It Isn’t Personal: Eliot and Elegy in Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs

by Susannah Nevison

Peter Gizzi’s fifth collection, Threshold Songs, is an exercise in both personal remove and personal loss. Urgency in speech is often elevated by song—joy, grief, longing, belonging—and Gizzi’s collection allows for unadulterated engagement with these emotional turning points, transitory states, through his own kind of singing. Dedicated to Gizzi’s mother, brother, and friend Robert Seydel, all of whom Gizzi lost over the course of a year, the book confronts emotional thresholds more than it speaks to the personal or biographical. By falling into the liminal space—the rift in perception that loss creates—and looking at the world through this lens, Gizzi constructs an impersonal contemporary elegy in tune with the “impersonal theory” from T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Threshold Songs shows us Gizzi’s particular lineage in contemporary poetry, as he takes a deeply personal subject and self-consciously renders it art.

The “impersonal theory” posits that artistic creation relies on the poet’s conscious manipulation of emotions and feelings to achieve the desired work. The personal is sacrificed; the poet works from a place of detachment. In doing so, the poet becomes the connective tissue between past literary tradition and new form and elaboration. Threshold Songs is elegiac and, we assume, full of deeply personal insight, but it, like all poetry, is a result of carefully exercised craft, including a deliberate choice to exploit, rather than excise, the personal experience behind the poems’ inception. We may be let behind a curtain, but what we see is constructed—the controlled synthesis of the personal yields artistic progress that exists independent of the poet. What Threshold Songs achieves steps beyond an arch, Eliot-esque expression of grief and distress. Gizzi is in full control of his craft, but the distance created helps us more fully comprehend the repercussions of his grief.

The book plants us squarely in the mess of the modern world. Attuned to the noise and politics of life in the digital age, Gizzi’s voice navigates a landscape that is both deadening and deafening; we alternately hear both gentle undersong and a fevered verse that threatens to drown out all else. The source of the voice is also dual: present speaking to past, and back again. “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past,” suggests Eliot. Likewise, Gizzi doesn’t deal with past and present as static states, but constructs a fluid voice: he speaks from either side of the divide. In the opening poem, “The Growing Edge,” Gizzi writes:

I wonder if  
you hear me
I mean I talk
to myself through you

The growing edge between past and present, presence and absence, is drawn by a voice that both speaks and is spoken through. The “you” here is also a form of multiplicity: collective, individual, alive, posthumous. We are not falling into a narrative of specified, personal grief, but rather inhabiting the unique spaces—and fractured sensibility—that grief so often creates. In poetry, “[w]hat happens is a continual surrender of [the poet] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” writes Eliot. In Threshold Songs, Gizzi seems to give himself over:

Of what am I to see these things between myself
and nothing
between the curtain and the stain
between the hypostatic scenes of breathing
and becoming the thing I see
are they not the same

The poems are rich with (and enriched by) allusions, including a direct nod to Eliot with a poem titled “Tradition & the Indivisible Talent.” Part of what makes Threshold Songs a successful work of impersonal poetry is its willingness to blur the line of linear poetic progression. Eliot haunts the page when Gizzi writes

When a thought’s thingness
begins to move, to become
unmoored and you ride
the current with your head, 
feel yourself lift off like
birdsong caught in the inner ear
even the curious seem animated
in their dusty shelves— 
the song is alive. 
That part of tradition.

Other voices are called back, as the act of creating a present voice is informed by the persistence and insistence of the voices of the dead.

“How to live. / What to do,” writes Gizzi, quoting Stevens, in the closing lines of the book. To look hard at that which harms us most—what splits us open—is not salve for the wound, but an active struggle to make sense of that final threshold: a way of saying, I am here, I was here, I was. “Now that you’re here / and also gone / I am just learning that threshold,” Gizzi states. It isn’t personal renewal or greater comfort Gizzi is after, but convergence, a poetry that embraces—even celebrates—the tenuous edge between the known and the unknowable: joyous and jubilant and sure.