A BIRD IN THE HAND - GIZZI'S 'AVIS'
Avis, or (The Replete Birdman), by Michael Gizzi
Burning Deck, 1979
Rhode Island is the home of Burning Deck Press, a small press maintained by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, who design and print each book themselves. Burning Deck publishes some of the most handsome poetry books found in the world today. Their emphasis on fine craftsmanship has had an influence on writers in the area, and one might go so far as to say that something like a "Providence style" has grown up centered around Burning Deck. Several local poets share certain means of approach (though it would be wrong to try to define them too strictly.) Their work is part of the effort to express an American idiom as opposed to an English, Continental, or classical style - that effort which was given its famous ambiguous send-off by Whitman. But these poets seem to owe more to Emily Dickinson, in terms of precision, neatness, observation, and the joy of expressing the single, almost random word, as opposed to the "theme." They also owe something to William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and other contemporary inheritors. Single words or very short lines are spread over the page - poetry's visual aspect is very important - giving a staccato effect similar to jazz improvisation or bird-talk, which is often very successful in capturing colloquial American speech. Historic European poetry emphasizes the intense weight of the line of poetry, whereas this American style delights in a scattering effect spreading over the page, and the timbre of the sound is more important than the melody (again, as in jazz or birdsong). Finally, in discussing this general Providence style, one cannot neglect to mention a curious, quirky humor, expressing some kind of Providence state of mind as well as the jokes embedded in the language itself.
This general approach seems to be a perfect vehicle for Michael Gizzi in his most recent book, Avis. Avis is Latin for "bird" (as in aviation, aviary, etc.), and the book among other things celebrates an evolutionary and poetic emergence of a "bird-man." Mr. Gizzi, who in his occupation as a tree surgeon spends a lot of time out on a limb, speaks from first-hand experience (poets also, as Gizzi proves, are among the feather'd tribe).
Have you ever found yourself, of a morning, standing in a field bordering a stand of trees, listening to the birds? These flying creatures have an incredible way of creating and melodifying open space. Birds are true architects, building with musical charts the entire forest - their nests huddled in the branches being but the sexual-familial nexus. Their work goes on in the cities as well - being, as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, "the first sprouts of a virgin forest that will cover the site of modern cities." Poets are also builders, as again Mandelstam says, poets are "those who, inspired by the spirit of building, do not like cowards renounce their own gravity, but joyously accept it in order to arouse and exploit the powers architecturally sleeping within." The first thing a poet builds is a pair of wings, thus becoming the wings, rather than the antennae of the race - these wings being more structurally necessary than anything developed at Houston space center.
I would like to quote extensively from Avis, for the Gizzi-bird coves a wide expanse of the wilderness of birdman nature. Here is just a short bit to give the reader a taste :
Very large if not
I am aloft w/my vision, aloft everything
Seems to tree
The winged and leafy of one lung
And upon every branch sits a consort
Of singers so that every
Like a 'musicke roome'
Any extensive reading of Avis lends weight to the ancient theory that words themselves were originally handed down to mankind one-by-one by a Big Divine Bird, something between a condor and the common English sparrow. The language and style has a kind of baroque formality, but everyday speech is baroque. And it is a new kind of formality, an American metric. There is something in this style, an echo of the dancing precision of the Elizabethans and metaphysical poets of the Renaissance. This combination of down-to-earth American humanity (descended from W.C. Williams), and a winged Renaissance dancing quality, forges a link between poetry and the best popular folk and medieval music, the heart of the common harmony. In conclusion, I hope my review has succeeded in expressing my opinion that Michael Gizzi's Avis is no ordinary "cheep thrills."
*unfortunately I'm not able to replicate the spacing of the original lines.... the alternate lines, up to "Or perch", should each be indented a couple tabs.