Michael Palmer's work was distinctive from the very beginning. There was a small chapbook, Plan of the City of O [Barn Dream Press, Boston, 1971], and then Blake's Newton, a stylish Black Sparrow Press book [Santa Barbara, 1972], followed by a fuller collection called The Circular Gates [Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1974]. A graduate of Harvard in French and Comp Lit, he was clearly grounded in philosophy, especially theoretical linguistics, logical positivism, and the French post-War streams of Structuralism, Post Structuralism, etc. From its earliest manifestations, his work seemed to be about the entanglements of cognition, representation, logical dilemmas, and the mediation between spheres of subject-matter. Almost anything was likely to happen in a Palmer poem, and usually did. His poems seemed to be like problems in logic, but with the matter and preoccupations of Surrealism. There was a constant dialogue between contexts, of playfulness toying with gravity, consternation confronting the absurd. A precarious balance between jeopardy and delight suggested an uncertainty that was endless, if occasionally reassuring. He was alert to the distortions and misapprehensions of language, and the disjunctions inherent in perception, the weak points in systems and surfaces. His conceits often felt gratuitously flimsy, but that didn't seem to matter in the long run--perhaps they were only pretexts.
Though his espoused mentors were Duncan and Creeley, his own poetry bore little resemblance, at its heart, to the work of either of these men.
The early work sounded like the trumpet's annunciation to an unbounded precinct of elaborations, stretching out in time. And that promise has been fulfilled, albeit in ways that could have been predicted, given the tone and sureness of that confident voice.
Plan of the city of O. The great square
curves down toward the cathedral. The
water runs out into night where the patron
saint still maintains his loft. He enters
from the lower level and pulls up the ladder
after him. The women and children and
most of the old men spend their time painting
pictures of the ladder. The rest lay the
three kinds of stone or type the performance
for the eastern quarter. There the first
colony left its box-shaped mark. But
the sun always goes down in several places,
so the clocks serve as maps. And at the
end of the nearest mountain stands the
larger and less perfect box.
This was playful and curious and intriguing at the same time. It was syntactically whole and didn't challenge the membrane of representation which the medium of language assumes; though it seemed devoted to deconstructing whatever provisional presumptions may have seemed to be forming.
from The Brown Book
But do we interpret the words
before obeying the order
--The Brown Book
for. . .
This is difficult but not impossible: coffee
childhood; in the woods there's a bird;
its song stops you and makes you blush
and so on; it's her
small and dead behind the roses
better left alone; we wander around the park
and out of our mouths come blood and smoke
and sounds; small children and giants
young mothers and big sisters
will be walking in circles next to the water
This could be a fragment of a description composed only of stray parts. The poem could be regarded as a problem, or as a riddle which holds the key to a way of thinking about the world, or about an imaginary world in which giants roam and dead girls lie dead behind some rose bushes. The reference to Wittgenstein [his Blue and Brown Books, 1958, from Notes dictated to his students at Cambridge in 1933-35] seems to suggest that the subject is a problem with perception as demonstrated or laid bare in language. The poem thus becomes both an artifact and a proof of its own indeterminacy. The dead woman might suggest a Lewis Carroll trope; what the bird is telling you, why you are bleeding from the mouth, why this must be difficult--these might all fit into a larger whole whose design we can only partially infer.
for. . .
Is it true that the wolf was crying under the leaves
instead of speaking. And the moon she
come peeking. Four
pertaining to night. Four legs and arms
or what sits down when it lies. No wind
but some trains are waiting underground
All the things we shake from
before opening the eyes and mouth
The south is mauve and majesties and heroes
The north: white strips and lavender silks of ice
[Note: proceleusmatic means a four-syllabic foot in poetry.] Separate lines disconnect along their horizontal axes to form broken sequences of narrative or fractured logic. Is what you are thinking happening in the hand (mind) or in the past? Do these impressions join at some imaginary intersection where random numbers and cartoon characters and stuff falling on your head occur in some proximity to the moment of writing? Do questions knock on your door offering to take you to New Guinea? Is the Y by the T for a token metal key?
from The Book Against Understanding
The sun the water and the smallness of the islands
trees sometimes grow from. The semi-circular mountain
A man stands his ground in a lion's skin
and leads his pet lion by a string
through threatening weather. It and if.
It was as if I'd been away for many years
It's as if I've been away for many years
and then the skeleton of a young girl reappears
above the hill in the coruscating air
Once I flew to heaven and
once I went to Europe on a ship.
It is. It was as if.
The levels of statement exist simultaneously from a pack of possible propositions. Each proposition is autonomous, but not integral in the usual sense to the dream of the poem. Allowing obsessive, resistant nodes ("semi-circular mountains" "the skeleton of a young girl") to exist in a stasis of probable accidental relationships. The descriptive oddity of ordinary qualities ("coruscating") invites us to regard everything as a specimen of cognition, as if feelings, words and facts might be confused with each other in a dangerous (though artfully "harmless") game of chance. How can we know a thing untethered to its recognizable context?
A jar disintegrates
or breaks. I pick up the pieces
of the second voice
and the other pieces
since we're leaving
A blue marker
and a rounded Japanese
flower. The pieces
have almost disappeared
behind the key
I pick up the pieces
of one and three
as if they
were made for it
from a dark liquid
gone hazy at the edge
If a poem could be the combination of multiple "voices" or voicings then the poem's deployment strategies could be a puzzle in which the respective intentions of each agency could be said to "fit" into the overall meaning of the process. "I" wants "you" to see how these separate orders of reality might overlap, creating parallel pages in the book against understanding. As objects and events enter, interrupting the anticipated flow, we put down markers to guide us through a maze of disintegrating landscapes. If a poem is a journey through a series of moments--of stress, diversion, unexpected meetings--Palmer seems uninterested in confirming anything we might covet or desire to occupy for very long.
N Judah Poem
My trolley passes the Hub Pharmacy
where one time I went in with Cathy
and found a copy of Raymond Chandler's
Little Sister. Now there's a girl inside
of maybe eighteen who's
trying to decide
which things to buy
I open the door to the place
which is called my home
or simply home
a word I've never used before
in a poem
because of its unacceptable sweetness
Climbing the stairs
in the bag in my hand
are copies of Whitehead's
Science and the Modern World
and Tom Clark's Air
On the side of the bag
is part one of N Judah poem
beginning "My trolley..."
The reflexivity of this is reenforced as a series of nested paradoxes: The poem in the bag in my hand, (in) the poem where the girl in the Hub Pharmacy (in the poem) where I placed a copy of the poem (I began to write) with Whitehead and Raymond Chandler, on my way home while riding the "N Judah" trolley (poem) in San Francisco once upon a time. The poem is pulled inside out to reveal. . .what we carried in our heads from one place to another. The old poet moves to a new apartment 14 times. Did Raymond Chandler have a sister? The poem travels along a route pre-ordained as the sense of a destiny saved from oblivion by the decision to enact it. Its contents become the poignant keepsakes of correspondences named and specified, from among the illimitable mass. Our rational explanations may be of only nominal use in sorting out values among classes of experience which settle into brief hierarchies of temporary order.
The minotaur was on second base. The
lower part wanted to steal but the rest
seemed to hesitate. The reliever was
still wet from the sea; he was trying
to hold it together with a string
stretched from his right foot sixty
feet and six inches to the plate. His
receiver waited there on one knee with
his left arm extended and the gloved
hand raised. But his eyes kept shifting
from the string to the runner on second,
half bull and half man, and back again.
After a while he asked for time out and
headed toward the mound.
Ostensibly about a simple conceit of a base-runner as satyr, or minotaur, the poem really seems to be about classical relationships, in which a suspension of hostilities through the relaxation of tension as "time out" is a metaphor for the elasticity of mythical tropes.
Until I was seven we lived in 1108. Then
we moved to 1005. Across the air-shaft
lived a former leading lady to Rudolph
Valentino. She always dropped her empty
bourbon bottles out the window, down ten
flights onto the pavement, and she made the
papers when she died. Allen Ginsberg told
me later that he and his friends used to
go there to turn on. Next we spent three
years in north-central Florida, at a re-
sort hotel owned by the San Francisco
Giants. When we returned to New York we
lived in a hotel near Times Square named
after the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo,
but I've forgotten the number of our room.
The numerology of assigned and assumed meanings is tickled by insinuation and guile. Places and faces flit in and out of the limelight like neon chimeras. Skewed autobiographical details masquerade as real people and real events, but the verification required to triangulate fact is lacking. Magical incantations may summon a trance of attention, a momentary glimpse into a cardboard reality. What we testity to--as what we may reveal--may constitute merely a template of the known.
from The Circular Gates
I dreamed about the City
of O, the water
and the rubber boats. A compass
might have been of some use
all his emotions as well
As it is in New York
the chignon lies askew on the plane;
there are four kinds of gate
but some of these same
emotions get lost. We are definitely
at war, and I've a precise
color sense of war
like lemon pie or toast
or the onyx torso, now lost
The use of the "compass" is a crucial element in all of Palmer's work. "Some of these...emotions get lost." The need for a rubber boat, a life-raft to use in the rising flood-waters of confusion in the (modern) world are made no less tangible through the imaginary assignments of taste, color or texture which coexist within the context of the knowable. How can we know a thing? And is that knowing something we can transmit without distortion? What does thought really look like? How do words mean? Language may tend to blur, decay, even disintegrate upon close scrutiny. This is the danger that lurks behind any Palmer poem, that we're always on the verge of losing track of what is happening, of forgetting, of sliding--imperceptibly at first, then with gathering speed--into a state of total chaos. If we accept that disintegration, it may be momentarily liberating, but we aren't free to appreciate it. Rationality is the cardinal tendency of our nature. Here is a poem I published in L Magazine back in the 1970's--
The finger tastes of lemon
of cigarette-lemon and how
does the old man
"almost break a table"
or anyone. He
raises his right hand
from the lion on the chair
She had been partly hidden by
the accumulation of white hair
His titles are like mine
The circular gates
start to open and close
and the clouds are
supposed to seem high
The gestural futility of symbolic acts and relations seems to drain energy from the possible effects of specific assertions. Our tendency is always to want to denote with conclusive precision that which would lend substance to the detritus of civilization--some accrual of substance. The formal innovations of this work are its receptivity to change, to chance and mystery. If its flirtatious guile is reminiscent of the Surrealists' hijinks, that is simply another aspect, though a crucially relevant componant.
The range of Palmer's concerns in the years since his work first began to appear has not appreciably changed, in my view. Its aura of mischief and transgressive nonsense, always hiding around and among secret passageways and circuitous cul-de-sacs, leading us further and further astray.... But the maze always has a purpose--if only we could discern it!