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Philip Nikolayev reviews Michael Palmer and Brian Henry

Of Glass and Zero Gravity

Michael Palmer, The Promises of Glass. New York: New Directions, 2000. 104 pp. $21.95 hardcover; $13.95 paper.

Brian Henry, Astronaut. Arc Publications (UK), 2000. 72 pp. £7.95. To be reprinted in 2001 by Carnegie Mellon University Press.

This piece is 2,300 words or about five printed pages long.



ALTHOUGH lyric poetry has many faces and definitions, its most familiar, modern forms remain influenced by a Romantic conception of the self as a varied and coherent ‘world’ in its own right and the proper subject matter of poetry. The lyric ‘I’ is informed by its experience of moods, feelings and inspirations, each lyric poem as if opening a small window into the poet’s unique, autonomous self. While the lyric model, with its attendant virtues of sincerity and authenticity, continues to dominate much of today’s so-called poetic ‘mainstream,’ another sensibility, originating in a set of modernist and postmodern traditions, has sought to explode the authoritative coherence of the self and to develop alternative methods of seeing and expression.
      Michael Palmer and Brian Henry, poets who are quite dissimilar and who belong to two different generations, both represent this latter tendency. They construct poetics that ‘dissolve’ the authorial self, deliberately subverting the conventional genres of autobiography, self-portraiture and lyric confession.
      The first action expressed in Michael Palmer’s The Promises of Glass is ‘painting over’ something that was there before — a transformative adaptation of earlier thought, vision, culture. Palmer is the philosopher’s poet: he paints with concepts. Much of his implied dialogue is with his main philosopher, Wittgenstein. As for Wittgenstein ‘philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition,’ so Palmer writes poems as a form of philosophic investigation. The poetry is in a sense self-referential because it explores the transcendental logics of the poetic process.
      ‘The world is everything that is the case,’ says Wittgenstein at the beginning of his Tractatus; and at the end: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ ‘The world is all that is displaced,’ replies Palmer. His world is all that is out of place, out of context, estranged, malapropos, absurd: to speak of it is to speak the impossible. It is a fundamental given in Palmer’s poetic that language cannot adequately capture experience or express mental phenomena. Our inner lives are ineffable, but language can convey certain moments or aspects of experience and can at times produce hallucinations of a reality. Such is the dialectic of Palmer’s ‘language game’: we see fragments of a world through language, as if through a glass whose shifty transparency is a complicated affair.
      The poems brim with meaning, yet undermine attempts at authoritative interpretation: the more closely you scrutinize them, the more you become aware of your own broken reflection in the verbal ‘glass.’ In trying to reach beyond language, the mind keeps running into glass walls, invisible at first glance. Language itself functions here as a complex system of lenses, prisms and specula. Logic, grammar, tropes are optical glass.
      Palmer is fascinated by various scientific and philosophical theories of color and is obsessed with optics throughout the book. His optical experiments result in a qualitative mutation of ordinary language and produce a strange, haunting vision. We find an inner world populated by multiple selves, all reflected and refracted in each other: ‘the poet,’ ‘the philosopher,’ the mysterious Quod (also named ‘the Metaphysician of Prague’), the ‘poet who does not know English’... On close reflection the glass occasionally turns to canvas, which again turns out to be a reflection in glass. The poem is no longer a ‘verbal icon,’ as the New Critics would have it, but a kaleidoscope.
      The book’s opening text, ‘The White Notebook’ — a sort of prologue which obviously evokes Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Notebooks — moves as a progression of brush strokes:

But we have painted over the chalky folds,
the snow- and smoke-folds, so carefully,
so deftly that many (Did you bet

on the margins, the clouds?) that many
will have gone, unnoticed,
under. Water under water,

‘earth that moves beneath earth.’
We have added
silver to the river, dots of silver,

red, figures-which-are-not.

The initial choices of shape and color here — ‘chalky folds,’ ‘snow and smoke,’ ‘water under water,’ ‘dots of silver’ — emphasize the whiteness, softness, fluidity, mutability, malleability and varying transparency of the chosen material. White is the omnibus color, the palette synthesized: it contains a world.
      Other hues occur within the poem’s overall color scheme paradoxically as its components. First of all, there are various shades and variations in the poem’s whiteness. Secondly, seen from a particular angle, the whiteness reveals the entire spectrum of visible colors, which Palmer represents with a synecdoche: he mentions only red and its opposite blue. Synecdoche acts as a loupe: it ‘magnifies’ the part that stands for the whole. (‘Parts are greater than the whole,’ says Palmer in another poem, ‘Autobiography’).
      The impression here is not unlike examining a detail of a painting under a magnifying glass. The disturbing ‘red’ that interrupts ‘dots of silver’ momentarily shifts the focus toward the ‘hot’ end of the spectrum and its epiphenomenal ghosts, ‘figures-which-are-not.’ Then the view rotates to the ‘cold’ end of the spectrum:

And what of the blue rider, the Arab
horseman, the cavalier composed

of two shades of blue, one
from Vermeer’s Delft, the other
from that metallic element called

cobalt, Kobolt, goblin?

What optics can discover a Germanic goblin in an Arab rider? The optics of language. The two images are linked by a metonymical bridge that leads from the color blue to the Arab rider, to the two shades of blue that compose him, to a metal in one of the pigments (cobalt blue, which contains cobalt and aluminum oxides), to a mythical creature associated with that metal. The goblin’s archaic spelling, ‘Kobolt,’ emphatically italicized, is a reminder that the German word ‘Kobalt’ (cobalt) is linked with Kobold, the mischievous demon of the mines who replaces silver deposits in the rocks with cobalt. Pure cobalt, the chemical element Co, is a lustrous, steel-gray, ductile metallic chemical element — in perfect harmony with the dominant color choices of ‘The White Notebook.’ It combines well with the whitenesses of other metals occurring above and below in this mine of a poem (silver, titanium, zinc). Taking the metonymical nexus one step further, the metal alchemically connects Palmer’s ‘White Notebook’ with Wittgenstein’s ‘Blue.’
      The poem continues with a catalogue of whitenesses, as if in pursuit of Kazimir Malevich’s dream of  painting ‘with white over white’ — and with a keen awareness of the angle of vision (note ‘the arches / of the bridges now narrowed to slits’). This is at once a love poem and a reflection on the nature of the artist’s craft, whose method is paradox: ‘Palette knife beside a photograph.’ In a synaesthesia of thought and color, some of Palmer’s whitnesses are emptinesses, absences, transparences and negations of various kinds — ‘expired space,’ ‘the river which has no center’ (flux), ‘wordlessness,’ and — the opposite of  St. Augustine’s metaphor for God as a circle whose center is everywhere — ‘a scene which has no center / or whose center is empty, / elsewhere.’
      Absence is transparent, like glass. Clear glass seems absent. Language can be transparent to the point of seeming absent — until you try to reach beyond it, to grasp the referent. ‘Whiteness of the city when you say / Paris is white.’ The optical elation of this passage is in the fusion two orthogonal points of view — the lyrical and the logical. The lines echo, in the same breath, Hart Crane’s visionary ‘white cities’ and the exemplary simple sentence in logician Alfred Tarski’s classic ‘correspondence theory of truth’ —  ‘Snow is white’ — which is said to be true if and only if snow is really white. Is the poet’s Paris white with the same kind of whiteness?
      The poem builds toward a negative telos: the eventual proclamation of ‘the darkness of white’ —  whiteness seen as the totality of its ambiguities and paradoxes, an aporia.

Brian Henry, a younger poet, shares with Palmer a fascination with negativity, absence and aporia. Several of the poem titles in his first collection,Astronaut, readily confirm this: ‘Not,’ ‘It’s Not the Texture,’ ‘Abandoned Ship,’ ‘Iconostasis for Absence.’ His world, too, is decentered and incongruous, yet it is not inherently alienating:

You cannot call the land dead, the hills ghosts,
the rope a frayed soul. Absence need not translate
into daemon Grief. It has no referent.

(‘Iconostasis for Absence’)

Henry positions himself at an altitude where the literal gravity of things and the conventions of a lyricized self cannot interfere with perceptual and intellectual freedom. He seems to owe a debt to Rimbaud, who declared that ‘I is an other’ and advocated a systematic ‘disordering of the senses’ in poetry — but his style is self-ironic and self-effacing rather than ‘visionary.’ The self is comically unpredictable even to itself: ‘When I get the urge to shout deluge!/ I yell jugs! instead’ — a condition that obviously leaves little room from prophetic pronouncements: ‘When I said clear skies is found slashed tyres’ (‘Forecasting at Stonewall Café’). Henry’s ‘disordering of the senses’ is emphatically unheroic and anticathartic; it can cause a mundane hangover (as in the poem ‘Jasmine Tea’).
      Like Palmer’s, Henry’s authorial self is also serialized: the book’s three sections are titled ‘Doppelganger,’ ‘Bystander,’ and ‘Diviner,’ suggesting a split and elusive identity. What attempts at self-definition are found here are open-ended and negative, ‘apophatic’ meditations:

Not a fire wrapped in a barrel
Not a snap of wood at the horizon line
.............................................
Not a step through gimcrack or quoin
.............................................
Not the laying of stone on blood-mortared stone
Not a hand hewn for the task
Not a voice resting in the crease
.............................................
Not a thing held as the candle at that cradle
Not a match not a match not a match

(‘Self-Portrait at Twenty-Five’)

This negativity implies a refusal to be tied to any particular imaginal role or station through a conventional metaphorization of the ‘I.’
      Henry is a keen observer who writes from a constantly changing perspective, often employing the techniques of montage and catalogue and typically eschewing a fixed point of view — a method that is most appropriate to the contemplation of world entropy: ‘Trying to find the centre of it all, / the everything heaped up for public delight, / the Post-It that fell behind your desk // with the recipe for happiness...’ (‘Discretionary Income’). A totalitarian ‘everything’ is one of the most ironic ideas in the book. In one hilarious poem, ‘Garage Sale,’ the world itself turns into an enormous garage sale attended by a host of clownish characters:

They all came by today.
Passersby, browsers, neck-craners.
Big Wheel riders, circus goers. Small time hustlers,
phone tappers, cheque bouncers, rear enders.
Tattle talers, crank callers, nose pickers.
Water bearers, moped wreckers, trash talkers, diaper changers.
Back stabbers, manure shovellers, gem inspectors,
toy breakers. Left-turn-on-red takers.
Baby killers, fortune tellers, right wingers,
bumper stickerers. Neck wringers, forgotten drifters

and so on, who amount to ‘so much paint flaking from these walls.’
Henry appears to waive all authority over the flow of poetic consciousness and the semiotics of perception. This is not really a Barthesian-Foucouldian ‘death of the author,’ but the speaker’s peculiar detachment from the discourse, which is at its most curious when the discourse turns self-referentially to moments of the creative process:

Never mind the fantasy about the tweezers and the tongue,
the one about the bicycle pump and the twisted rim.
Never mind the angle of penetration, or the number
of blessed repetitions in the series of withdrawals and givings-in.

Never mind the dream about the bean-bag chair and the virgin,
the one about the tree and the bull terrier off the chain.
Never mind the song the words will not attach to,
the visions that arrive with the noises next door...

(‘Skin’)

It is difficult to underestimate the ironic power of these iterative self-admonitions to ‘never mind’ a bouquet of perceptions and fantasies in the context of their very recording. The contrastive, oxymoronic pairing of such remote ideas as ‘the tweezers and the tongue,’ ‘the bean-bag chair and the virgin’ imparts their perception with a hallucinatory weightlessness. There is little metaphor and ambiguity in this passage: thought moves freely from one literal, mysterious object to the next, in an effort to free itself of them. The negativity and irony which Henry’s poems cultivate are his ticket to freedom.
      Henry’s poems reflect his preoccupation with the idea of freedom,which is understood as a willed escape from a perceptual status quo, and sometimes more specifically — as in ‘The Investigator Speaks of the Investigation’ — as the quixotic imperative ‘to find the truth, to part it / from the lies.’ Whatever method of liberation a poem may focus on, Henry always proceeds with great wit and whim — a quality that makes Astronaut an extremely happy book (whose very title suggests zero gravity).
      As for Palmer, for Henry the poetic ‘I’ is hardly unified or coherent. Each poet asserts a vitality without presenting a vita. However, each poet’s work exhibits its own integrity and authority, its own insight into the metaphysics the human condition, its own paradoxical meta-self. For Palmer, things are trapped in language, a self-contained entity, just as they are trapped in the world. They are like insects in amber. Glass — Palmer’s central trope — is rigorous and heavy; seen through its optics free will may appear problematic. Henry’s ‘astronaut,’ on the other hand, perceives himself as floating freely through a galaxy of words and things.


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