A Collision of “Possible Worlds”
Michael Palmer, The Promises of Glass. New Directions Paperbook, 2000. 103pp. $13.95
Michael Palmer’s latest collection of poems catapults the reader into a world of dilation where linearity and any claims to “truth” or the “real” are void. Instead, the poems are expansive landscapes that explore, for example, a dizzying array of visual and imaginative modes of perception. While many of the poems are written in couplets, tercets, or quatrains, often with simple language and occasional rhymes, they resist any interpretation as belonging to any single school of experimental poetry. The poems overflow with traces of meaning and are frequently layered with fantastic juxtapositions, uncommon connections, and mesmerizing questions: “Is it / the river which has no center, the / whiteness of the city when you say / Paris is white?“
As such, Palmer’s poems are both systematically and self-reflexively disordered; they affirm and deny language’s ability to represent perception. “In an X,” the most obviously experimental poem in The Promises of Glass, methodically disorders perception even as it constructs a perception. The poem begins:
1. I describe this as if it were before me it is not before me.
2. I say it is a picture it is not a picture.
3. I say it is a picture of a thing it is not a picture not a thing it is not a
picture of a thing.
Here Palmer affirms the power of language even as he denies its force as an immutable and absolute authority. “Autobiography 7,” the seventh poem in the section “The Promises of Glass,” begins in much the same vein but with a greater emphasis on the ambiguity inherent in the assumed simplicities of language:
You go out for a walk in the rain.
You make love in the rain.
These are not the same
acts. It might or might not
be the same rain. The in
might be two different ins,
one an under, one a during.
You sell fish of gold for a living,
not goldfish, not living fish.
You make a poor living.
It rains day and night
causing the river to rise
and flood your knick-knack shop.
In this poem as in many others, Palmer’s pronouns are without clear referents. This confusion serves to implode the expectations of narrative while still affirming some narrative conventions such as character. In a 1986 interview Palmer says “that unless it posits itself as a narrative, a poem doesn’t have to attend to narrative as a primary effect. It can have much more of a verticality in time.” We are left with what Palmer calls narrative “scraps” that “shimmer at the edge of the page.”
“Autobiography 7” also exposes the distortions inherent in “autobiography” as the hypnotic near-repetition of words engenders a seemingly happenstance exploration of language in language. In this process, words produce words, which produce ideas and imagination tangentially connected to those words (and worlds) and their various meanings. “Living” appears in three consecutive lines, each time with vitally divergent meaning. These associative “near congruences” make poems like these both playful and packed with the exigencies of a poetic world unrestrained by chronological or linear concerns. For Palmer, our perceptions construct our worlds. More importantly, the imagination has the ability to remake the world in a remarkable fashion.
At other times, Palmer’s poetry is more lyrical and accessible. Even so, “Study,” a fifteen-line poem, is an anomaly in the collection. However, despite its relative accessibility, it is haunted by what is left unwritten; the pleasures of mutability and possibility teem with unanswerable questions:
In a darkened room they
speak as one against the
religion of the word, against
the prophetic, the sublime, the
orphic call. It is a
strange conversation, coming as it
does after hours of making
love, mid-afternoon till now, at
this their second meeting, shutters
closed to block the lamplight
outside. Seated on the bed,
the curve of her back
toward him, she is smoking.
It is unclear whether they
believe what they are saying.
The experience of making love in “mid-afternoon” during “their second meeting” is contrary, according to the speaker, to the denial of the mysteries in “the prophetic, the sublime, the / orphic call.” Moreover, perception is without certainty even when placed within the traditional poetic topic of love: how can a person ascertain another person’s belief in “what they are saying?” At the same time, the final poem of “Five Easy Poems” refutes the very notion of accessibility:
are easy poems
It’s just that some
are even easier
These we call
the easiest poems
This poem denies the importance of interpretation, even as other poems in the volume demand interpretation as they seem to float in an undefined space between certainty and anarchy, what one Palmer poem calls: “The world is all that is displaced.” Another poem defies not interpretation, but those who interpret. He asks interpreters (critics?) to relax and enjoy:
How vexing to the interpreters
who have forgotten how to sleep.
Here, try these, my new glasses.
Note that I have painted the lenses black
In these couplets, Palmer’s most common form, the poet is at his playful and incisive best. As he ridicules, he also puts forth what seems to be his modus operandi as a poet: the imagination is unbounded and remains free from the limited world of visual perception. This imaginative endeavor “is a well with no bottom at all / and in this well we dance.”
This metaphoric (in)sight through blindness pulses with moments beyond the normative laws of physics in “The Subject (Autobiography 12).” Here, impossible juxtapositions become possible ones because they are born of an imagination ungoverned by reason and science: “from your window you could see / a stone suspended in air / and on it an ancient city.” Palmer’s poems seem to follow the teachings of the “philosopher in a doorway” in “Autobiography 2 (hellogoodby)” who “insists / that there are no images.” The philosopher “whispers instead: Possible Worlds.” In this collection, imagination transforms images into possible worlds and possible images into imaginable worlds. Like “Study,” “If Not, Not” concerns the interaction of two unnamed characters:
They tell each other stories,
lies composed as dreams and
always in the colors of
dreams: rust, chrome yellow, coral,
chemical green. Of the dying
figures, loosely assembled, by a
riverbank. The gatehouse. A journey
by train through beautiful countryside,
indescribable countryside. I was there
cut in half, only to
survive. A young dancer, standing
at the third-floor window. Cobalt
blue, argentine, bone white.
The poem’s space is surreal, but only because the reader is uncertain whether or not the “stories” are actually “lies composed as dreams” or, we might say, “actual dreams.” Perhaps the “loosely assembled” figures and images are connected through their mirroring of the speaker. The speaker – “cut in half, only to / survive” – speaks and perceives despite being disembodied and cut into two worlds (presumably, dream and reality). The images, then, could be the disembodied figures of two worlds imagined by a mind at ease in both.
Divided into seven sections – “The White Notebook,” “The Promises of Glass,” “Q,” “Four Kitaj Studies,” “Five Easy Poems,” “In an X,” and “Tower” – The Promises of Glass indulges the pleasures of imagination with language skeptical of the sufficiency of reason, traditional structure, and system. In “The Metaphysician of Prague (Autobiography 11),” Palmer introduces Quod, “short for Quodlibet.” Later, Quod takes the leading role in the seven-page poem “Q.” During the course of the poem, Quod “reflects,” “considers,” dreams, “glances,” “wonders,” and “envisions.” Throughout “Q” and the rest of the collection, Palmer interrogates the very idea of knowing and the forms of knowing our thirst for knowledge requires. Quod, often referred to simply as Q, “wonders whether it might ever be possible to slip completely free of thought” as he “considers the possibility that he is no longer a thinker…but has become instead merely a performer of thought or, even worse, a professor of thought.” Palmer questions the illusionary pursuit of knowledge later in the same piece:
Am I the first
to fall down this
spiral of steps
while counting them
Palmer often uses this type of ludic tone to convey what seems to be a double bind: the pleasures of imagination and the seemingly random sense of discovery it produces are both pitfall and nirvana. Consequently, Quod moves from the absurdly comical:
[Quod] Announces to the gathering
in San Francisco that he has
discovered the perfect number
to the ludicrous:
to the apparent arbitrariness of politics and war:
The bombs, Quod notes
fall where they may
whatever the leaders say
to a paradoxical lament for art:
Quod reflects on the time
when his writings were banned
and his readers many
Palmer’s new collection will likely irritate readers who favor accessibility because poems like Q defy linearity and definition. “Q” (as well as many other poems in the collection) is not so much a poem as a gathering of dimensions and possibilities into a revolving sphere of pleasurable fragments.
The Promises of Glass is at its daring best when it fulfills the promises of its title. Like a house of mirrors, the volume’s poems distort, reflect, alter, and warp the known world (or the seemingly known world) through a masterful manipulation of language and a sustained sense of meditation. As glass presents and re-presents figures and images on its surface, Palmer’s poems expose both the superficial character of language and language’s ability to penetrate its own fluid exterior into a vivid dimension beyond reason and science. The frenetic assertions of “Autobiography 3” demolish the limits of perception and experience:
A child of seven I prayed for breath.
Each day I passed through the mirrored X
into droplets of rain congealed around dust.
I never regretted this situation.
Though patient as an alchemist I failed to learn English.
Twenty years later I burned all my furniture.
Likewise the beams of my house
to fuel the furnace.
Unflinching in its ambition, Palmer’s latest collection is a tour-de-force of collisions: collisions of imagined possibilities, dreamscapes, and great experimental planets of language. The Promises of Glass tantalizes and frustrates, but always compels us to engage a linguistic surface that is more than surface.
Michael Dowdy is pursing a Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received his M.A. from North Carolina State University, where he wrote about personal responsibiity and the self/other relationship in the texts of Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Carolyn Forche, and Adrienne Rich.