poet is always posthumous in the act of composition- or outside of the present of the poems- since ‘afterlife of the poem’ exists in a time beyond the life of the author.”

Gizzi rejects the style and syntax of “old language / dozing in the sun” because “The manufactured rays / are ancient” and discards old school of allegory, symbol and eloquence to voice the unornamented poems with abstraction and attenuated rhythm, just to signal the mystery of words with an intertwined imageries:

At the moment
I drag and solo
in a bitten landscape,
torn vowels
that sound out vowel
or sadness like glitter
sprinkled in a mind.

There is no story, no speech, just a sensation like a flash of an electric spark to ignite the chemical to flow through synaptic bridge, just a vibration of string expanded over Poe-sphere, to say “only this and nothing more”. His consciousness steps out from ‘the old language’ to bring the smell of another world where the personal losses are no longer a horror but a light that occupies a larger discourse in his interior life. And the poet realizes that the only truth of life is death, and a poem is to give a voice to this interiority. In his poem, a “you”, the beloved or an abstracted version of the speaker and “I” the poet himself is a character, sometime both fused together, who is seeking poetic transformation inside his poetry and continuously searching for “amplification of self by standing next to oneself.”

Poet Barin Ghosal, the introducer of expansive consciousness in the world of Bengali poetry, said, if we can reach to the origin of word which is sound, we can establish a relationship between the sign and signified. And when we specify that sound, it becomes a symbol. If we caught up in this specificity, all possibilities reach to an end. Gizzi starts from this source of words, the sound, and signifies the word with its own characteristics as he writes: “I always consult the air before composing air.” Air is an old synonym of music, air is the medium for sound, and air is also breathing, as Gizzi used: “I wanted out of the past so I ate the air,/ it took me further into air.” The poet has to travel towards the source, where the windows of possibilities open up. When a poet begins to look from the centre radially outward, centrifugally, he ends up at various walls around himself, since he is disciplined by “the old language” with its form, syntax, subject, politics and sociology of his time as he says in the title poem “Archeophonics”:

It was like this just like this
The world that’s coming toward me
And the world around me
Around me are words saying this
            saying fire
Saying something or all of it

While living in a world of constantly changing society, ​​his reasoning moves with fuzzy logic, while thought process moves in a way of lateral thinking. The poet doesn’t assemble a thought in many words, but assemble many thoughts in a single word. Multiple layers of his perception vibrate with the ambivalent sensation of sound of a word, but never exceed the danger line of frequency. At every moment, in every turning of life, in dream, in invention, in history the poet can hear the sound with his own perception. Perception of sound is the root of a language and Gizzi created his own language in Archeophonics with a mystery of expressions to find the reality that surrounds him.

The perception of a poet, blossomed from the sparkling light of his consciousness, generated from the tradition of language, detection of its roots, social context and cultural references of his language and this perception doesn’t obey any borders.2 Though I read Peter Gizzi’s poems in some of the magazines but I was deeply moved by his latest poetry book, New Poems: The Brother in Elysium, which lead me to explore more to the poetics of Peter Gizzi, and as a result I am here to start my journey through his Archeophonics, his most critically acclaimed poetry collection.

As a translator I always feel a strange difficulty to find Bengali equivalence of the English source language. But, as Charles Bernstein said: “obstacles for translation provide opportunities for dialogue” the question-answer session with the generous American poets of the Bridgeable Lines anthology project provided me a wonderful dialoguing space. In one of our questionnaire Gizzi answered to conscious construction in his poetic process as: “I also think the unconscious plays a larger role in the construction of the poem. It is the seat of the imagination.” This ‘unconscious play’ is not the automatic writing of surrealist like the present Bengali official verse culture but closer to the sensibility of Samuel Beckett, closer to the process of expansive consciousness of Barin Ghosal, closer to the process of “Martian dictation” of Jack Spicer, as we see when Gizzi describes “Martian dictation” process of Spicer in his afterword in The House That Jack Built:

According to Spicer’s motley procession of metaphors, the poet is a host being invaded by the parasite of the dictating source of the poem; the source is “Martian”; the poem is the product of a dance between the poet and his “Martian” source; the poet is like a radio receiving transmissions;……As a powerful and mysterious transmitter of information, radio was used as metaphor for extrasensory perception……. Spicer describes dictation as a spiritual exercise….he takes the practice of dictation, of emptying the self, to another level…the act is not prophetic but contemplative, interpretive and almost cabalistic in the sense that it reads within the text of a particular group of scholars and practitioner of the art and looks at linguistic structures in order to create an adjacency to an Absolute. In fact, Spicer’s work is filled with oblique reference to a prime mover that can never really be named or that can be named in so many ways that it can never be located…It is clear that however this adjacency brushes against one, the expression of it in language is never one’s own, never primary in itself: “we have it second-hand”. The presence of the divine can only be accommodated, invoked and added through linguistic structure…”

As we see when Barin Ghosal describes his poetic process with expansive consciousness to Shantanu Bandyopadhyay for Kaurab magazine:

As long as the universe and components exists naturally, and the human system is seen only as its reflection, one may be ready to receive poetic sparks (SPARK: Spontaneous Power Activated Resonation Kinetics). Poems are signals that are constantly occurring and dissolving in the brain. They need to be perceived by a sensitive chance observer/thinker/reader/poet… All this happens in those magic moments when one’s mental capacitance is just conducive enough to receive the spark. This is what I call germination. Once a single poem through a spark is able to germinate one’s mind, the poetry building process gets started… A whole poem can never be brought out since there is nothing like a complete poem. A poet is not copying or retracing anything, even if it may seem invisible at times. He is constructing a poem that matches the mood and exploration techniques his process has called for.

These are not similarities but the coherence between the voices/processes/thoughts of different poets of different languages in different times and places. It may be called as quantum poetics which creates quantum coherence between the poets, the harmonious relationship of all possibilities in a quantum system which is the heart of quantum physics backed by Schrödinger’s cat paradox. This process of poem answers me why I could resonate with Gizzi’s poem at the very first sight.

Peter Gizzi doesn’t write autobiographical poems, he never writes about his life, but out of his life. He writes from where he is emotional, how it affects what he writes. He doesn’t believe in any established form of poetry, but always wanted to discover a new form, suitable for the thought of that book (Beckett’s “The task of the artist is to find a form to accommodate the mess.”) In his poem “Wind Instrument”, the poet is writing, “Looking out the frame/ I studied grass.” Man is a part of nature, and nature doesn’t get completed without him; as the same tune of Bengali Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore’s song, “O thou lord of all heavens, where would be thy love if I were not?” Gizzi joins in a mutual engagement with nature to look for his own form of poetry, where the oblique light falls from “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman of nineteenth century, shedding light between transcendentalism and realism. A merging process through nature gives Gizzi a new philosophical and aesthetic vision of life and death, destiny and freedom. And within this form the poet has set the soundtrack of the present political and cultural moments of his time, with a multidimensional association, with a dissociative rhythm as the poem, “Sentences in a Synapse Field”:

For I wanted sound / to
dig into sound
For debris / for damaged art / our
collective fortune / future
For as long as there have been soldiers / there
have been poets / for as long as poets
there has been a bridge

Peter Gizzi writes with simple language with an exploration of discrepancies between word and object, between logic and truth. Hence the reader of conventional poetry certainly faces a strange difficulty, because the poet is always trying to break the logical order of the regular staircase math by an irregular construction. As a result, reader’s all previously known reasoning shatters. All our aesthetic endeavours and all our poems have structures, associations with its body and its form to link to those reasons and logics. It’s reasoning beyond rationality, hints of expansion into strings of wave from the centre towards the periphery with a centrifugal journey to expand our consciousness through the continuous shift of unknown position so that instead of consuming passively, readers can interconnect with the poem by their activated imagination.

Time is another major character of Archeophonics. Although our experiences are bound by the time constellation of reality, the poet identifies the time or the wheel of time placed in the reality of object through abstraction (a temporality of symbols [ed]?). Standing by the present time with the losses of the past the poet tries to open the knots of time and trigger the time with the question of the mystery of finding oneself. If the Big Bang is considered to be the beginning of time, then time has been aged by about 13.7 billion years. Yet, Dhiman Chakraborty, one of the most famous poets of abstraction in Bengali new poetry world, dismisses this aged subject and said that there is nothing called time. No beginning no end. Clock is just a rhythm, we count the rhythm. Time is nowhere, no one has time. Nothing called straight line, everything is curved and expansive. We divide the entire churning of the world around us into past, present and future. Time is just an idea, a unit of our activities. When we try to explain the ‘time’ with the clock, idealized by the realism of object, the boundary of fourth dimension becomes illusory as Gizzi writes in “When Orbital Proximity Feels Creepy”:

That I’m listening to light and it said time.
I’m listening to time, it says, ha.
You need to be howling at bloody torn space.
Need to be spooked out of your hidey-hole
            and its glowing mess.

The past, present and future with all their turbulence become unified at the navel of time and crossing the infinite footprint of time with the willing or unwilling oscillations the poet crushes the time to dissolve into dust of poems. Gizzi breaks open the barriers of his consciousness to step out into an unknown darkness, the dark chemistry of the brain, quark area of life and being in order to “Release the Darkness to New Lichen” because “I need to find myself dissolving / otherwise it is all otherwise / I’m lost”. When he realizes his bearing, the unknown becomes known to open up a new trail in an unknown terrain. This expansion in consciousness, like the ever-expanding universe, helps the poet to find an empty new space to play in with sounds, words, and feelings to form the poems of Archeophonics as an architectural space for readers to traverse:

The earth reclaims
its booty right be-
fore the eyes. So
swiftly the letters
replace, the
letters dearrange
and uncompose
the self in itself.
The orchestral side
is taking away me.

Lyrical presence of I and you floats away. The absent presence of the lyrical ‘I’ sounded as the voice of lyric’s absence with words and its sound. According to Gizzi, poetry is a threshold experience, “singing is seeing and vision is music”, and he is continuously waking and moving with it to build an environment out of this unstable world with the melancholy of solitude. He believes that “This World Is Not Conclusion”, because “When I look out your window I see another window”. So instead of drifting into the dark abyss, his self-conscious centrifugal journey in Poesphere is to discover himself, to cross the creepiness inside him, to set himself before a new opening of life, “In oneself the ghost of self / The walls where I live / Floorboards in spotted light / To see oneself clearly”. He is always in search of other form of poem to accommodate new germinations in his nervous system, “I am making my way in some darkroom / looking for other structures to love.” Though my journey through Archeophonics is a never-ending process, yet I am just pausing here to sing the “Song”, the ultimate poem, the lyric, the music, the reality of Archeophonics:

I want color to braid,
to bleed, want song
to fly to flex to think
in lines. To work
the pulp,to open up
this cardinal feeling
in green.

  1. The fast moving images in a poem disappear after their first impression but it has to ring a succession of sounds in resonance with the poet’s mind, an inherent sound of the expressed image. Swapan edits this sound by making new words through word-recombination, verbification, onomatopoetic usage, etc.
  2. To break these fences of countries, to cross the boundaries of cultures, to uncover the myths of language and bridging the distance between the poets on opposite sides of the globe we started in 2018 our anthology project Bridgeable Lines: An Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali, with twelve American poets, under the banner of Bengali little magazine Aihik (Earthly). Published at the 43rd Kolkata International Bookfair, 2019. During this project I was lucky to have interacted with twelve of the finest minds functioning in the genre of contemporary American poetry, Charles Bernstein, Peter Gizzi, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Eileen Myles, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Elizabeth Willis, Eileen R Tabios, Peter Valente, John Bloomberg Rissman, Michael Boughn, and Bob Hollman. The anthology included transcreation of their poems along with their poetic thoughts. To exchange our poetic thoughts, we presented a set of questionnaires to the poets. From their answers I felt the quantum coherence between the voices and poetics of these American poets and our poets in Bengali “New Poetry” group.