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“The Internationale,” the socialist anthem, is sung by the faithful with fist raised in the air. The appropriate hand gesture to make while reading Peter Gizzi’s new book, The Outernationale (Wesleyan, 2007), has not been established. While it may, in fact, be impossible to figure out, readers would do well to read the book and meditate on this impossible gesture as a koan-like training.

While The Outernationale is more than a little different than “The Internationale,” it is not its opposite. Gizzi’s lyrics might not anticipate a pending revolution, but they do have their protest and imperative.

Protest Song

This is not a declaration of love or song of war
not a tractate, autonym, or apologia

This won’t help when the children are dying
no answer on the way to dust

Neither anthem to rally nor flag flutter
will bring back the dead, their ashes flying

This is not a bandage or a hospital tent
not a relief or the rest after

Not a wreath, lilac, or laurel sprig
not a garden of earthly delights

This protest song is a song about protest songs–is, more accurately, about what protest songs are not. A protest, in order to be effective, needs this self knowledge, this catalog of incapabilities.

There are two poems titled “The Outernationale” in The Outernationale. Both are concerned with observing and acting in a confusing world. But, in describing that world, we can change it even as it changes us:

If we could say
the world has changed,
it has changed. If we say
the world is the same
then so it is. But nothing
changes everything
and we know this.
We earn this the hard way.
Even the beloved
evolves into nothing

–from “The Outernationale”

Simple observation is not easy. There’s shadow, fog, dirty window panes, maybe even bad eyesight. But obscuration is not a negative quality. Our world is an equal opportunity befuddler, and confusions carry potential. There’s a generative power to be found in darkness and uncertainty:

The sun deploys its shadows
and things grow in dark too.
Leaves arch over everything
they are so democratic

–from “The Outernationale” (#1)

I mistake many things in dusk
like seeing liberty everywhere today,
smallish unacknowledged moments
of door holding, tossing coins
into a worn paper cup, smiling.

–from “That’s Life”

It’s in the process of moving out into the world that we can achieve clarity: “Out of this house and out into the day / things come to focus” (“The Outernationale” #1). It’s the desire to make sense of the world that keeps us vigilant, looking outward, trying like hell to figure it all out. For Gizzi, the solution is not for the outside world to be made more coherent, but for the inside world of the viewing subject to be made that way. The enlightenment is manifold–intellectual, spiritual, and incandescent.

Throw back your head
to the milky tears.
All types and shapes
of silent light.
Here the crab, the bear,
the dipper, the wheel
and the little tightnesses
that keep us wanting.
The wanting that keeps us
looking hard into the dark.
The dark we hope to unpack
and move into
that one day
we might find ourselves lit up.

— from “The Outernationale” (#2)