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The Promises of Glass
Michael Palmer
New Directions, $21.95 (cloth)


by Andrew Zawacki

In his apologia for poetry, "The Meridian," Paul Celan wrote, "Whoever has art before his eyes and on his mind" has "forgotten himself," and likewise, "Art produces a distance from the I." Many critics of contemporary American poetry have mistaken these assertions for an advocacy of impersonality, obscurity, or evasion. What Celan maintains, however, is that achieving intimacy depends upon first stepping back. From Levinas through Derrida, Marion, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe, a significant, if wavy, line of thought has rightly insisted that such a retreat alone will allow another person to be perceived and honored in his or her singularity, as wholly Other—even, on occasion, as a holy Other. Celan advanced this dynamic of becoming nearer by withdrawing; he argued that the poem's solitude paradoxically leads to "the mystery of an encounter." Although "The poem is alone," it nevertheless "needs the Other, it needs a vis-à-vis." The poem's being always en route toward alterity inscribes an ethical dimension: though it may sometimes strike readers as merely aesthetic posturing, a poem, by insisting on a distance between itself and the reader, may establish a space in which reader and writing emancipate one another.

Such issues of proximity and promise—of compromise, in the sense of settling a dispute by mutual concession—provide the subject matter for Michael Palmer's latest book. The Promises of Glass is directed at an other, even as its author is, as he claimed in a 1995 interview, reciprocally "imagined into being by that other." Hence it is not surprising to overhear him ask, "Does distance cause the call[?]," which implies that a gap between the self and some other impels poetry as a response, no less intimate for coming from afar. Palmer's question might serve as a cipher for the entire book, were he not so driven by a suspicion toward totalizing myths. He desires instead, as he said in a tribute to Octavio Paz, to instate poetry as a "site of the heretical imagination," what Celan termed a "counter-word," by which writing answers a demand. That counter is first encountered in this book's inaugural word, "But," as though The Promises of Glass constitutes a reply, a negation in an argument already underway.

Were that argument to bear a heading, it might be found in the aptly titled "I Do Not": "They have named it The Ultimate Combat between Nearness and Distance." While these two terms declare themselves throughout, their strife is a contentious collusion, less apocalyptic than initiatory. The opening poem, "The White Notebook," proceeds by questions about its own logic and locus: about "what spells // the unfamiliar, awkwardly whispered, syllable" and "What scene / is he watching?" The poem suggests its precinct is a "Scene which has no center / or whose center is empty, / elsewhere," its discourse partaking of "the zero code, wordless, // a language of rhythm and breath." The speaker increasingly narrows his attention on a pair of figures in a room. They are described as "Two breaths, two patterns of echo," as if they have no identity beyond what they say—words that are, moreover, attributed as echoes. Inside this estranged, elusive matrix, however, its evolving spectacle of colored dots and a running river gradually accumulates a sense of being lived "tongue to mute tongue"—until, finally, the people meet: "We shared one shadow. / In the heat she tasted of salt." The close witnesses suspension suspended, as a commitment is made, risking the sensual modalities of the world. The white notebook vanishes as lovers appear; they are an incarnation—the fulfilled promise—of the words that heralded their advent and embrace.

Palmer pursues a constantly receding illusion: "Word and thing are the same." He realizes that they never coincide, since language is offered precisely in place of the other, yet he still follows the asymptotic utopia of direct encounter between name and object, between one person and another. His remarks preceding "Five Easy Poems" document his attempted meeting with Anne-Marie Albiach, whose poetry he'd long admired. Since she was not in when he stopped at the Hotel de l'Odéon, Palmer left her a copy of his Notes for Echo Lake. Palmer's "memory" of an encounter that did not happen stems from this proxy rendezvous, in which books were exchanged. His not meeting Albiach in person preserved a distance between them, and the two poets' deferral of an actual encounter—even if that postponement was accidental—opened a pathway within which their words could stand for their real selves. Those words, as representations of their writers in absentia, could then traffic back and forth, in an economy defining the gift. Moreover, "This non-encounter," Palmer claims, "served further to spur a series of reflections," and the result is poems that occur "at a certain distance" from "arteries' / incandescence," where "twin bodies encircle a letter / they have arrived at independently." That this non-encounter culminated in couplets marking its absence signals Palmer's preoccupation to "describe this as if it were before me it is not before me." The promises of glass endeavor to transpierce a veneer without violating it, to engage within language what otherwise remains untouched or missing.

The poetics of The Promises of Glass capitalizes on the absences effected in the composition of glass. A fusion of sand, soda, and potash, its peculiarity resides in how these elements are not perceived but effaced. Glass sublimates its ingredients into a unity that displaces them; the differences comprising glass are erased so glass may appear. "Isn't there another story / consistent with sand?" Palmer asks, "How it turns to mirror-glass / when heated in your hand[?]" Glass retains no visible residue of its particles, since they would obstruct its clarity: there is a poeisis, then, of withholding. Yet glass, in turn, itself withdraws. It might hide in the form of a window, to facilitate transparency or translucence, or it might withdraw into a mirror, to enable an opacity permitting reflection. Glass promises to withdraw into an invisibility that allows one either to detect an object or light, or else to see oneself. But what one must not see is the glass itself.

The history of the Logos before this century harbors a parallel faith in language's capacity to represent things in the world—to serve as a faithful mirror of nature. Palmer, however, is uncertain when, if ever, this succession of cover-up and uncovering ends, in what final object the word rests: "city over which another city floats." His eye searches for sand, some hint in glass that its "[p]arts are greater than the whole." Vigilant of language's illusion of meaning, he either affirms its slippages—"Here is a well with no bottom at all / and in this well we dance"—or plies caution—"But what, then, if we made a mistake and that which appeared to be reflected in such a surface were really behind it and seen through it?" The failures of the classical model of representation, which adhered to transparency and reflection, are several. A portrayal in window or mirror is always framed, only ever partial, and marks the very limits it seeks to disguise: "a mirror on a stage // has never been enough." Additionally, a mirrored image is framed inversely: glass, in returning the gaze, turns it around. Mimetic truths, even if the lens is not warped, are deceptive. The realization that language persistently mediates the world leads Palmer to invite us, "Here, try these, my new glasses. / Note that I have painted the lenses black // as ink." Without recourse to language—and there is no without-language—there is "no way to differentiate the hall of mirrors from the meadow of mullein," he writes in a poem that repeatedly intones, "I do not know English." Palmer grounds further mistrust in an awareness of the late hour of language, in anxiety regarding its itinerant languor and lapse, its reflecting gaze having decayed. Whether its fragility is constitutive or whether it has "lost its tain," language is a "black mirror" courting duplicity, and Palmer confirms we see through a glass darkly. "[W]e noted the sun's // utter failure to explain / anything at all," he writes of the Heraclitean principle of order and utterance—"Though we must ask: this sun or that sun or a complicity of suns."

The diffracting of a sun that once promised coherence reminds us glass may also act as a prism, from the Greek prismatos, "thing sawn." A prism gathers light and disperses it as color, filtering the undifferentiated to project its manifold. A prism does not occasion unity or harmonize distinctions, but refracts light so differences participate together while remaining different. Palmer speaks of a Color Harpsichord and "harmonica of glass"; his poems permit what is at once translucence and music, a chromatic scale, light on its way to spectrum and sound. The Promises of Glass is generous in its prismatic bent, infolding then unfolding in variegated, sonorous array: "dots of silver" added to "a real river, brown and turbid," a "blue rider, the Arab / horseman, the cavalier composed // of two shades of blue," "a blue stream," "blue-flowering trees," "blue-lit barroom wall." We read of "Cobalt / blue, argentine, bone white," "whiteness of the city when you say / Paris is white," "denialwhite," and "the names for white: / blanc de titane, blanc de zinc," "the white of a final / whiteness." We see "a woman in a yellow dress," "shadow-flowers with yellow stems," "One apple, pale yellow," "haws of the hawthorn bright orange." There is "a rose—a red rose—in the dark," "Redness of this interior, not / blood-red, not bloodless, not a / remembered red." Among these "alternations // of hue, / orbital red, / silver, blue," appear "rust, chrome yellow, coral, / chemical green," "eyes an acid green," and something "almost almond-hued, a color / I can't quite name." This kaleidoscope does not just dazzle the eye and ear, but recalls Plotinus's definition of Beauty as differences perceived in their difference, yet reposing within the One, a freedom inside constraint that equally characterizes Palmer's aesthetic. His painted syllables suggest the slant relations between light and language, color and acoustics, glass and heteroglossia, and how together they illuminate the death of the "I" as the dark, singular horizon defining the human.

The speaking subject is exactly what is interrogated in the title poem, notwithstanding the eighteen-part sequence's claim to autobiography. The self becomes an intriguing pharmakon, both poison and cure, as Palmer examines language and its lack according to the theorem, "The world is all that is displaced." Not least in that world is the self "itself," which is likewise displaced, so in one section Palmer stages a dialogue between Voice and Other Voice, elsewhere observing, "You must have me confused with myself." Divided, third person as often as first, the self is neither revealed nor concealed: "He regards the self as just another sign." Despite its chaste corseting into segments of six, eighteen, and 36 lines, themselves austere though not without flânerie, the poem strays under the symbol of a defective—and defecting—organizing principle: "Disappearance of the sun from the sky above Odessa." Minus this prime mover, time too is disjointed, and an hourglass could be a crystal ball, the glass protecting a museum exhibit, or the looking-glass that sends one Aliceward. "Our time is a between time," Palmer says, "best to stay out of it," worrying that the present—like presence—is impossible, an impasse, a mere hyphen in a disoriented "future-past" or the elided movement etched in "Will be will have been." The transition assured in genealogy is disturbed by alienation in the sentence, "Did I say father and son // when I meant / farther and farther from the sun," while the same lines insinuate the symbiosis of intimacy and apartness.

Palmer's work is by turns hard and fragile, fractured and intact, both "fragment / and the discourse of liquid surfaces." Perhaps this polish that abets a latent violence certifies his poetry's mimetic aspect, particularly when we consider Kristallnacht and how, as Palmer indicates in "If Not, Not," after Kitaj's painting, the Holocaust has rendered everything "cut in half." Yet his "pages of glass," however fraught with naughts and nots, are fathomsuns to measure a prevented transcendence, while the "street known as Glass" where he was born, the "forest of glass" where he seeks the past, are woodpaths through the semantic tangle. In a placeless place where "The self is assigned to others," the poet assumes a responsibility toward the other—and toward the self as other—holding open a door to "greet the severed music." It is within that willed passage that the poem joins its reader by staying in reserve, so the reader can see the outline of what is there and, at the same time, be reciprocally acknowledged in his or her uniqueness. This dynamic of shared differentiation informs how a word relates to what it names, how each person ought to respond to a fellow human, and even how the self might best perceive itself. Palmer's obliquity should not be misconstrued as cold blood, his hiddenness as hermeticism. He is a poet of eccentric encounter, the encounter that usually isn't one, yet is. "In my pocket I carry a crystal heart / which throbs to an erratic beat," he says in one autobiography, adding that "an irregular heart sometimes speaks to me." The Promises of Glass confirms his ability to speak, as Blanchot put it, "at a distance from oneself and yet with the greatest passion." •


Andrew Zawacki is co-editor of Verse. His first collection of poetry, By Reason of Breakings, is forthcoming. His reviews of Armand Schwerner and Gustaf Sobin have recently appeared in the Review.

Originally published in the April/May 2001 issue of Boston Review



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