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  At Passages

Michael Palmer

New Directions, $11.95 (paper)

by Stephen Burt

Michael Palmer is hard to read and worth it. His evasive, dream-like poems flaunt their sheer oddness and their steadfast resistance to imitating spoken language. Not that Palmer is a nonsense writer; more often his poems are a web spun of half-made sense, euphonies, free associations, temporary sense, and temporary frustrations. They reveal a mind at work in verbal associations rather than an inner world responsible to the physical, social, concrete outside world.

Consider "Letter 5" of the "Letters to Zanzotto" (Andrea Zanzotto is an Italian experimental poet) -- the best of the sequences in At Passages, Palmer's latest book:

Desired, the snow falls upward,
the perfect future, a text
of wheels. You were born here
between noise and anti-noise
in first bits of film,

silvers of image, the of
and its parts -- particle
as wave -- the perfect
future's steps, its thousand lakes
bells, remarks, lunations and dismays

Days were called the speed book
then the scream book, rail
book then the book of rust, perfect-
bound, perfect shadow of a clock
the photophilographer assembles in negative,

negative sun or negative shade,
negative dust pulled from the ground
and the images negated in ornate frames,
firebricks, funnels and trucks,
figment and testament as one

Palmer begins in a wished or dreamed-up snowy land: perhaps Minnesota ("thousand lakes"), or Minnesota on film, or in a book about film; characteristically, he retreats into representations of representations, and then leaps back into the sensory and primary. The traces of syntax multiply partial meanings while the line breaks emphasize some: moving the word "book" back, for example, until it is "bound" and vanishes, or assisting the "part" in its attempts (via "particle") to become "perfect." The uncanny ability of photography (and perhaps other art forms) to stop or reverse time, to turn time into space, generates or suggests the anxieties in the third stanza; the fourth suggests that by making all time present at once the artist/photographer/philographer ("one who loves writing" or "one who loves to write") is generating little apocalypses, in which the sun is negated, the ground opens up, and words generated in the imagination ("figment") at last produce their own fulfillment ("testament").

The verbal devices of "Letter 5" reappear throughout At Passages: puzzling copulas ("All clocks are clouds"), shifting forms of the second person, repetition-with-variation ("it's nearly time, it's almost, it's just about/ time, it's long past time now"), and obvious use of the line break to regulate meanings: "And you, Mr. Ground-of-What, Mr. Text, Mr. Is-Was,/ can you calculate the ratio between wire and window,/ between tone and row, copula and carnival/ and can you reassemble light from the future-past" ("Letter 7"). This last is an odd set of vocables, but also a bit of carpe diem poetry (the light, once passed, will not come again) and a question about whether art is useful, and whether intensely self-questioning art (like this poem, or like twelve-tone music with its tone rows) is as useful as the cruder art of a carnival.

Palmer's linguistic maneuvers provide no certainties and graph no social world, but they do include consistent ideas, and reveal a psyche reacting to the language and ideas it imagines as speaking through it. Indeed, the best poems in At Passages -- Letters 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, in the "Letters to Zanzotto" sequence, "SB," "Erolog," a few called "Untitled" -- have everything I want from older poetry -- striking images, quotable, memorable embedded aphorisms, even emotional scenarios (for those readers who work at extracting them) -- everything but stable prose meanings.

Palmer's sequences, here as in earlier books, describe an almost doctrinaire insistence on the status of "poetry" as a project that can never be completed and "meaning" as essentially unstable; they present an illimitable fantasy landscape populated by enticingly mysterious comic-book characters ("But Dr. Sleep and his Window of Time?"); and they express a kind of poetics of echolalia, which replaces literal logic with free association based on sounds -- "milk for mist, grin/ for limbs, mouths for names." Palmer also maintains a fourth register -- derived from Robert Duncan, to whom "Six Hermetic Songs" are dedicated -- of mystical, incantatory simplicity, which I find much less interesting.

Each of the other registers -- semantic, imagistic, and phonologic -- has at least one emotional correlative. The first suggests, often, a sadness at the inability of thoughts to stay put, and at the mental effort required to make language mean anything. ("SB" and "Letter 4," two of Palmer's most moving new poems, seem to be about nothing else.) The second contains an astonished amusement at what the imagination can do. And the third shows a mind withdrawing from other minds, aspiring to "the condition of music." Eliot's remark that one must have personality and emotions to want to escape from them is surely relevant here. Readers tempted to dismiss Palmer's tactics as a kind of poetic autism, a refusal to engage with the semantic and syntax fixities that give language its social uses, should remember not only how hermetic Eliot -- and for that mat-ter Tennyson -- once seemed, but also Wittgenstein's warning to readers: "Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it, or at least similar thoughts."

Palmer does often engage more directly with the communicative aspect of language: He gives us linguistic hesitations and self-revisions, slow motion records of how separate pieces of language come together to mean one thing rather than another. His stutter-effects, like Muybridge's photos of horses in motion, gallop by gallop, preserve the possibilities of alternate meanings and potential changes in direction which ordinary coherence occludes. Or, as in "Erolog," the stutter can convey a sense of loss, or removal from the place where we might imagine the poem as spoken:

Asked, Don't you dream, do you ever
or once, did you once -- the white

(he) -- the white
rain, railings, head-high, erased, no

shadow. And our menhirs, watch-
towers, carbon shores, our almosts --

of speaking, or speaking-seeing . . .

These halting, Beckettesque lines imagine an attempt to bring into mental focus an experience even as it fades; they stutter, redouble, and toss up figures (menhirs, carbon dating, or burnt driftwood) for the reconstruction of ancient events, even though the speaker or speakers may want to reconstruct an erotic conversation ("erolog") still in progress. A few lines later, "the gnomon of the hourglass" and "a comb" are offered as equivalent objects, as if the meaning of the time passed lay in the shape of someone's hair; later still the poem seems to morph into an aube, the strict old form (Donne wrote one) which consists of a woman's farewell to her lover at dawn. Trapped in considering the difficulty of meaning one thing instead of another, the lover-figures -- framed by the room the poem makes for them -- awake, uncoil, and cannot quite say or remember what they want, but only gesture toward it. The poem ends:

. . . And you think
you are making a picture

uttering a sound
saying a thing

and you pretend to wrest the helix from its sleep
to free its threads,

amidst the rubble of the square
whoever was awake and waiting there.

We pointed toward space
as it is before day.

The difficulties in Palmer's poetry owe something to John Ashbery, and more to the more radical, harder-to-enjoy West Coast "language poets" with whom Palmer is sometimes classed. A bad poem by Palmer, or any poem by some of his stylistic neighbors, may strike us as the work of an extremist in an exercise, substitut-ing linguistic preoccupation for emotion or personal style. But Palmer's mature work, beginning with Notes for Echo Lake (1981), differs from many "language poetries" in providing so many fragments of meaning -- he chops his sense into salad-size chunks, so to speak, rather than pureeing it. The difference between "Letter 5" and much "language poetry" is, as Stevens put it, "the difference between the and an,/ Between himself and no man"; Palmer's good poems imply a persona despite their theory, and precisely because of their singular sound. And Palmer's spondaic, broken-up dream-cartoons have almost nothing except difficulty and self-consciousness in common with Ashbery's deceptive contiguities and one-sided conversation-poems.

At Passages is "easier" than Palmer's last full-length collection, Sun (1988). Less fanciful and elaborate, it includes more hints of a persona behind the poems and more of Palmer's weaker, flatter, mystical verse. The combination makes At Passages both a good introduction to Palmer's methods and a slight letdown for those who already admire them. Still, the letdown is only slight. In most of the "Letters," as in the other highlights of his career -- the first half of Sun, the Notes for Echo Lake series -- Palmer has managed to view (as a very traditional poet once put it) two worlds at once: to have brought the psychological insights and mimetic rewards we expect from older kinds of poetry into momentary conjunction with the comparatively asocial, startling, elusive pleasures of the new.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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