I READ THIS years ago, before I was doing this blog, but I was revisiting it because it contains one of my favorite contemporary (say, last twenty years) poems, "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs." I read it first in Conjunctions, I think, then heard him read it at a reading, read it again in this volume, which I think I bought at that reading or soon after, and still read every now and again.
Hard to pin down what I like about it--as is so often the case--but for the sake of saying something rather than nothing about a poem I hope more people will read, it seems to be about both the urgency and the sacrifice of any art of witness--how one is obliged to try, but the trying is committing yourself to a vanishing. The urgency of the moment will pass, and no one will know what to do with the archive it cost you so much to compile, that seemed so necessary it drove out whatever other artistic imperative you felt. It will all just evaporate, give itself up to oblivion, with a sweet cry. But it will somehow have mattered that you wanted to record something, wanted to show people something.
So, I recently picked up Gizzi's selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, which of course includes several poems from The Outernationale, and "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" is not there.
Oof. Damn. I wonder if Gizzi thought it was just too slight, or didn't like it anymore...whatever the reason, an occasion to let folks have another opportunity to read "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" has slipped.
I have often thought that it would make a dandy anthology poem--it's short and powerful--but that hasn't happened, either. Gizzi shows up in a few good anthologies (American Hybrid, the Rankine and Sewell, and, I just discovered, a volume called The New American Poetry of Engagement), but it's always other poems. Good ones, but not my favorite.
For that matter, while scouring through the tables of contents of a few anthologies of contemporary poetry, I noticed that consensus about which poems ought to be more circulated is elusive. Sometimes two anthologies may have no poets in common at all--I didn't do a rigorous check, but Paul Hoover's post-modern Norton anthology and Billy Collins's 180 Poems apparently do not overlap at all. Some poets show up often, like Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, but the poems selected are completely different in each case.
Is that a cause for worry? Should a canon be coalescing, or is it fine that a thousand flowers are blooming? Need we fear no frost?
Me, I'd like a few fragments to shore against my ruins. Well...I still have my copy of The Outernationale, and it's still a superb book. Engaged, to be sure--"Protest Song" from this book is the poem included in the aforementioned anthology of the new American poetry of engagement--painful, yes, as a lot of Gizzi's work is, but with a difference as well, a knowing, astringent joy, and astonishing beauty.