V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Michael Palmer's Poetry





The Lion Bridge brackets the coming of maturity of a poet 
whose vision and voice were always extraordinarily self-possessed, 
ironic for a poet who so radically de-centers identity, and this volume 
generously allows readers to follow that path.

Because each of Michael Palmer's poetry collections is so clearly and carefully designed as a book, a self-referential unit, it is easy to overlook the extent to which his entire corpus is an inter-linked network.  Tom Lux, who published Palmer's first chapbook, Plan of the City of O, for his Barn Dream Press in 1971, recalls that even then the book "was complete, a fully realized plan."  But in a 1990 interview, Palmer told me, "I have no romance of the book ÷ or do I?"  This is not as contradictory as it sounds.  Like many of the poets who have been influential for him (Duncan, Creeley), Palmer has created a series of books that are individual projects with different surface aims and textures, but form an integrated network.  In 1997, with his early collections out of print or in distributors' hands, Palmer was given the opportunity to compile a selected poems.  This moment provided the chance to recuperate the large body of virtually unavailable poems for readers who may have discovered Palmer's work with Sun or At Passages.  But more than just compiling representative poems from each of his five earlier full-length collections, Palmer felt that his task was equally to address the relationship among books.  This meant demonstrating the continuities as well as deliberate discontinuities among them, which is one of the propelling forces behind Palmer's aesthetic ethos.
     Palmer wrote in a 1990 letter, "The question of the development of the work is obviously complicated.  I have always worked against myself, crab-like or Sartre-like, yet the work is undoubtedly also evolutionary, at least if we can avoid some of the noxious fumes this term exudes.  The trick I suppose will be to avoid a too linear sense of evolution."  He was referring to the structure that I might employ in my doctoral dissertation on his work; yet the same principle applied six years later, as he began to compile the book which would represent twenty years of his writing.  Palmer's sole agreement with his frequent collaborator, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins, is never to repeat anything they've done before.  In the same spirit, each of his collections deliberately sets out in some way to undo the terrain of its predecessor.  Watching what Palmer does from one collection to the next provides useful insight into what he felt, retrospectively, was the focus of each book ÷ we learn what he thinks he did by seeing what he refuses to do next.  On the other hand, often paradoxically, Palmer is committed to being receptive to whatever "arrives" and "insists itself."  As a result, there are clearly ongoing themes and forms that he cannot shake, try as he might and does.  So, we watch Palmer's poetic evolution as a double helix, of progressions up and out, while certain strands weave insistently throughout the figure of his work.  It was critical to represent that pattern of "echo and erasure" in the selections made for The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995.
     Palmer certainly intended this volume to serve as a resource for readers who wished to have access to significant and representative poems from each of his books.  But he was also interested in taking the opportunity to reassess his earliest work, feeling that he'd lost touch with poems that were now twenty years old.  Because Palmer works to a great extent "in the book" which he is immediately writing, he develops a curious distance from previous work.  Partly this is deliberate: his greatest interest always focuses on current work.  Even in the rather nonchalant handling of his own archival materials, he prefers not to be his own living undertaker.  His self-reflectiveness typically addresses the current moment, although Sun did represent a project where he deliberately chose to look back over his "career" (my word, not his) as well as the century as a whole.  In compiling The Lion Bridge, Palmer had the chance to consider whether certain poems still worked for him and for readers, and how they related to more recent writing that he experienced in a fresher way.  As a result, the volume leaves out some poems that Palmer essentially viewed as experiments, which no longer held his interest or didn't seem to relate sufficiently to later work.  Chiefly among these exclusions, perhaps, is the title series from The Circular Gates, modelled after Frank Stella's "Protractor Series."  He decided to leave out "The Circular Gates" partly due to length limitations, but also because it was such a strategized and isolated undertaking.  As his wife Cathy recalls, using this series of geometrical and conceptual paintings as a compositional model was a breakthrough for him at the time; Palmer would agree.  But ultimately, he felt that the value of this particular poetry series did not justify the space it would take.
     The volume holds a generous representation of earlier poems that were the most difficult to access, including a large selection from the out of print books: Blake's Newton (1972), The Circular Gates (1974), and Without Music (1977).  Initially concerned that the Selected represented the early work too heavily, precisely the writing about which he felt most uncertain, he finally decided to allow the early work to remain.  It is greatly to our benefit to experience the full range of his development.  The collections are unique, and each of a piece: the elegant play of silent spaces in Without Music counterpoints the social and performative character of First Figure; the "insane clarity" of the cacophonic voices in Sun resonates against the hyper-linguistic autobiography of Notes for Echo Lake.  Yet the development from book to book is indeed evolutionary, and a chronological selection of writing from each volume allows the correspondences to emerge in powerful relief: "The stirrings are the same and different / and secretly the same." ("The Library Is Burning," Eighth Symmetrical Poem)
     Perhaps most of all in The Lion Bridge, we see the presence and successive polishings of an immediately identifiable style and voice.  It is striking to see the dominance of poems in series.  In spite of the unitary quality of each of his collections, we see more clearly than ever that they are linked into an intricate and thoughtfully articulated whole.  From the time of Blake's Newton, Palmer's work is seen, in reverse or progressive chronology, as a single project: we find installments of the prose series; the title series or sequences which appear in most of his collections; symmetrical poems; paired poems; and internal portfolios under one title.  These are just the formal manifestations of projects that are continuous in language, ethos, theme and other poetic markers.  The overall project is rife with measurement, systems, qualification (mostly failures, of course, but summoned nonetheless).  We see that Palmer is overwhelmingly concerned with poetry that questions and examines its own language and structure.  Exploration of literary form dates back to his earliest collections.  As we watch the progression in The Lion Bridge, we find "logics," numbered "symmetrical poems" (which Palmer describes as arriving with "a certain formal tone ÷ once I'm into one, I just say uh-oh, it's one of those"), letters, sonnets, song, series, façades, disclosures, a project, and a theory.  Poems have duplicated names, and other poems are carefully titled "Untitled" (some of which have differentiating subtitles).  The volume begins with "Its Form" and closes with "autobiography," both of which are dominant themes throughout.  Palmer's fascination with structure and system are partly expressed in his categorization of his poems, which is often a gesture of anti-naming or anti-categorization (when two poems or more have the same name, questions are being raised about the purpose and effectiveness of naming itself.  The process becomes a joke, as in the case of Palmer himself referring to his two "Sun" poems as "Sun" and "Son of 'Sun.'")
     There is the motif of approximation, the not-quite, what one might even refer to as something like "the ineffable," if properly stripped of theological (though not spiritual) overtones.  This is linked to expressions of uncertainty.  Political witness ÷ to the debacle of the 20th century ÷ is another dominant focus of attention.  The first three volumes represented in The Lion Bridge were written when Palmer was in his late twenties and early thirties, with Vietnam very much a presence, along with distant memories of World War II as discussed by his Italian-American family.  Other atrocities, from the dismantling of Russia to Tienanmen Square, are documented throughout.  Most moving, and perhaps ultimately indicative of the Palmer voice, is the wrenching stutter of articulation.  He begins his project in the seventies with "This difficult but not impossible" ("for," The Circular Gates), which evolves into repeated echoes asking "whose voice is this?", finally devolving into the literal stutter of later poems (the "Letters to Zanzotto," "Untitled [April '91]").  Fragmentary names (B, E, A) deteriorate into names forgotten entirely ""what's-his-name," a poem "called I forget").  Palmer frequently tells us what there isn't (no more dust, no more clouds, no body, no unfoldings, as in "The Library Is Burning").  But what keeps this from being a poetry of negativity (as he sometimes worries) is the effort and pathos in utter Beckettian form of continuing to record the lack of memory, the failure of language, our inability to speak or understand, to know whose voice is speaking at all. 
     In some ways, The Lion Bridge brackets the coming to maturity of a poet whose vision and voice were always extraordinarily self-possessed, ironic for a poet who so radically de-centers identity, and this volume generously allows readers to follow that path.  From the time of Blake's Newton, Palmer has included the voices of other artists and writers in his work, in acts of dialogue and homage: "I tend to invoke presiding spirits in a semi-conscious attempt to invoke a constellation of voices . . . asking them to inform and preside over the poem being written with them and their influence in mind" (Interview, 1992).  This Selected Poems allows us to fully recognize the extent to which Palmer's literary conversation and touchstones involve writers, philosophers and artists (as well as an assortment of in-house schizophrenics such as Judge Schreber and case studies from Géza Róheim), and other denizens.  As we see the presence of these voices over an extended period of time, it heightens the sense of pattern and continuity in Palmer's work, as well as his exceptional technical craftsmanship.
     At Passages, begun when Palmer turned fifty, was described by him as having "a curiously elegiac tone," especially curious since several of the poets addressed were and are still living.  But a number of poems written during this transitional period in Palmer's life were dedicated to the dead, and considered the concept of "passage" in a variety of permutations, for poetic roots and how those influences had converged to influence his writing in the present.  We can examine the question of influence through the other end of the telescope by investigating early collections such as Blake's Newton or The Circular Gates.  The early volumes help us understand how and why Palmer first began to seek out and build his "community of outsiders" (Interview, 1990).  But this is an open community, and The Lion Bridge offers passage.

Palmer, Michael. The Lion Bridge.  New York, NY: New Directions, 1998.  ISBN: 0-811-21383-8   $18.05

© by Lauri Ramey


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