The letters of the alphabet and letters to the dead

A review of 'Two'



by Paul Vangelisti

Talisman House 2010, 91 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9781584980773

 I: Two slim volumes

Paul Vangelisti’s newest collection, Two, despite being only ninety some pages long, is comprised of two distinct, chapbook length sequences. The cover design reflects this by superimposing the black numeral “2” over a yellow “Two” on a bright red background. But the mood of the contents is much more subdued. Maybe characterizeable as a muted palette blend of the cover colors—resulting in a quiet, brooding Burgundy with glints of winter sun?

The two sections of Two are very different, but what they do have in common is a quizzical maturity on the cusp of aging. A sense that memory’s a meager compensation for what’s lost. And that the better part of what’s to be gained in life, has probably already been gained. This isn’t “late life” work. Vangelisti has only just turned sixty-five and the material in Two goes back some years. The tone seems more reminiscent of that George Simenon memoir, When I was Old, which ends around the age of sixty with Simenon’s nagging sense of mistrust for what may come. In contrast with the same author’s late life Intimate Memoirs. That Simenon tome, despite some true intervening miseries, ends with the now really old storyteller, intimately and serenely consoled and warmed by his young Italian housekeeper-mistress.

II: A is an Angel

Letters and Letters

 Alabaster, the first half of Two consists of twenty-six musings loosely inspired by a sequence of alphabetically sequenced words — from Alabaster … through Pall, Quotidian, Reliquary, Sacristy, Tabernacle, Unction, Voluntary, Xystus, Yes, Zuchettto.

 The second portion of Two, is cryptically entitled A Capable Hand, Or Maps for a Lost Dog. This section is comprised of XXXIV Roman numeral designated posthumous letters to Adriano Spatola, an Italian poet and close friend of Vangelisti who died suddenly in 1988. From a poetic standpoint their friendship was deepened by translation.  Vangelisti and Spatola each translated each other, and Spatola introduced Vangelisti to other contemporary avant-garde Italian poets, who he translated and published over the years.

In Two, Spatola seems both a friend still mourned and a friendship still cultivated. In 1996, Vangelisti began a large project — the translation of Spatola’s collected poems. Although Vangelisti had translated and published a number of the Spatola pieces previously, he set out to begin afresh, rereading and retranslating rather than simply revising. The project was assisted by a translation grant from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the result, Adriano Spatola The Position of Things: Collected Poems 1961–1992, published by Green Integer in 2008, won the prestigious American Academy of Poets Raiziss / de Palchi prize in 2010.

Translation as Conversation

The letters to Spatola in Two represent a ten-year plus, ongoing conversation with the friend Vangelisti was simultaneously translating. But perhaps, “letter” isn’t the best descriptive. Each piece begins and ends with a stanza of poetry. As in V:

How heavily the foot is accented,
don’t let the message stop you
this far into the service,
morning has been sentenced to love

 This is followed by a prose reminiscence of attending a Christmas Mass at St. Peter & Paul’s in San Francisco offered by an Italian-accented priest:

“Christ,” said the Italian priest at the Chinese Mass on Christmas morning, “died on the cross because he ‘lafed’ …”  The entire Mass was in Chinese, except for a few minutes of the sermon in heavily accented English. I was there with my father. It had been many years since I set foot in church. I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes the more Chinese I heard. Only the English stopped me. God is ‘laf’, said the priest repeating the Christmas message. When the service began, I stood in the pew glaring straight ahead, a loaf of bread we had just bought under my arm. My father kept repeating something like ‘amon’ along with the Chinese until I asked to leave. Amon, Egyptian god of life and reproduction, revealed as a man with a ram’s head.” Christ’s”, concluded the priest, “is the kingdom of heaven ‘an dearth’.

All those years at the kitchen table,
only mothers and fathers asked to leave,
there with a loaf of bread under my arm
until just now your laughter catches me.

At a recent reading from Two, Vangelisti explained that in this portion he wanted to present both a prose and poetry version of the same piece. What I’m also struck by, especially in the multilingual aspects of the piece quoted above, is the parallel between the process of translating poetry: The migration from the original poem to a prose “trot”, a sort of conversation with the poet you’re translating. Then, after the necessary internalization, a rebirth as a poem in a new language.

A recurring alphabet and recurring letters

Those familiar with Vangelisti’s previous work, especially readers of his selected poems, Embarrassment of Survival will quickly recall both the themes of an alphabet sequence (Aleph Again 1999) and of letters (Villa 1991). Aleph Again, in fact, is dedicated to Spatola and begins:

A is an angel who wants absolutely nothing. She looks elegant in torn trousers and almost never answers the phone. She seldom speaks, especially when spoken to. Right now A’s on Adriano’s lap making him laugh.

III: Stevens and Williams

Two lines of descent?

This is obviously an oversimplification, but for explication it might be helpful to think of two lines of descent from two early century modernists for two approaches to contemporary American poetry. One, coming from Wallace Stevens, tending towards the abstract, the cerebral, conceptual. A lyrics of ideation. The practitioners of language oriented poetry would fall into this camp.

The other lineage, descending from William Carlos Williams, tends toward more concrete, narrative, discursive images. A poetics in which all other aspects are subordinate to communication. A broader, more transparently outgoing, reader-centric group. Vangelisti, as a poet and also as an editor has always seemed to manage to have a foot in both camps and still walk, even dance, without stumbling.

Alabaster, the alphabet sequence that constitutes the first half of Two, tilts toward the aesthetics of ideation as opposed to imagery. “Tilts” rather than embraces that aesthetic, because while Vangelisti may flirt with a “language” aesthetic, his willingness to wholeheartedly embrace it seems always undercut by his sense of humor. While humor may be subtle, it’s never hermetic. It mocks self absorption and can only live by communicating.

Alabaster opens with an epigraph by Ray Di Palma that seems a good summation of the attitude Vangelisti wants to explore with this sequence: “Hey, Presto, where’s the elephant? / And what have you done with the other half of the girl?”

A matter of form.

In an after-note to the alphabet sequence Vangelisti talks about “moving outside the approved forms toward a different vision of language, an alphabetic burlesque of constraint” where “the text resists with words speaking in time and place, at once language’s conscience and its promised land.” This last is, for me, a maybe overly cerebral pronouncement. But what follows quickly redeems it: “To paraphrase Orson Welles, this must be Los Angeles; my horoscope at breakfast told me to choose words carefully when speaking to myself.”

It took several poems to spot what Vangelisti meant by “moving outside … approved forms” into “an alphabetic burlesque of constraint.” The alphabet is present not only in the sequenced titles, but in two other ways. Each poem consists of twenty-six lines. And each line begins with a sequenced letter. As in the “ABCDE” opening sentence of the poem Alabaster.

Almost anything between joy and survival, / both anxiously here to needle a tragic bearing, / comfortable besides with things, speechless things face up or / down, commonly lavender or sometimes blue with that/ everyday delirium born from the briefest pleasure …

And its “VWXYZ” ending with: "Various unfulfilled desires exposed in a remodeling / without vain hope beyond profit, a lump, a spasm in the night, / xeric, that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt, / zealous you find that inch of satisfaction in contriving."

Into or Out of a Form?

Inveterate sonneteers sometimes remark that an unanticipated conclusion of a poem, even the sonnet’s turn, often occurs to them as an adjunct to the rhyme scheme—that in trying to find a rhyme something new and elemental can appear out of nowhere. In trying to find metaphors for the difficulty of translating formal poetry into formal poetry, I once threw out the concept that poetry was: “language that talks back to you with something that can’t be said any other way.” And that the craft of formalism required writing “out of” rather than “into” a form.

Although both camps would resist the comparison, I’ve often thought of the new formalists as simplistic second cousins of the language poets. At their extremes, both schools share a self conscious addiction to theory that can defeat practice by stifling the germ of poetry. The danger for the retro neo-formalist is that of writing into rather than out of a form. Of settling for obvious rhymes and metronomic meter, because the form rather than the poem becomes the goal. The danger for the language poet, I think, is a coy opacity, an aristocratic refusal to name anything by its common name. This also can remove huge energy sources.

So has Vangelisti — writing language oriented poetry with his new (as opposed to received) form — managed to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of both schools?

Is Vangelisti writing into or out of his new form? I would say, mostly out of. How else could an obscure adjective like xeric (deficient in moisture) marvelously appear? And is xeric’s languagesque characterization as “that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt” too opaque? I think it’s not only the smile of burlesque that saves it, but the weight of common, charged language in the, albeit, oblique image. 

If there’s any criticism I might have of the way Vangelisti navigates the triple-alphabet concept, it’s that to fully enjoy some of the poems it helps to be conscious of the form. But in others, such as Hermitage, the lines work without any consciousness of form:

A bit like I came, I saw, I got swankered in this place / best Asia Minor of the intellect money and fear / can buy. Kiss me once and kiss me twice and the third O the third / doesn’t count for much besides nostalgia for bread buttered / evenly down both sides

Or Sacristy:

About beauty they often had so little to tell us / beyond a laconic smile that took your breath away, / covering belatedly the occasion of whim left / desperately coveting even the glimpse of a faux heaven

You might, by the way, wonder how Vangelisti handled twenty-six xs. There aren’t, after all, that many x words. As he observed in his 1999 Alephs Again:

X is too imposing for words. There’s only one under X in my thesaurus, X-shaped, and that’s too chiasmal.

Chiasm another word I had to look up, an x-shaped intersection or crossing. Merriam Webster online offers that it rhymes with orgasm, phantasm, sarcasm. See how easy it is to get caught up in this stuff? But as far as X-words in the twenty-six-poem sequence, Vangelisti conveniently uses his unique form’s counterpart of off-rhyme: words like expectations, exfoliation, exaltation. Although in other poems. he does manage:

x-rayed with their derbies, fedoras, even children’s messy heads


X looks delirious with longing for your dreamy boulevards.

Not to mention a sort of “XYZ — burlesque” tour de force in the ending of Yes:

Exactly X willing the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-a ling-a / yes with your work and someone who loves you genuinely much / zip zap, pretty blue skylight outpacing the elemental.


Smack in the midst of all this wordplay, halfway through the alphabet, unexplained and plaintive, is Misericord. A title word which Vangelisti notes at the bottom of the poem has two meanings:

“1. A bracket attached to the underside of a hinged seat in a church stall, against which a standing person may lean. 2. A narrow dagger used in medieval times to deliver the death stroke to a seriously wounded knight.”

Misericord breaks the sequence with 26 lines of un-patterned verse and accessible, evocative images. Going back to the Stevens / Carlos Williams metaphor: A good portion of the alphabet sequence challenges the reader’s attention, not unusual for a descendant in the Stevens thread. Misericord on the other hand is an exception that whispers in what might be the reader’s own voice. Misericord begins:

All along, beautiful mountains may crumble but our love
isn’t at all where it ought to be holding up the whole
damn baggage — stars below in the street, the echoing house,
the shimmering O my desert, a small door, a gentle rain
twice blest, heartbreak or lemons in the fog, those graceless
repetitions plus or minus thirty-two. Where is the harm,
where the tenderness in losing oneself for so many years
in lost causes, in winning forgeries for endowing
a life of rime? My littlest sister, when just a wrinkle …

And ends:

What do you see besides a guy who’s been winning and losing
the territory for too many years, who hasn’t forgotten
even if it took his appetite more than fifty years to
remember to? Have any of us, even in this
second-hand city, any idea of how you break my heart.

IV: Spatola again

Ghosts and Epigraphs

The second section of Two also opens with an epigraph, three actually, and in contrast to the Di Palma epigraph, they’re almost funereal:
The first from Dante’s New Life: “I would give expression to my grief and send it to this friend of mine, so that it would seem I had written it for him.”
Then, a quote from a Spatola’s Stalin Poem: “silence is no better than lying.”
And a Jack Spicer line: “We ghosts, lovers, and casual strangers to the poem”.
So there’s not much surprise when the first prose conversation with Spatola opens:

Look Andriano, it’s what I said to them: the dead prefer restaurants when they’re closed. A Sunday morning after a rain, restaurants like the one we were sitting in, ran along the avenue like banks or Presbyterian churches with their parking lots empty and that postcard blue sky. They like bread almost exclusively, in fact I’ve never heard of them eating anything else. This time it looked like both of them might smile. What do you think, I said, that the dead will swallow anything? Just because they listen and seem to agree with whatever we say doesn’t mean they’re gullible. It’s just good manners

For me, this conjured echoes of Rilke’s Orpheus Sonnet #6:1: “At night, when you go to bed, never leave bread, never leave milk on the table. It draws the dead.”* The opening epigraphs were appropriate: This is a big, traditional theme and, as Joseph Brodsky once observed, we write as much, if not more, to impress our poetic forebears as posterity. Isn’t poetry of a certain ambition, always an implicit conversation with the dead?

Still, the unpretentious conversational tone of Misericord carries forward in the second portion of Two. And why not? These are, after all, quiet conversation with a dead friend and translatee. Sometimes we’re not sure who’s translating whom. From II:

What was it Pasolini called death, “the alibi of Catholic slaves?” Writing must make you uncomfortable. So Catholic of me. And what about translation? Think of all the days and years: to fly 7000 miles and ride several trains, to arrive at a river in a valley at the foot of mountains, to sit in a millhouse before a glass of wine and a poem and start translating

Who do we talk to when we talk to dead people?

Whether or not you believe in an afterlife or ghosts or lingering protoplasm, after you reach a certain age you find parents and close friends you’ve lost never seem to really depart your dreams. I guess there’s a difference between conjuring the dead while awake or in dreams, but I’m not sure what it might be. And, really, if it happens — either dreaming or daydreaming — isn’t conversation with a dead person the only truly guileless conversation you can have? We, don’t so much lie, but — can really never manage the unembellished truth with our living friends, lovers, parents, kids. And we do lie to ourselves all the time.

There’s a certain generosity between the dead and the living that seems courted by the funeral banquet. I remember my mother’s banquet outside Queen of Heaven cemetery in Chicago; a sad-eyed, exquisitely gentle Mexican waiter urging a comfort bowl of mashed potatoes on me while fraternally squeezing my shoulder. Did I sense my mother was passing the bowl when I realized all our petty, generational quarrels had not only evaporated like incense, but were henceforth impossible?

It’s only in discussions with the dead that complete openness is possible. The visiting ghost understands us beyond any possible designs on us, an alter ego that only asks to be acknowledged. And if, to boot, that ghost is a poet who brings poems to be translated, then he, indeed may seem to be something akin to Orpheus in Rilke’s Sonnet 7:1:

one of the enduring messengers. A friend,
who deep within the portals of the dead, still
offers the glorious fruit and the brimming bowl.*

Or as Vangelisti’s II continues:

It was as if this game of metaphrase and two-mindedness, played at your kitchen table or mine, continents and years apart, came before or sometimes replaced how are you, what have you been doing, how does it feel to be living alone? Sure Pasolini postured and exaggerated, but don’t we all when we’re alive? Did I mention, by the way, that I had been hired to teach creative writing at Occidental College? Where your “Seduction Seducteur,” if you recall, was done as a dance. It’s a private college, founded some 120 years ago, Presbyterian in intent, meant to spawn upright, successful young men and women. Robinson Jeffers attended in 1904, brought here by his father … The old man picked the college for moral reputation … Anyway, Jeffers attended though I don’t think graduated before running off with a friend’s wife. So we translated from a day or so after we first met, April 2, 1975 to that last stifling afternoon in Sant’llario, drinking Pernod and repairing someone else’s translation, Thursday, July 21, 1988. Time being at the moment parenthetical, I write in English without translation. Odd how in death a word seems more than what was available in life. Animal in the dusk, is it you or me with a house and a job and the right wine glasses finally?

By the way, did I mention the need
for parentheses, like the possibility
of running off with a friend’s wife,
untainted by time after time of
replacing how are you with what
are you going to do with that bottle?

And what was Adriano saying all this time?

Ghosts, after all, visit us from a place we’re in no hurry to get to, and their end of the conversation isn’t always all that sunny. Their very presence is a memento mori. Maybe to get a feel for the poet Vangelisti was talking to, and for some of the messages he was delivering, it might be well to give Adriano Spatola the last word.

Vangelisti chose a recurring phrase from Spatola’s, circa 1970, poem The Next Sickness (La prossima malata) as the title of his collected translations. The second and third stanzas of that six stanza poem seem to serve as well as anything as an example of Spatola as poet and Vangelistis as translator, in duet.

2. consider first of all the position of things
the common cold the saw mill screeching in your ears
the syllabic clamor of water from the faucet
presence and absence shortness of breath digestion
a wet body’s odor is synonymous with perversion
or excessive prudence or a spark in the retina
something beats on the temples we must open the head

3. consider first of all the position of things
you’ve become cordial you’re not complaining you smile
behind the house the grass begins to grow
with its sweet lice green like the green of the grass
this itching that you scratch is called spring
jeweler and hydrochloric acid silver and clay
be careful of drafts to the heart to your thoughts


* Rilke: my own translations

On 'Both Sides and the Center'

A review of the festival, part one

Bhanu Kapil’s performance “Schizophrene [Remix].” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Bhanu Kapil’s performance “Schizophrene [Remix].” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Both Sides and the Center

Both Sides and The Center

at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House

West Hollywood, CA, August 19-21, 2011

If the centre has the place then there is distribution.
That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally
returning there comes to be both sides and the centre.
That can be seen from the description.

— Gertrude Stein, “Rooms,” Tender Buttons, 1914

Both Sides and the Center, a three-day experimental literary festival, took place recently in Los Angeles. Superbly curated by Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody, and in association with Les Figues Press, the first two days were hosted at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, with the third day at another Schindler-designed home, the Fitzpatrick-Leland house. 

Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody welcome everyone at the Friday night reading. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Writers were invited to engage with the structure and spirit of the 1922 Schindler house, renowned for its innovative, modern design and vision. Schindler constructed the house as a live-work space to be shared by two couples (originally, the Schindlers and the Chaces) with a joint kitchen and common area, and individual studios. Integral to Schindler’s floor plan is an inventive merging of interior and exterior space that consequently revisions divisions of private and public space. Sleep quarters are rooftop, tree-shaded bed baskets. Outdoor courtyards with fireplaces are designated living rooms. Glass panels meet concrete floors and walls to invite outside light and looks in.

Cain and Carmody encouraged featured writers to create works inspired by Schindler’s architecture whose boundaries play at inversion to emphasize permeability over separation. The dynamic responses the curators elicited reflected on both the physical site and the multiple themes generating from such considerations, for the Schindler house is not only home but also container for intimacy, familiarity, strangeness, and exposures of all sorts.

The first night’s opening reception was a literary reading with writers Michael du Plessis, Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona, Bhanu Kapil, Amarnath Ravva, Sophie Robinson, Anna Joy Springer, and Vanessa Place. All read work thematically connected to the event and to their Saturday pieces. 

Writers and guests returned to the Schindler house on Saturday for an evening of installations and performances. With the exception of Robinson’s photographs and needlepoints, which hung or lay around the house, each writer occupied a particular — entryway, studio, nursery, restroom — that produced a series of encounters for the viewer entering the space.

Two of Robinson’s black and white photographs hung opposite the front entrance. Each an image of a lunette arched above a doorway. Using text selected from her poems, the words “do not leave” mark one arch, with “go away for a long time” on the other. Along with Robinson’s other strategically placed pieces, these photos remind one of the often contradictory imperatives always acting on a body entering a place. 

Also positioned within the circumscribed area of the entryway, John Beer’s “Peripatetics” performed a textual wandering of interval readings and recordings. People were invited to listen and then participate by written response to a choice of Beer’s prompts. Drawing from the works of Beckett and Joyce, Beer’s piece effectively evoked the house’s modernist history.

John Beer reading in the entryway with Sophie Robinson’s work on the wall beside him. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Recalling modernism and then some, Michael du Plessis’s “The Twitch of the Tablescape (A Comedy of Manners)” faced into the corner Chace studio. While du Plessis’s title suggests satire, his performance was also homage. Du Plessis sat, alternatively bound, blindfolded and ballgagged, or affably reading a viewer-selected “Endnote” from his equally (and rightfully so) erudite and risqué document of sources. His table of curiosities — national monument pillboxes, skull paperweight, snow globe, The Golden Bough — were arranged in asymmetrical concert with his endnotes, which ranged from Foucault on Roussel to The Story of O. His literary and corporeal inquiry provocatively reopened questions of modernist aesthetics through textual entanglements of Southern California architecture, the semantics of sado-masochism, Barnes, Brinig, and Klossowki. 

Michael du Plessis at his tablescape. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Amarnath Ravva’s video installation “This Movement Is Our Own” explored the more personal history of the Schindler house toward a meditation on nature and home. Retelling the story of Schindler’s visit to Yosemite, which became the retrospective inspiration for his visionary architectural plan, Ravva looped lovely time-lapse photography stills of Anza Borrego’s night sky with an accompanying, looped reading. Displayed in a boxed screen on the floor, the sublime is sublimated into the body looking down on it, asking one to reconsider, as Schindler did, previous conceptions of body and place boundaries.

Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s “la casa por la vantana/past the open window,” framed as a private scene of artistic communion, invited passersby in to view the choreographed performance. The room arrangement included an old record player, pile of 78s, and knitted blankets open on the floor, with Hofer and Moscona kneeling opposite and at a small distance, working together, sewing and writing toward one another, in a book folding into itself. 

Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s “la casa por la ventana/past the open window.” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Anna Joy Springer shifted connotations of private and public space with her “Inside Voice Oracle” performance. An announcement posted on the rear restroom door gave directions for the “personalized oracular narrative for an audience of one” to take place inside. One entered the restroom, rang the bell attached to the plunger earphone hung from the ceiling, and waited. Located outside on the roof above the restroom, Springer assigned and sang to the listener a bird of fortune and its attendant forecast. Hers was an intimate encounter that showed the different shapes that proximate relations can take and the sounds alternative epistemologies can make. 

Vanessa Place and Kim Rosenfield’s “SCUM 1976 (2011)” restaged Carole Roussopoulos’s “S.C.U.M.” by way of Lacan’s maxim la femme n’exist pas, and in accord with Place’s larger Boycott project, which changes all pronouns in selected canonical feminist texts from she to he. The video installation, appropriately in the Pauline Schindler studio, included a monitor of Place and Rosenfield just out of the frame, across a table from one another, Rosenfield typing and smoking as Place reads from “SCUM.” With Andy Warhol supplanting Valerie Solanas on the book’s cover, this “SCUM” is Place’s with the pronouns leveled into sameness. At the same time the video updates Roussopoulos’s piece with the use of a laptop for a typewriter and Place’s appropriated and altered text, this video is set on a desk with two empty chairs, microphone, typewriter, and ashtray to recall the video’s original context. The staged absences made present through approximation suggest who is always substitutable when the switch happens, and the failure, or the great success, of the copy. 

Vanessa Place and Kim Rosenfield’s “SCUM 1976 (2011).” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Bhanu Kapil’s “Schizophrene [Remix]” took place after the sun went down, allowing the Schindler studio to be backlit for her performance. The audience remained outside the studio to look in through the window. Kapil, in a symbolic rendering of a butcher scene, was the meat on the block. Wholly encased in red cloth, she moved in a contained rhythmic dance to a dramatically read excerpt from her forthcoming Schizophrene, bringing nation and its violences to bear on the question of home. For an hour, the recorded text played over and again as Kapil, captivating and captive, stretched limbs and torso, embodying questions of duration and endurance, compelling the viewer to ask: when does an onlooker turn and walk away from one who can’t?

The third day was hosted at the Fitzpatrick-Leland house. In an event described as the “performance of a conversation,” a diverse group of writers, visual artists, and critics joined together to reflect upon and further explore the previous two days of happenings. Cain and Carmody smartly coordinated the gathering, assigning each participant the task to bring and exchange an assigned question, comment, or object as entry points into the conversation. With the aid of a radio frequency interpretation system, what ensued was a lively and productively stimulating bilingual discussion with all voices offering readings, impressions, and reflections. 

Both Sides and the Center is the latest in a series of inventive, larger-scale curated events from Les Figues Press, such as last summer’s Not Content, which continue to bring together and cultivate an ever-growing artistic community in Los Angeles and beyond.

Blueprints, or sight-maps

A review of 'Meddle English'

Meddle English: New and Selected Texts includes a broad range of texts that vary in texture and rhetorical means. Texts range from an engaging essay on the history and future of English (and language in general) to an essay on language as personally experienced by the author; from deft poetic trans-creations of Chaucer’s Middle English to blueprints, or sight-maps, for performance poetry; and from textual art and to visual art. A rare bounty of textuality, and for Bergvall this variety is intentional; she believes that the situation of contemporary poetry demands such resourcefulness: “Poetic art becomes an occupancy of language made manifest through various platforms, a range of instrumental tools and skills and relativized forms of inscription” (15–6).

Bergvall knows no fewer than three recognizable languages (English, French and Norwegian are on display here), and her personal history and current life, growing up in a handful of countries and now widely touring Europe and beyond as a poet, are also expressive of cultural and practical complexity. This book argues that this sort of interstitial, diasporic, multi-tiered living and thinking is personally salubrious, culturally necessary and a model for being in time to come. The word “meddle” signifies how language and experience, self-consciously activated, must combine to exert a pressure on individual and collective consciousness: “The meddle is collective awareness. Denaturalization of one’s personal and cultural premise. Getting lost. Physical and mental effort. New apprenticeship and transformed commitment” (19).

Her desire is to uncover language to show not only the prejudices of current and traditional discourse models (both poetic and ratio-logical) but also to show how language, at a fundamental level, impacts your body. She writes elsewhere that “[f]or a long time, I’ve been working out of pressure points, awkward grammatical and cultural units that force up questions about linguistic belonging, bodyshape, the communal bonds or binds or bounds that lodge within my own make-up” (Feminaissance, 68). She means to delve into the middens — the refuse — the material that would otherwise be looked over because not part of the structure of meaning — and investigate these odd remains.

This sense of mission shows itself everywhere in her prose: “It is the writer’s role to test out, provoke the naturalized edges and bounds of language use and rules. She mines language for what is always moving, always escaping. To travel at the heels of writing activates reclaiming zones, fictitious collective memory” (17). It is an exciting project, and her intention carries over into her poetic texts. Take, for instance, the beginning of the “Fried Tale (London Zoo)”:

All juicit with an arseful of moola, wonga, clams & squids
doks stasht in identikl blakases hanging from ther hans
2 Suits, a mega pair of Smith, Blupils no dout,
viddying how they trading outa goodness welth stuporifik […] (38)

While it’s difficult to say what such deformations of standard, written English can produce in the way of a sharable idiom, this strategy does certainly remind us that any notion of standard comes fraught with questions of political agency and oppression: Whose English is standard? What are the consequences of a super-valuation of written speech over oral? How does a person separate themselves from the stigmas, and the ideologies, of any language?

Her interest in finding a way to be right within wrongness, natural within unnaturalness, comes with its material themes: spit and shit; phlegm and food. This creates situational irony: poetry, the once-upon-a-time elevated rhetoric of the wise, turns into a jaunty (Chaucerian) romp through the Seven Deadly Sins and those bodily and sexual issues that can be reliably counted on to offend propriety:

begs out of
ental [....] (“Goan Atom,” 94)

This infringement of the body upon the corpus of the written word (and art), most famously and egregiously implemented by Beckett, creates a paradox, itself evident above. That is, her poetry’s intentional textual errors and pre-literacy create a level of sophistication that means that in order to appreciate the textual disturbances a reader probably ought to have both a glancing familiarity with the most current varieties of art-talk and language-theory but also a recording of her reading the text to show how it’s done. (Here’s one case where it would have been nice to have a CD with the book.)

Tacked onto this paradox comes another. For a person relatively unversed in the particularities of her idiolectic, mixed languages, her poetic texts might read like computer code; but since the effort is meaningful, what of it? It points toward the last paradox, that despite her texts’ sophistication — which might seem to inaugurate strictly intellectual pleasures — when the texts enter into the reader’s ear and/or metaphorical bloodstream, the first clear pleasures are intuitive, those of sound, rhythm and cadence and the forever-alive performative dimension of speech. The delights are as alive (and personal) as language exists in the morning before you have re-coded it all into the Queen’s English, or the rational language of book-reviews, or even syntax itself.

We have a choice

A review of 'To See the Earth Before the End of the World'

To See the Earth Before the End of the World

To See the Earth Before the End of the World

by Ed Roberson

Wesleyan University Press 2010, 180 pages, $22.95, ISBN 9780819569509

Ed Roberson’s newest collection, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, exudes an immediacy, an unmistakable sense of urgency in its simultaneous lament of and call to arms for the contradictory world we inhabit. In this, Roberson’s ninth collection, the Earth and the world are held up as rings of a Venn diagram, overlapping but not interchangeable, together representative of humanity’s existence: both shared and experienced very much individually, a communal phenomenology, a physical, public place in which the private dramas of our lives play out.

In his previous collection, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, Roberson meditates at length on the prospect of death in the experience of the individual, a personal shade always present, an ending haunting the story of one life entire. Here, however, Roberson preoccupies himself with the end of humankind in general. In the title poem of the collection, he chronicles “the world’s death piece by piece,” highlighting the difficulty of negotiating a relationship between the extremes of public and private, objective and subjective, past and future: “Some endings of the world overlap our lived / time,” he writes, “[…] the five minutes it takes for the plane to fall, / the mile ago it takes to stop the train.” Janus-like, these poems witness our personal losses and our “small human extinction,” irrevocably tying the two together. “Hunting the bear,” Roberson reminds us, “we hunt the glaciers.” In our individual deaths, we are heading toward the ultimate end of our species.

In this notion of the small and large bound up in one another, of one emblematizing the other — the deaths of individuals entailing that of species, the destruction of a species entailing that of a planet — we are reminded of John Donne’s Meditation xvii: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” Just as Donne’s writing does, the poems in To See the Earth Before the End of the World struggle with the role of the individual in the community and the corresponding, congruent role of the community in the world, temporally and spatially. Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it another way: “If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time.” To Donne, Emerson, and Roberson, the individual’s experience is emblematic of all human history, and vice-versa.

Roberson often works white space into his poems, suggesting lacuna in the text, the blank spots on the phenomenological map corresponding to unfulfilled human needs and desires. In “The World, Then,” Roberson contemplates “That lonesome whistle silence of / stars”— that is, the need for other people — whether it’s

Undoing or one motion through
The Milky Way folding its complexity? The dark drawer.
It’s over our head
But (a small thing) lose your balance,                                     you fall
into that dark shirt never pulled off                            your head.

In “String Drawer,” a poem from his previous collection, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, Roberson evokes the trail of string used by Theseus to navigate the Minoan labyrinth:

The saved string
     drawer     of snakes
            opens out of the stone
pile     at the end of the yard
that supplies

In both instances, he re-grounds the whole of nature — the eternal, the fantastic — in the quotidian, using something as simple, ubiquitous, and domestic as a drawer to encompass it. Whether it’s anguish that “wails from a simple single teapot” (“Teapot Boiling, How to Begin the Day”) or “a tree that has taken / a bullet from the civil war” (“What the Tree Took, on the Table”), Roberson uncovers the emotional shrapnel embedded in the material world by virtue of people living in it, simultaneously shedding light on the artifacts of the individual human life as well as those of an entire culture and civilization, the “fired clay jars. // Each note a jar with this thickness — / a fingerprint on the unseen inside / surface out— of the touch / of silence” (“Song”).

Roberson’s work comprises an elegant and perpetual memento mori, and in To See the Earth Before the End of the World he provides the reader with a kind of ontological landscape — life, death, apocalypse, and afterlife — as a reminder of one’s paradoxically ephemeral, local life and the more lasting, overarching effects it can have on the lives of others. Urging us simultaneously to witness the world, to remember it, as well as to preserve it for future generations, these poems illuminate the dim and uncertain reaches of the human preoccupation with life and its ultimate end. We “don’t / know how death counts the rings / from trees to clocks, / species to singled soul / at its hour,” Roberson writes, “or on history’s days we die all at once.” He teaches us that we know how to behave, we know how to preserve creation rather than destroy it, and that, ultimately, we have a choice — and further, inevitably, “hunting that bear, / we hunt the glacier with the changes come / of that choice."

Against elegy: Michael Palmer's Book of the Dead

A review of 'Thread'



by Michael Palmer

New Directions 2011, 104 pages, $15.95, ISBN 0811219216

“Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” is Michael Palmer’s Book of the Dead. The title series of his ninth full-length collection, these eighteen interlinked poems are not elegies in the traditional sense. Neither songs of lament, nor, strictly speaking, commemorations for the departed, they reconfigure the genre. In these extraordinary poems, among the most moving and powerful of his career, the dead appear as companions on the way, intimately joined to the enterprise of living. Thread transforms elegy into crystalline paleography — a writing before writing that is also beyond it. Here, the customary polarity between innocence and experience is reversed. Innocence is not what is lost; it can only be gained. It does not precede experience, but is produced by it. For innocence is not a category of purity outside the travails of experience, but a condition that is achieved only by passing through the sorrows of an arduous contingency. The poems in Thread amply testify to this. In “Transit,” for instance, the sight of Creeley’s final book, On Earth, spurs a mournful, yet consoling, recognition.

We’ve come

to the old
echoes again,
swallowed songs,
tongues of cloud and wind.[1]

The delicious image of a “swallowed song” rides on a cascade of vowels. The old echoes go with us, through us, speak out of us, again. So many of these poems feel like fragments of an overheard conversation. Nearly every one of them trails a ghostly double, beckoning us, in their uncanny incompleteness, to listen for further, unheard melodies. In “Fragment After Dante,” the first of a three-part series, the poet finds himself stranded in the realm of shadows: “And I saw myself in the afterlife of rivers and fields / among the wandering souls and light-flecked paths” (34). Amid the suffering of the dead, the greatest torment is to hear them speak, “chatting about nothing,” yet failing to understand them. The second Dante fragment resonates with muted pain.

And she clasped my arm and said,
You, my son, who have lingered

too long among the dead, go
and return to the lighted shore

for those brief moments you have left. (35)

In a haunting image, the speaker’s face transforms “from old to young” as she vanishes. Memory’s dream of what-was mingles promiscuously with its hope for the Not-Yet. Throughout, Thread generously acknowledges that its every word is merely on loan from “the thief’s journal,” Palmer’s phrase, by way of Genet, for the floating para-text of unowned language. This is elegy against elegy: not a quixotic defiance of mortality, but a deepening awareness of it; a way to write into and out of finitude.

Thinking of the dead this way enables Palmer to do away with appeals to the cult of the personal and its fetish for the unique. “The dead” in these poems name an experience in which loss is only another form of continuity. They are always near and yet irreparably distant. In this way, the poem occupies a Rilkean angelic topos: it circulates freely between the living and the dead without making any distinctions between them. To speak the dead this way is to place them in an order of belonging beyond sentimental coercion. They remain strange and vivid; sheltered within memory, but also outside it; irrefragably singular.

Thread inhabits the melancholy landscape familiar to Palmer’s readers, a place where language ratifies itself by signifying its own failure. Written under the agonizing sign of Saturn’s slowness, they are harrowing in their humility and directness. Simplicity here is neither a reduction nor a retreat, but the earned complexity of a late style in a late hour. To call “Threads” a tour de force would only defame it. These “threads” are addresses, colloquies, homages — unanswered questions that concentrate Palmer’s concerns for his art as a site for making counter-meanings, those micro-resistances that push back against the crushing sense of moral fatigue born of loss, suffering, and slaughter.

The “stanzas in counterlight” bring together reflections on the possibility of art with poems to fellow writers such as Robin Blaser, Gustaf Sobin, Alexei Parshchikov, Roberto Bolano, and Mahmoud Darwish. In tone and imagery, the series calls to mind At Passages’ “Six Hermetic Songs,” his elegy for Robert Duncan and perhaps the inaugural poem in his Book of the Dead, though it seems he’s always been writing this way, “ahead of all departure.” With its prayers of intercession and spells for safeguarding the soul’s passage through the underworld, Palmer models his own funerary chants for Duncan after The Egyptian Book of the Dead, guiding the older poet into the afterlife of language.

Photos of Robert Duncan by LaVerne Harrell Clark via University of Arizona Poetry Center.

It’s worth dwelling on the Duncan elegy. “Six Hermetic Songs” begins with an epigraph, taken from The Book of the Dead’s chapter “On the Coming Forth by Day.”

Bring along the Makhent boat
for I have come to see Osiris
lord of the
ansi garment [2]

This ritualistic language sets the scene for the six sections to follow, each of which charts a stage on the soul’s journey through the hazards and judgments of the underworld in its progress back toward day. Here is the first poem of the series.

How did we measure
it says we measured up and down
from the sepia disk
to the crowded ship
of Odysseus

How did we measure
it says we measured
with a copper thread
from the plum flower
to the forgotten gift

Was the tain’s smoke
equal to song
the vein of cedar
to a pin’s bones
Burns each

earlier day
in its soundless weight
measured by the nets
of air
Go there.[3]

The haunting cadences of this solemn poem sound a plangent note, its clipped, roughly five-beat lines counting out a purposeful, liturgical insistence on the body as it remembers gravity, its weighted measure, kept whole by cedar yet dissolved in the “tain’s smoke,” the mist of song passing over a mirror as the last syllable is uttered. As Palmer frames it, measure (or metron) names a messianic splice for keeping time in the poem by interrupting it. The final — “Go there” — commands the dead poet to take passage in song’s “nets of air.”

The measure of the poem here is not made according to traditional prosody, but by what Palmer elsewhere calls the Laws of Forms, that responsiveness of “the poem’s eternal stance against passive subjectivity, against the given, on behalf of the unspeakable and the unheard.”[4] Duncan appears as the keeper of this measure, both by the example of his work and through his role as a guardian of ancient and esoteric knowledge. More than that, though, measure names the predicament of poetry as it confronts the limits of its own saying. In the third poem the older poet speaks, recalling his vanished life:

The calls and careless fashioning,

digits thrown like dice
I don’t think about that anymore

Send me my dictionary.
Write how you are.[5]

For Duncan, the arch-mage of postmodern poetry, the dictionary is nothing if not a book of spells, a grimoire by which the poet might conjure a world, or rather, a web of subtle connections between past and present, the vanished and the visible. The suggestion that Palmer’s mentor has entrusted him with his dictionary implies both the passing on of a lineage and a plaintive cry for the restoration of dear earthly objects, like the ones the Egyptians placed in their tombs to ease the dead’s voyage over dark waters. More than that, the dictionary signifies the limitless potential for bibliomantic conjuration, the thief’s journal par excellence.

The final poem of “Hermetic Songs” is a kind of summoning: a voice, calling over water, over distance, either in final farewell, or hailing return. 

The wrecked horn of the body
and a water voice

The horn of the body
and a slanted water voice

The notes against the gate
and the erasures of the gate.[6

H.D. (undated), via Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A complex set of echoes is put in motion here, recalling Duncan’s own “After a Passage in Baudelaire” (”Ship, leaving or arriving, or my lover, / my soul, leaving or coming into this harbor”), and back of that, the closing lines of H.D.’s Vale Ave (“I ask for this, the blessing of the Ship, of the ‘Parole,’ / in remembrance of the seven times we met”).[7] “The wrecked horn of the body,” like the Jewish shofar, names both an exalting music and the unyielding stuff of obdurate matter. “Six Hermetic Songs” closes with a set of interrogative affirmations, asking “Whose night-songs and bridges // and prisms are these.”

What figures within the coil
tortoise and Bennu bird

lotus and hawk
palette plus ink-pot.

The Bennu Bird is the Egyptian phoenix, a figure associated with rebirth in an afterlife, while the lotus signifies “the divine splendor that belongeth to the nostrils of Ra,” that is, to the body’s breath, its divine measure.[8] The final image is of the poet composing himself with his familiar ink-pot in the resurrected life, writing beyond the ending.

I’ve revisited “Six Hermetic Songs” at such length because “Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” so strongly echoes and carries forward its concerns. In the manner of Duncan’s own Passages, these poems ask to be read together, across their separate volumes, as parts of a single work. The first and twelfth poems in the series glow with the same kind of heraldic language that marks “Hermetic Songs.”

Nighthawk and sun-bird
beauty of the world      beauty of the world

How can one write      beauty of the world? (75)


Nighthawk and sun-bird
Who will tell of it

Shore’s eyelid, earth’s rim
light from extinguished stars

bathing us
in time’s wake

time’s long
stream of slaughter

and song
Some love

the one more
some the other. (87)

Thread is lambent with such figurality. The recurring figures of the bird, the fountain, the book; of Babylon, the moth, the lovers — these are ideas as character, emblems of a spiritual imaginary that supersede and amplify the earlier work’s immersion in linguistic metamorphology. Utterly transparent, they militate against concretion, yet their very clarity renders them enigmatic. They carry over Palmer’s analytic lyric into the key of allegory.

In these poems figurality is the idea of form itself. The ideal of correspondence so dear to Baudelaire migrates from the hermetic notion of a mirror that reflects the heavenly in the earthly and the earthly in the heavens, to the fructifying dissonance between word and thing, past and present. Loss prefigures redemption, of course, but only as muted whispers from the realm of ghosts. A devoutly secular alchemist of the word, Palmer invites traffic with the transformative powers of the strange, even as he confutes all claims put forward on behalf of a tyrannical spiritual orthodoxy. 

Tenses of the present, Mahmoud, the (im)possible
present, infinite presents threading
now forward, now back. Amidst the
shattered symmetries and scattered fictions,
between actual river and imagined shore,
actual breath of wind through the frayed (91)

The present is the infinite — expansion of the actual into the imagined, the imagined into the actual. If there can be no final truth, or if it is only and already imperfectly figured through language, the dream of alteriority nevertheless persists, in large part because language is structured to imagine its own outside. As a system for shaping interiority by organizing experience, its logic is geared to continually surpass and subvert its own boundaries. Language is thread, and nothing but — weaving, unweaving, reweaving.

The idea of the thread runs throughout Palmer’s poetry, integral to his project for building “threads of speech and constellations of sound … rather than a single, unitary voice.”[9] The opening of “Baudelaire Series” attests to this, speaking of “the mechanism of the larynx / around an inky center / leading backward-forward // into sun-snow / then to frozen sun itself / Threads and nerves have brought us to a house.”[10] And further on in the same poem we find the Palmerian locus classicus:

What if things really did
correspond, silk to breath

evening to eyelid
thread to thread.[11]

What marks this chain of likenesses is their unlikeness. Baudelaire’s dream is accomplished, not by an intimate metaphysics, but through a language of dissimilarity. Thread’s allure as a constellating trope, its ability to articulate a grammar of correspondence between unlike things, forms the core of Palmer’s conception of language and its polymorphously perverse power to link by way of dissonance. If silk is a synonym for breath, then evening imitates the action of the eyelid, closing over the field of vision. “Thread to thread” promises an exact equivalence, a braiding of identical things. Yet the necessity of repetition casts a shadow between the first and the second instance of the term. “Thread to thread” invites connection, but the slippery preposition can equally signal a gap.

To thread, then, is to work midrashically, for these poems take up Palmer’s abiding concerns with the necessity for dispersing the subject and the concomitant counter-struggle to preserve its singularity, if only as a remnant. In Thread, the figure of the book appears as a messianic object, braiding together now with then, here with there, in a suspension of time where the words of the dead are spoken as one’s own even as the dead speak through the lips of the living. This bewitched chiasmus in many ways defines Palmer’s project, his desire to dissolve and connect, forget and remember, to “add yourself jubilantly, and erase the score,” as Rilke puts in Sonnets to Orpheus. Only in this way can the poem resist succumbing to mere introspective reverie.

Late style in Palmer is not the willful intransigence Adorno admires in Beethoven’s final works. Rather, it is a deepening of themes, a move toward a radical simplicity, a return, in other words, as in a sonata, to first statements, in the key of clarity. In a 2006 interview with Ken Bullock, Palmer describes the trajectory of his poetry as “moving a little bit away from radical syntax into the mysteries of ordinary language, in the philosophical if not every day sense. It probably looks less unusual on the page. And I’ve been interested in the infinite, ingathering potential of the lyrical phrase — not confession, but the voicing of selves that make up the poetic self, from Greek lyrics to the Italians, to modern poets like Mandelstam.”[12] These are the same concerns that have marked his strongest work all along, most notably “Baudelaire Series,” which according to Palmer investigates lyric from Hölderlin on. But if Palmer has moved away from explorations of linguistic syntax, he’s taken up in turn the serpentine syntax of dreams, whose logic is a yearning for a replenishing otherness, as in “Broad Waking.”

Slant from the poem’s mouth
Atlantis arrives, the cries
of children arise, the dance
begins, perfect circle of the
squared poem, its cardinal
points, stillness and motion
and the singing against time,
the dancing in time,
the ringing in our ears,
the silence as the waters rise (47)

The oneiric landscape rises, a figural domain porous with primal interiority. Closer to Gennady Aygi (another poet honored in this book) than George Oppen, it hews all the same to the Objectivist credo of austere minimalism, the sense that each word can be arrived at only through patient struggle. Late style in Palmer is a slow concrescence, an exactitude of means.

Gennady Aygi image via Beijing Language and Culture University.

Along the corridors
of the invisible world, Raúl,

gardeners raise such flowers
as need no light

such flowers
watered by voices

as need no eyes
to be seen. (79)

In this poem to the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, whose most well known work, Purgatorio, recounts the nightmarish imprisonment the poet suffered under the Pinochet regime, the invocation of “the invisible world” where “flowers need no light” but are instead “watered by voices” for the eyeless, attests to the necessity of an inner, allegorical landscape where poetic language can still radiate, free of tyranny and oppression. “The invisible world,” one might say, is the place where disaster is rewritten in a language that translates suffering into the spectrum of recognition.

Similarly, the poem to Robin Blaser attends to the intimate undertow of a poetics that knows all it says is said in the shadow of its own vanishing.

The moth, Robin,
we’ve both learned
at different times
from its motion, a
quantum of nothing
could we say,
dusk to dark morning
before full day,
a battering of wings,
night notes sounding
beyond our extinction

Moth verges on and merges with mouth, an image of transience and longing fluttering in its “quantum of nothing,” a figure for speech “sounding / beyond our extinction” (81). But this is a sounding that also utters hesitation, each comma starkly denoting the pause of breath in a poem that otherwise refuses final punctuation. Narrow constructionists, the kind of readers who’ve made idols of Sun or Notes for Echo Lake, might deride these slender poems as a falling off, but I find them incredibly moving. They represent the distillation of a lifetime’s attendance to the nuances of a luminous art written under the sign of shadow.

What Palmer accomplishes in this book is the meaning of being haunted, poetically – the way a poem burrows into us, becomes an intimate part of our psychic life. Haunting in this sense is not some stubborn refusal to move on after grief. Rather it is an active form of melancholy, a rejection of the proscriptive hygiene for mourning and its insistence on the palliative. It is not a morbid keeping open of the wound, but a preservation of the dead as a still vibrant field of interior force. Far from memorializing loss, it incites recognition. For loss to be loss it must abjure closure. The coda-like lyric for Gustaf Sobin poignantly bears this out.

Gustaf, under earth
by the tiny grave-pits
Merovingian words we
speak by the plague wall
by the house of the suicide
by the Mount of Winds
sits the low house of stone
lies the silk-maker’s house
thread spun and gone.
Words are the distant home. (92)

The enjambed syntax performs a liturgical rite, redeeming spirit in a house of words where melodic frequency is attuned to estrangement’s deeper belonging, its “distant home.” The sense of desolation is powerful here because so carefully modulated. It’s consoling, as only the bleakest measure can be.

This thread of threnodies calls to mind, of course, Duncan’s Great Companions, a theme noted by Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his perceptive review of Company of Moths. In that book, a trend that has always marked Palmer’s work, but which only moved to the fore in At Passages, became more pronounced — namely, his shift to a distinctly bardic register. This shift has gone largely unremarked on, though Norman Finkelstein gives a good account of Palmer’s relation to Duncan’s poetics in his recent On Mount Vision. What does the bardic in Palmer look like? As I’ve already suggested here, it partakes of a heraldic vocabulary, a secular typology that inverts the polarity between thing and word. Here is the sixth poem in the series:

It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book.

In the palm garden at night they set fire to the book

and read by the light of the book.

Syllables, particles of glass, they pass back and forth in the dark.

The two, invisible - transparent - in the book,

their voices muffled by the book.

It is the role of the lovers to be figures of the book, the

illegible book,

changing as the pages turn,

now joined, now clawing the fruit from each other’s limbs,

now interlaced, now tearing at throat and vein,

then splayfoot, then winged, then ember,

as the music of the book,

rustling through the palms,

instructs. (80)

“To be figures in the book,” even as it burns, even as its burning illuminates the words on its pages, is to guarantee the promise of “the invisible world,” where the poem is continually remade through a kind of doubling , echoing and re-echoing in a gallery of citations and counter-citations. The book, Palmer understands, will always be “illegible;” its burning at once a source of illumination and obscurity; a figure of music alternating between the “splayfoot” and the “winged,” and written in an alphabet whose transparency is only the others side of the invisible, “the muffled.” It must be that which, even in its plain saying, remains hidden, a zero of logic “rustling through the palms.” The book as music. Perhaps this is what I’ve been trying to say here all along.

And I’ve said nothing about the rest of the book. Scattered with the kind of amusing bagatelles Palmer has always written, the highlights of the first section, “What I Did Not Say,” are the three series, “The Classical Study,” “Say,” and “Aygi Cycle.” The first of these features a playful figure called The Master, a kind of trickster male muse who calls to mind both Duncan himself and his Master of Rime: “The Master of Rime told me, You must learn to lose heart. I have darkened this way and you yourself have darkend. Are you so blind you cant see what you cant see?”[13] Gnostic endarkenment subducts the poem into telluric currents of language. Or, as Palmer writes, it’s a game “where silence matters / above all, or do I mean sound?” (6).

“Aygi Cycle” stands apart from and alongside of “Thread.” These ten short poems are a kind of prelude to the longer series. Here Aygi is refracted through the lens of Oppen and Cezanne. The fragility of a single word becomes the very source of its power. It does not attempt to mean, since meaning is too fraught a task, only to persist somehow before its own imminent disappearance. At that wavering boundary line, the indeterminate zone between affirmation and negation, the word hovers, as in the Cycle’s fifth poem:

Within the small poem time
and tales of the preening gods
among the sliding stars

and love’s silent
mirror held up
to the crimes of war

within the small poem (58)

As the tender of silence and smallness, Aygi watches over the garden of ruins, where renunciation opens the portal to the field of the other. In Palmer’s reading, Aygi makes of childhood a space for “entering into awareness and into speech.” His Aygi is brought into conversation with Oppen’s elegy for Reznikoff, where the poem is written “in the great / world small.” Another thread woven, glimmering.

In Thread the dead are not the departed, but those who go along with us. Asymmetrical, they map the jagged experience of living onto the impossible promise form makes to spirit. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the soul is made ready to pass judgment before Osiris before it can “come forth by day” into a second life. The poems in Thread are that second life, the small place, as in “After Hölderlin,” where, concealed from day, abiding in silence:

One must wait
to draw a night song from these names,

the then and the now, the dark and light
as they alternate, just out of reach. (41)


[1] Michael Palmer, Thread (New York: New Directions, 2011), 65. All subsequent page references will be placed in parentheses.

[2] Palmer, At Passages (New York: New Directions, 1995).

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Palmer, Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New York: New Directions, 2008), 80.

[5] Palmer, At Passages, 33.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches (New York: New Directions, 1964), 77; H.D., Vale Ave (Redding Ridge, CT: Black Swan Books, 1992), 76.

[8] The Egyptian Book of the Dead, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge, 20, 263.

[9] Philip Dow, 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate (New York: HBJ, 1984), 341. 

[10] Palmer, Sun (Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1988), 9.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Interview with Ken Bullock, April 7, 2006.

[13] Duncan, Roots and Branches, 170.