Thread by Michael Palmer (New Directions, 2011) and American Fanatics by Dorothy Barresi (Pitt Poetry Series, 2010)
Testing. Palmer Barresi review, Akron to Woodstock to Ossining, April 2011.
Michael Palmer’s new book Thread like all of his books since the three book cycle collected in Codes Appearing (Notes, First Figure, Sun) attempts to do for paraphrasable meaning what he did in those books for polysemic / endless turn and surprise. Those books are beautiful. And also, it’s a kind of beauty that vanishes when you look at it. There is prose meaning (I’m driving into a thunderstorm!) and those are beautiful books, and I read them so many times when I was in college that I had to step away from them for a while. I always saw him as the west coast version of David Shapiro, sort of a doppelganger, the same Wittgensteinian lyricism, same mournful eroticism…There’s some overlap also with John Yau and Paul Auster, but really the closest match is David.
Michael Palmer né George famously roomed with Clark Coolidge in quote unquote The Sixties and they edited the magazine Joglars. And that is my potted history of Michael Palmer’s early days. That reminds me to reread Peter Gizzi’s very perfect interview with him in the one and only Exact Change Yearbook. Very perfect a little bit pregnant a little bit anxious it’s perfect his early chapbooks are perfect. They’re not really paraphrasable, or at least they don’t reside in memory the same way that lines like "splendidly bogus" from Notes for Echo Lake do.
There’s a tendency in poetry of the last forty years, a decrease in paraphrasable substance, a diminution of affect and increase in aesthetic polish. This tendency leads straight to a hyperaestheticized (and campy if you ask me) kind of work that the popular kids wrote and liked five or ten years ago. The popular kids go to the moon. A very spare kind of mournful almost meaning-free kind of work. Almost—there are referents, something is being talked about—but usually it’s a break-up poem, a renunciation, a history of gardening. There’s a line at the end of one of the sections of Notes for Echo Lake, “In the poem he learns to turn and turn, and prose seems always a sentence long.” Not in my experience, it doesn’t—if anything, prose seems always to claim to be getting to a point that takes another sentence, while making sure you feel like you’re getting there each time. Some of it is beautiful and some of it leads to what the critic John Palattella calls the cul de sac, a safety aesthetic in which there’s no (these cliches are mine) risk no engagement with anything other than other aesthetics.
This is something we have endured permitted celebrated in our major poets for a long time, an increasing aestheticization. Even Wallace Stevens especially Wallace Stevens. (Adam Phillips says in Side Effects that compared with psychoanalysis poetry is pretty peaceful, you don’t see poets writing books called Wallace Stevens Was Wrong. Well actually…) In one sense you want the poets to get more beautiful as they go along. You want there to be a point to what they’re doing otherwise they’re just repeating. You don’t want the poets to repeat you want them to make more and more beautiful poems. Problem is, what is beautiful and what is pretty? Aestheticization tends not to engage the emotions the entire attention, it leads the poet to focus on any given response the poet is very good at eliciting. In Palmer’s case he’s very good at eliciting an intellectual erotic thrill, a sexy sadness involving knowing about art. This is far from the worst thing a poet can do. It’s pretty good. It would be nice if he weren’t sad about it, but you know life is sad. As you go on, if you keep going, you have a lot to be sad about. A lot to be happy about too, but it’s almost disrespectful not to stop and think about everything that’s lost, and Palmer is a deeply respectful poet. Respectful of the reader: he hopes not to waste the reader’s time. In the new book, this mournful search for the lost masters leads him to invoke poets composers painters sculptors dancers, the arts. There’s a sense of lineage engagement and absence, that there’s been a major defeat a major crisis in our society.
There’s a consistency to his work that reminds me of W.S. Merwin, actually. At this point there’s much less in common with Shapiro’s work than with certain aesthetes of the sixties—James Wright, say, or W.S. Merwin. He’s diverged from Shapiro, who is increasingly twisty and turny in his work. If you come to Thread cold, if this is your first Palmer book, you might say this is brilliant, a mournful old master. If you come to it after the three major books, you might wonder shouldn’t he be finishing the Divine Comedy about now? A skeptic could point to the diminished scope of the work since Sun to say this was an aesthetics that does not lead to greater more generative possibilities, it leads to sadness. But you know, everything in life leads to sadness, if you’re paying attention. There’s always loss. I am wary of a wish to mark Palmer down for not living up to the promise of the earlier work—we have the earlier work, and this is something else, and it’s still in his voice, still has his signature. I don’t think you judge poets students anybody that way. To say, well you did that so now you’ve got to do something better. Level up, buddy. You can, you can say “level up, buddy,” but what would a more grandiose version of Sun do for anybody? He achieved a monumental quality in Sun, then he backed away from it. He wanted to approach recognizable subjects, the real, didn’t want to lead people to think he was on the side of the bogus in the phrase “splendidly bogus.” I think that’s a real danger in his work, that one might as some serious readers of poetry I’ve known have done, decide he’s not actually saying anything. He gives the impression of seriousness, for these readers, and that’s all they get, is an impression. I don’t think that’s fair—he’s too funny, too aware of how he sounds—listen to this:
Say that a spider with a death’s-head
crawls into your bed
and offers to make love.
that you are done with love?
And what of death?
Poem, don’t be so strange.
So, I get feelings of beauty from his work. I get feelings of beauty from most highways, though, so perhaps my feelings aren’t the measure of all things. Maybe they are. (Yawn.)
There’s a piece in Thread where he talks about killing a man in New York mistakenly.
I do not mean that I killed him by mistake, since I killed him intentionally. I mean that it was a mistake to kill him… I thought he had called me “little dago boy,” though in fact, as others later attested, he had called out, “Hey, little day-glo boy,” in playful reference to the bright color of my shirt.
Death, killing: At the end of Sun, Palmer’s done all he can with the aesthetics of turning; there’s a real limit to the emotional engagement of the reader with the work. No matter how good it may feel to read that work, if you can’t hold it in your mind as a whole, if you can’t remember it all—part of the effect is shaking the work—if you can’t hold it in your head as an experience that you see the shape of, and feel all the way around, you come up against a limit. A sublime limit, but a limit. He’s a real poet, possibly a great one. It seems to me that after Sun there’s something he’s been trying to accomplish—to get out of the cul de sac, this aesthetics of turning without giving the reader something at the end of it. Not what Pavement called a “summary act,” but a real feeling of having begun at one place, and having modulated to something else. In time, if he persists, he’ll get there, or I’ll learn how to read his effort as its own reward. In the meantime I still get this feeling of not yet.
I’m passing a fair at Newburgh. Newburgh is a difficult town but this fair, it’s a cold April night and this fair is still going. They’ve had a big thunderstorm, and it’s blown over. Bless their hearts.
So what do we mean by beautiful. Punt. Okay, is it satisfying. Is an individual Michael Palmer poem satisfying. Do you want a poem to set up an inscribed Stevens-y lyrical situation and end like a cartoon. There’s a cartoonish quality to the work that comes after Stevens that makes it slightly difficult in one sense to take seriously. They’re talking to you in a singsongy overstated simplified way, even when they’re disclosing insights into death, beauty, meaning—as in Stevens, Ashbery, Palmer, Shapiro, for example. White men, by the way. Is putting on the Wallace Stevens mask a way to absolutely conceal or efface or assimilate one’s ethnic or racial or psychosexual identity? (Is that what Stevens was doing for himself?) Stevens comes up for Terrance Hayes, for Thomas Sayers Ellis. He doesn’t seem to be quite as popular a totem animal among women writers.
You can do quite well as a fourth generation Stevensian, but eventually you and everybody else will know where you live: The cul de sac. The repetition of previous aethstetics, polishing, of previous aesthetics. There really has to be something new. The cul de sac and the problem of bringing something new into poetry. The problem is, there are also received ways of bringing something new into poetry. One is to work with a different lyric tradition than the one everyone else is working in. Palmer translates Portuguese poetry from Brazil, works with dancers, but again this is a path that is like ones that have already been taken. This is the complicated art-historical side of this. Where the poem is not a poem, it’s a move in the construction of an artistic identity. That’s the cul de sac that visual art has settled into, equally deadly; not deadly, cozy. When I say deadly I mean cozy. Well that’s messed up. But I think art has been in a cul de sac of overconcern with constructing an artistic identity, a brand, from which position you generate masterpieces. This is not very interesting unless you’re the one actually making the money from it, to be interesting to everybody you have to make something that moves the room. It’s got to do something. I remain unconvinced that the artists on the covers of the magazines are actually moving the room. Palmer moves the room. But. But. But. Chantilly lace… There’s a cross on a mountain. I’m in New York state and there’s a cross on a mountain. Heading off toward 9A. 9W, something. Anyway. What. What do I think about it.
I think Dorothy Barresi is an instructive counterpoint to the problem of the cul de sac. I know there’s been real tension between the avant-garde of which Palmer is a chancellor—he may have parted company with the language poets a while back, probably with the publication of Sun, which as far as I can tell is an attempt to reconcile language poetry with post-surrealist even post-Negritude poetry. There’s been a tension between that avant-garde and what’s been called the mainstream which I don’t believe exists that way blah blah unmarked case okay fine but I think there are a hundred mainstreams, or at least a dozen which comes to the same thing.
Dorothy Barresi, from her poems, I don’t know her just as I don’t know Michael Palmer, really rejects aestheticization, I think from this perspective we might call it prettification, as a move. Outright. Is about being messy, loud, difficult, not disagreeable but embarrassing and embarrassed. And this is a strategy too, again, a performance of and effacement of ethnicity, a kind of concealment of—in her first three books there’s an alternation between this embarrassed and embarrassing voice and a sincere and tender voice. In the new book she’s tried to fuse these two voices and the tender voice is mostly lost. The poems are written in a brash stereotypically aggressive argumentative tone. She talks about the wild animal eating the neighbor’s dog, and she talks about what to do with the pieces of the dog, bury them? give them back? And it’s shocking but it’s not that shocking, and it’s real but it’s not that real either. If it happened, and I have no reason to doubt that it did, but if it happened, is that something you make into a poem? It could be, and for her it is, that’s what you make into a poem, that’s the subject. I was not following her work, and then I read in West Branch a few years back her poem “Something in the House Is Beeping.” A two-page narrative of overturning and breaking open everything in the house, more situation than narrative. Situation comedy, situation poetry. There’s a situation, which is that something in the house is beeping.
A beep is a germ, a wink, a ticking intimacy, an auditory
pill to take for nerves
if you can take it—nerves ending and nerves beginning
all over again.
Where are you? I shouted at the air.
I’m in the backyard, my husband called. You should see the stars!
A truck in my brain backed up, beeping.
The situation poem, when it’s spoken in front of an audience, on the radio, when you read it, you get something from it. You get to carry something away from it. There is a sense in which this is a more ambitious form of art than a polished, prettified, intellectual Stevensian meditation. I have come around to the idea that it is more ambitious to create two or three page situation slash anecdote that has a shape as a poem that you the reader hold in your mind and recall and want to share with people. It is just fundamentally more ambitious than to repolish the Stevensian lyric. And to the idea that a deliberately unpleasant narrator, while just the flipside of a deliberately impressive narrator, may in fact be as worthy an outcome in the pachinko machine of who do you get to listen to any given hour.
I’m willing to put up with what I also see as deliberately unpleasant, unaesthetic subjects like the ripped-apart dog. I’ll take the good with the off-putting and as far as I can tell so will most. The problem is you can’t have a book that’s a two-page poem. I wish you could. I wish people read magazines. They don’t. I don’t, anymore. I did for a few years, but you know, life. Life. And there are so many magazines. Which is wonderful but a real difficulty for the art. It’s impossible to read them all. If you just read the ones you already know, diminishing returns! And if you just read The Best American Poetry, to return to financial metaphors, that isn’t really an index fund, that’s a managed fund, managed by stockpickers, and the fact that there’s a series editor means there’s some consistency, you know some of what you’re going to get each time, a quarter to a third of it holds steady, and the rest is the guest editor. That poets of some note would sign onto a project like that is fascinating, and the social experiment of what they’ll respond to, how they’ll behave at court, is always entertaining. It’s excellent for civilians. If you’re a poet and that’s your exposure to work that’s outside your aesthetic comfort zone every year, though, you’re not working hard enough. Your poems will show it. I think we used to look at reading for the same quality in a poet as confirming the development of a major style. When looking at a poet who had published many books. And when looking at a poet who has not published many books, we call that being in a rut. I don’t think we allow poets to get into ruts the same way anymore. People still get into ruts but it’s labeled that. A brave face is not put on senescent repetition.
I don’t know if I can recommend American Fanatics or Thread to people who aren’t already reading these poets. If you’re already a reader of Michael Palmer there’s much to enjoy in Thread—his efforts to get out of this cul de sac, for example. Many partisans of his work would not view it as a cul de sac, they would view it as the achievement of a major style. I believe he is capable of more. I’m going to read it of course, and I’m going to say to people who don’t read his work, read everything, go back to Notes for Echo Lake, First Figure, Sun, and the ones that follow, then read this one. It’s probably the best of the post-Sun books, but you have to read those books first, just as with David Shapiro you have to read To an Idea and the three after first. Really, just memorize those books.
Barresi. So, the poem is an account of being driven mad by something electronic in the house, possibly belonging to her son, possibly belonging to her husband, possibly belonging to her. Possibly a prank, there are such things, if you read the electronics catalogs, you can get a little electronic device to leave someplace and drive people mad, beep erratically, beep for quite a while and then stop, and start again later. It’s an idea. I like the poem. It made an impression on me. I’ll read her work; I went and read all her books and will continue to read her books to see if she’ll do anything like that again.
There are some poems in the earlier books about growing up in the Midwest, in Akron in the seventies and eighties, going to clubs, doing drugs. It’s a somewhat cautionary tale for poets in a developing cul de sac: would you want, when you’re fifty, to have this be the material you look back on. That’s too harsh a statement, and this harshness is probably why I’ve been avoiding writing this review. Too harsh to say. But I think there’s a reason people pursue aestheticization or the development of an aesthetics by taking the safe route. When you risk embarrassment in your work, you will often be embarrassed, and if your sense of embarrassment at yourself breaks, that may be a marvelous thing or it may be delayed onset of a social adjustment issue. There’s a tradition of confessing in literature, lately somewhat degraded but going back to Augustine; Augustine’s confessions don’t look all that embarrassing now but maybe we’re just far enough away from them. Confessional poetry does not have a great reputation at the moment partly because there is a threshold you can cross with the reader where the reader doesn’t want to know anymore about you. Barresi’s nowhere near that point, but there is a reason confessionalism stopped being the main mode of what we agree to call mainstream poetry. There’s something to be said for relieving yourself of the burden of the ego-ideal, of always having to put the best possible face on all your actions. To always mean well, to always try to think for everyone—“I thought hard for us all”—it’s not healthy to think for other people. Let other people think for themselves. Again, to pursue this dubious parallel between investing and creating an artistic persona, an aesthetic—I always loathed the term poetics, because it seemed to me what was articulated was actually an aesthetic, not how the poem achieves a physical effect on the reader, what is the structure of what provokes that effect—that would be a poetics—really what people are talking about is an aesthetic, which even if you wanted it to accomplish a social aim, it would still be an aesthetic.
Barresi. She’s a real poet. If you’re going to read poetry, why not read all the real poets. Why not see when they hit it, which she does at least once here. And many of the poems are memorable. People when they find out I write about poetry (when they don’t abruptly change the subject) ask me who to read, who’s worth reading now. I usually say pick up any book of poems, chances are there’s something good in it. You may have to read a lot of it, there may be a lot of it that doesn’t look any good, you may get discouraged. You may think I don’t get why this is good, why did someone print this. That’s true about pretty much all poetry. What did anybody on earth see in this book to go to the effort and expense of memorializing it in cellulose. But. Also, if you just read it, and see what you respond to, and aren’t in the market for being told that you’re having an experience, but actually are in the market for your own experience, and a companionable mind, then why not read everybody. If you’re going to read everybody, why aren’t you doing that yet?
The funny thing about reviewing—″Oh no, this has to be your priority, you have to read this book.” Which happens to be by a friend, or teacher, or a student of my teacher or someone else I want to do something for me, or published by people I want to publish me, et-cetera. In the absence of independent auditors, in a totality where everybody who reviews is an interested party, what are you going to do? You’re going to read what you read and look to see who’s an ally of what you were taught and what you are comfortable reading. Confirmation bias. This must be poetry because it’s what I’ve been taught. And so forth. Everybody commits this, including me. And everybody thinks, “but the difference is I’m right,” and I think that too. But you have to stay alive to it. Just read everybody, and not be told, oh you can’t read that person or you have to read this person. You have to read everybody. And that’s a horrible burden, just as bad as the ego-ideal, so just read what you want to read. But how do you know what you want to read? How do you know?