Matthew James Holman on two poets imagining the world to come
Peter Gizzi Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems Carcanet £14.99
Sean Bonney Our Death Commune Editions $20
Commonly practised in the Himalayas and the autonomous regions of Tibet, a sky burial (or Jhator, meaning ‘bird-scattered’) is a funeral rite whereby a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop or high place to decompose while exposed to the elements, and often eaten by scavenging carrion birds. Peter Gizzi has chosen this custom for the title of his latest book, a collection of new and selected poems that is concerned with several philosophical dilemmas, most importantly with how to proceed when we have lost. Throughout, Gizzi spends a great deal of time looking up at the heavens and to the materiality of a sky that is both an ancient firmament (a ‘burning sky’) and yet also contains within it all the processing static of modern distancing technologies like Google Earth (a ‘corporate sky’). It is where we might, in the end, find our ‘future / in the air’. This collection superbly represents a body of work spanning over thirty years that assembles from the ether a whole history of the lyric tradition.
To master his lines, Gizzi relies on a taut balance between forensic observation of the mutable world around us and the gravity of short and direct reflections on large universal-humanist themes (on how to love, to live, to mourn, to die). In the final passage of the titular poem, as so many times in the collection, the speaker wonders what it means to die, or what it means to go on living when others die:
There are distances, the whole tonal range blooming, clarity of attenuated looking, a payload delivering meaningful dust. It’s a good day to die.
Many of these poems are elegies (for his father, who died in an aeroplane crash when he was a child; for his mother; for a dear friend; for his two brothers, the poet Michael and, just last year, Tom), but they also feel elegiac in a way that tenaciously confronts mortal experience more generally. They set out – the speaker is often setting out, more rarely returning – from what he rightly calls ‘these feelings of futurelessness’. The new poems accumulate in long-form structures Gizzi categorises as ‘hopescapes’ – meditations on possible futures that necessarily include ‘weeds’ as well as flowers – dirt and life, while fashioning a mode of seeing attentive to the stubborn mereness of particular things. I understand these hopescapes to be involved in tracing the structure of desire, figuring it as a double-bind of caring and losing, in the total view of a world or worlds where we seek to protect what we love against ever-more precarious times ahead. Gizzi paraphrases Simone Weil: ‘There is no better time than the present when we have lost / everything.’ But in the end, none of these poems settle for mere palliative consolation. In ‘Speech Acts for a Dying World’, he imagines a town in which ‘the polis is breaking’, and then reflects, as though posthumously, on the act of making poetry against that shadow.
Writing in what he calls the ‘American langwedge’, Gizzi straddles a local-traditional and avant-garde sensibility like no other American poet working today. Inflected by T S Eliot, on several occasions the poems ask the ‘you’ whether we ever wholly share the same words. Playing a game with the absent other, he asks: ‘if I say the words / will you know them?’ This rhetorical manoeuvre is particularly acute because Gizzi anaphorically returns so regularly to the same words in radically transformed contexts, and often as the call of apostrophe to the things of the world. Among the collection’s 167 references to the word ‘world’, it is variously ‘partly mottled’, ‘an abundance’, ‘shitty’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘made of bits / and stone’, ‘hydrogen burning in space’, and ‘constant applause’, all ensconced below a giant ‘fuck-you sky’. All in all, we find the poet ‘turning words to return the world’ in a recuperative effort to commit oneself further to what has not yet been lost. Gizzi’s attention is often absorbed by new transformations and new life, in a process that recalls the transmigration of souls enacted through the sky burial. We see this in action in ‘From this End of Sadness’:
I found a world torched into renewal, blackened stalks pointing skyward.
The speaker is also candid about tripping up over saying one thing and meaning another, exposed by the writing process itself, that in turn brings us into the open secret that our words and deeds are complicit within larger economies of affective labour: ‘I hate that, when syntax / connects me to the rich.’ In the directly succeeding lines, the speaker’s lament echoes through the tripartite complicity of poet, syntax and ‘shit’, in a manoeuvre that approximates wealth with the scatological, positing a self- reflexive critique of contemporary capitalism. If these poems are speaking as if posthumously, under the shadow of their own death, then it is because the poet sees his life – what he eats, where he lives: in short, America – as complicit in that which is already burying the sky, in pollution, in a radically depleted ozone layer. In one powerfully economic meditation, Gizzi declares:
I do not understand the code that held me to the world.
In a forthcoming interview, Gizzi praises the ‘piss and vinegar’ in Sean Bonney’s voice, and the two poets share much in the way of political anger and energised despair. The central subject of what might constitute our future – and the mortal, political, and ecological precarity that attends it – blazes through both their oeuvres. Bonney’s final collection, Our Death, was published late last year by Commune Editions; it succeeds Letters Against the Firmament, a part-hex/part-manifesto against austerity politics written in epistolary address (Enitharmon, 2015), as well as Bonney’s important blog abandonedbuildings. Broken into five sections, Our Death operates at the threshold of various divisions that Bonney styles as ‘red barriers barricades black banners’. These encompass the slogans and struggles of a history of the left, and the contours of ‘this rotten world, this world we love’, all glimpsed against the dilapidated cities in which we live, the alienation we feel from others and ourselves, and the apocalypse to come that may already have arrived.
Many of these poems wander in lonely circles around the gentrified peripheries of three European capitals – ‘Hackney Exarchia Kreuzberg’ – and extend ever further out. So often, those places are unmistakably located in Berlin – specifically the area around the Landwehr Canal and Kottbusser Tor, but more luminously the city of debauched cabaret star Anita Berber, the orgiastic destruction of Ludwig Meidner’s ‘collapsing-exploding’ landscapes, and the place where the speaker wanders ‘trying to work out exactly when it was the catastrophe took place’. Even in Kreuzberg, Bonney ‘can smell the burning remnants of Britain’. Recalled through the abandoned villages and incinerated animals of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, described as the ‘tiny racist island on which I was born’, Britain is the collection’s antagonist.
Bonney, who had been living in a post-war housing block in a working-class district of Kreuzberg, died on 13 November last year. ‘These days everyone is writing their final book’, he begins, hauntingly, in ‘“Thrash Me!”’ His last work addressed a particular context of neoliberal austerity, and in doing so cultivated a politically active audience that was shaped by the experience of reading it. I speak with a degree of personal affinity here: over the course of that last weary autumn and winter of his life – on protests, on picket lines, commiserating in the backrooms of pubs – his poetry has been a constant spur to action, pressing our left-wing melancholy to the point where we are forced to imagine the destruction of the cosmos, and with it the political order it contains. In ‘We Are the Dead’, Bonney ventriloquises another guide from his personal pantheon, Muriel Rukeyser: ‘Defeat is among us, and war, and prophecy.’ Believing his own, unusually codified definition of prophecy to be inadequate – ‘a prediction of the future via excessive and possibly aberrant interpretation of all available elements of what we like to call the present’ – Bonney affirms a powerful negative poetic theology that runs throughout this work. His words are prophetic, but they do not require him to anticipate how: ‘nobody knows what those words really mean, and what they will come to mean.’
That sense of vigorously defining the words on our own terms leads this collection to the final moments of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema, one of several visceral reinventions of apocalyptic vistas that render ‘“futurity” […] cancelled.’ You may recall the film: having stripped himself of all material possessions, gifted his factory to the workers, and removed his tailored suit at a railway station after failing to pick up a young man, the naked father of a middle-class Milanese family walks out into a sooty, arid wasteland and shrieks hopelessly into the void. In ‘Letter Against the Language’ – a discursive, apocryphal prose- poem and one of several homages to Pasolini – Bonney recalls ranting to a friend that Massimo Girotti’s ‘high metallic screech’ (and anyone who has heard it will likely attest to its pure psychic pain, its call to a wilderness that will not answer) held within it ‘all that was meaningful in the word “communism.”’ Bonney acknowledges that those in power will have their own definitions of this word, as well as its derivative, ‘Communisation’. These ideological terms in general, and ‘communism’ in particular, are used to demonstrate instead that ‘so much of our vocabulary is missing’, so many names destroyed by ‘those responsible for the massacres’. Testifying to a politics precisely within our cries, whispers, and ‘barely audible screeches’, Bonney’s poetry shares with Pasolini the desire, derived from Corinthians and re-emerging in the director’s unrealised screenplay about the life of St Paul, to hear ‘inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell’ and to scream them from the top of his voice. So many of Bonney’s poems howl against the predicament we collectively find ourselves in now, and they do so by summoning a living tradition of political action – real, direct, and oppositional action; not just organisation – that is always foreclosed as soon as it threatens to become a facile signifier for revolution. Later, ‘In Fever’: ‘The fascists who murdered Pasolini are now the owners of the world. Do not mourn or forgive. Shriek one time. Shatter glass.’ These acts of (imaginative) destruction turn out to be the necessary precursor to living on this earth.
Our Death refuses nostalgia, but does not wholly totalise despair, since the poems make commitments to a shared history and to a common public. Instead, they care – truly, desperately – and seek to reanimate the promises made by earlier generation of down-and-out radicals who have changed our lives. ‘I wonder about the sounds the dead would make if they could imagine the light that surely does reach them,’ Bonney writes in ‘On Throwing Bricks’, ‘from whatever future remains open to us.’
Matthew James Holman is a writer, critic and poet from Sheffield. Matthew is currently completing a monograph on the curatorial work of Frank O’Hara and writes reviews for frieze, Apollo and The Oxford Art Journal.