Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Breath and Blister: The Word-Burns of Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Breath and Blister: The Word-Burns of Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino

Article excerpt

Michael Palmer. The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995. New Directions 1998. 260 pp. $18.95 (paper)

Leslie Scalapino. New Time. Wesleyan University Press 1999. 104 pp. $25.00 $11.95 (paper)

Michael Palmer is a poet under Saturn, a poet of unmistakable gravity. His poems are so many linguistic rope burns-signs of his failure, and by insinuation everyone's failure, to rise to the transcendent promise of words. I admire his gift but have found it numbing to read him in bulk. When approached over the years, a few poems at a time, he smoked and burned to the touch like dry ice. Read in a selected, he seems stuck to certain limited ideas about language, ideas less thought out than derived from modern French philosophy and poetry and reiterated by rote.

Ironic grimace after ironic grimace. Somehow words, and hence "Ideas aren't worth anything" ("Baudelaire Series"). And, lest anyone suppose otherwise, this lack of substance must be insisted on, over and over. Flags of caution must be raised, as in "Sun":

The bed aches in its dream

of durable densities, rain,

a house whose balconies

vibrate and hum

in space. Do not write

in this space. Never sleep

in this house.

Yet if all is anyway an inescapable dream, what does it matter that the dream includes a "space" in which to write, a house with a bed?

It's important, one deduces, because something in oneself must be punished, some naivete chastened. The same something that creates bad politics? Somehow, yes. The same that burned the villages in Vietnam? Somehow, yes. Palmer doesn't reason how; instead, he insinuates, postures, ridicules, broods. He's effectively a nihilist offended by language's pretensions to reason and to tracing over a world. In his work, the superego will have its meal, its dead meat. He has loads of integrity-a tonnage worth, which crushes the life out of impulse, flattens the animal faith that, one could object, is valid precisely because what has brought it about is not a lexicon but matter's long-tried ways. Even as Palmer scorns the hubris of language, he allows it to seep its acids into the very fibers of the vital body, of "being." He gives back to language with the left hand what he has taken away with the right.

Palmer's nihilistic position is simultaneously epistemological (there's nothing but fantasy, a dream on an aching bed); linguistic (the sign is essentially as empty as a piss pot); and psychoanalytic (I must exist, for someone here is being punished). It makes of aesthetics an either frivolous or fulsome illusion. At best, art serves to give the flavor of la douleur d exister. Irony, take apart my specious words. "The marks have no dimension / They stream from the creases of the hand"; a book is "Scribed on the streaming body" ("Sun"). Again: "Body's shift patterns bridge this river is called. Here trees cancel bodies light sometimes marks" (so Palmer writes in "Notes for Echo Lake 6").

Integrity like Palmer's requires that poems undo themselves before your eyes. This process in fact marks the radical push in American poetry. But unlike, say, Leslie Scalapino's poetry, Palmer's is almost all an undoing-more strictly, a dream of coming undone, of proving dispossessed (as if this result were secretly wanted, satisfied something that had killed the soul). For instance, in "Echo," a poem in First Figure (1984):

Knowledge is empty claimed the swaying bridge.

She recognized the voice as her own

resounding in the damp hall

though the rest,

what the words now said

again and again,

seemed entirely different.

In Palmer's somehow overawake oneiric poems, the superego (as if the destructive drive were nothing if not alert and cunning) outjumps the life drives (any alley oop of them) and stops them in their path, saying

You, would like to Live somewhere

but this is not permitted

You may not-even think of it

lest the thinking appear as words

and the words as things

arriving, in competing waves

from the ruins of that place

("Voice an Address")

It takes a different order of conscience to correct so deadly a conscience. …

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