Living on the Cutting Edge: Barbara Goldberg on Peter Gizzi’s The Outernationale

The Outernationale, Peter Gizzi, Wesleyan University Press, 2008

These poems are hard – the language is razor-sharp; the syntax, fractured; surfaces collide with great force and speed – in short, the poems are hard to take, much less swallow. And there is no attempt to soften the blow: no story, no plot, and perhaps hardest of all, no character, no “I.” The hard truth, as Gizzi sees it, is that we are at the mercy of incomprehensible forces in this whirling vortex of a world we live in, and whatever meaning we construct is mere fiction.

Yet, the speaker of these poems suffers, and suffers greatly. He is constantly bombarded, one could even say assaulted, by jarring sensations of color, light, time, language, half-familiar phrases, nothing is stable, everything is jumbled, surfaces jitter and with everything moving so fast, no wonder the overriding sensation is one of dizziness and vertigo. What a relief it would be to grab hold of something stable, certain, something whole. But everything is in shards. There is no calm, no serenity, and most tragic of all, no sense.

This makes for an unsettling experience for the reader, who similarly struggles to find some unifying thread, some meaning. The velocity of these poems is such that just as you think you are approaching some semblance of order, it is disrupted. It’s exhausting, all this jumble, this lack of clarity, but this is life, it’s real. Anything else is wishful thinking. This work effectively annihilates any proposition that human beings are special, or chosen for heroic fates.

In “Human Memory Is Organic,” the word “gneiss” appears. The word is emblematic for what Gizzi believes is the essence of human experience. Gneiss, coarsely layered metamorphic rock, is formed at high pressures and temperatures, much like ourselves. This is the self that shatters under pressure, that constantly attempts to put it all back together. These poems are obviously not for the faint of heart. They are admirable in their steely acceptance of the human condition: Always an exile, on the outskirts, out of bounds, no sugar coating to make it go down easy.


We know time is a wave.

You can see it in gneiss, migmatic
or otherwise, everything crumbles.

Don’t despair.

That’s the message frozen in old stone.

I am just a visitor to this world
an interloper really headed deep into glass.

I, moving across a vast expanse of water

though it is not water maybe salt
or consciousness itself

enacted as empathy. Enacted as seeing.

To see with a purpose has its bloom
and falls to seed and returns

to be a story like any other.
To be a story open and vulnerable

a measure of time, a day, this day one might say
an angle of light for instance.

Let us examine green. Let us go together

to see it all unstable and becoming
violent and testing gravity

so natural in its hunger.

The organic existence of gravity.
The organic nature of history.

The natural history of tears.


Barbara Goldberg is the author of four prize-winning books of poetry, most recently, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, winner of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize (University of Wisconsin Press).  She and the Israeli poet Moshe Dor translated and edited The Fire Stays in Red: Poems by Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin Press) and two anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, most recently After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press).  Goldberg’s work appears in the Gettysburg Review, Poetry, and The Paris Review as well as Best American Poetry.  She has received two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation Award as well as national awards for translation, fiction, feature writing and speechwriting.  A former senior speechwriter for AARP, she currently is Visiting Writer in American University’s MFA program.  She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.