Threshold Songs

Threshold Songs

Peter Gizzi
Wesleyan University Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7347-6 

"Grief is an Undersong:" on Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs

Jennifer Jean

A “threshold song” is sung by a community before or while one of their members “crosses-over”—usually from life to death but also, possibly, from any one state of being into another.  I don’t know if Peter Gizzi is familiar with any of the one-hundred Threshold Choirs throughout the country but his recent book of poems, Threshold Songs, has beautifully captured their stratified, otherworldly, and traditionally a cappella sensibility with his plaintive lyrics:  “I begin my encampment here,/ full throated by the stars.” 

His book is full of kinds of songs; poem titles include: “Lullaby,” “Basement Song,” “Oversong,” and “Undersong.”  He says, “Grief is an undersong.”  Birdsong is mentioned:  “Birdsong and daybreak,/ are they not the same at the root?”  The root here is connotation.  And, if these sorts of semantic relationships reflect interpersonal relationships, it seems our own interiority can be so associated with another person that their absence must be indescribably painful:  “The mother stains me./That was the year//they cut my throat.” 

Another song is called “Tiny Blast” and it begins by asserting itself as:  “Just a small song with a dash of spite.”  The poem “Gray Sail” reads like an elegant version of Pete Seegar’s anthem “If I Had a Hammer” (and I like Gizzi’s take best: “If I were a boat/ I would probably roll over”). 

There’s even a song glossing the concept “Bardo,” which is a Tibetan word for the state of the soul in transition between death and rebirth:  “To crow, to crown, to cry, to crumble.”  Gizzi seems to distrust the underworld and perhaps those enamored of it:

     Step back and look at the picture.
     It plays for a reason, mister,
     people are nuts about it
     and curious to pay for a glimpse
     of that gaslit underworld.

“It plays” could refer to how a “picture” or film “plays” or gets a long run at a theatre because of its possibly lurid appeal to the general populace.  A picture of grief could be “played” out or overdone like the clichéd picture of a violin “player” signifying melodramatic grief.  “For why am I afraid to sing” he asks in the opening line of “Hypostasis & New Year.” Is this a fear of the lyric impulse itself?  Or, again, distrust of his own displays of grief?  (Including writing this book?)  The book is flecked with self-doubt—we see this in “Modern Adventures at Sea”: 

     I wonder if the poem
     gets tired.  If the song is worn
     like sea glass.
     I wonder if I am
     up to this light.

Also, there’s this:  “Can I transform/this body/ I steward.”  I noticed this wasn’t a question.  Or, at least, the question mark is left off so that the query is undercut.  Does he want to transform himself as a body of grief into a body of work—a book of poems?  In any case, I think Gizzi is drawn to the communal aspect of being a “steward.”  In “A Note on the Text” he says:

          The good poets defy things
          with their heart

     This is how a fragment
     enters the people

     Don’t say beauty say the beautiful
     say the people

     Say it is through chants that writing
     entered the people

Gizzi drew me to consider the communal—and why not?  Living is heady, heavy, lonely work:  “It’s transformation” he says about both living and dying—about any transition at all:

     It’s transformation
     not transportation
     that’s needed.  Here.

In other words, disconnection through absence is not a given. The dead are here—transformed from ever-present song to ever-present echo, “more muffled than distant.”



Jennifer Jean

Jennifer Jean has published two books of poetry, In the War and The Archivist, and the multi-media chapbook FISHWIFE. She’s also released Fishwife Tales, a collaborative CD comprised of art songs and accompanied recitations. Her work has appeared in: Tidal Basin Review, Caketrain, Denver Quarterly, Poets/Artists, The Mom Egg, and more. She blogs for Amirah (, a website addressing human-trafficking issues, and she teaches writing and literature at Salem State University. Jennifer is an Outreach Coordinator for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. For more info, visit: