Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

When It Breaks

I've been reading a lot of Michael Palmer's poetry over the past few weeks. He's one of my all-time favorites. And, now that I'm once again preoccupied with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who has been a huge influence on Palmer, it makes sense to revisit his ouevre. In particular, I find that reading him helps me to remember the literary potential in abstruse philosophical concerns, thereby inspiring me to make my own prose more liquid.

One thing I've been realizing in my latest encounter with Palmer's work is that he has been remarkably consistent over the years. Although he was more given to visual experimentation in his early years -- thin columns or rectangular blocks of text -- he has returned again and again to the themes he tackled back then. And with what sounds, to my ear, like the same voice. Here is the concluding poem to his 1974 collection The Circular Gates:
Fifth Symmetrical Poem
The way the future uses up blood and light
and the individual marks are altered every day

until you reach the end of the row of trees
It has to be possible to imagine these

infinitely extended
and to walk in a curved line

remembering the pencil that draws the line
putting the water on one side

and agreeing that the chair will be white
Each day each letter of the previous day

would be replaced by the next one in line
and the Z by an A

of the same size and shape. I dream that I say
It's raining

and it has no meaning
I dream that she's waking

in the white chair
Everyone we know is here

Or when you covered the numbers
no sounds seemed clear

We would come and go
on hands and feet

We would move them
to get somewhere

Now compare that one to a poem from his 2005 collection The Company of Moths:
Figures, what do they know
in those old books, asleep

in those brittle books? What do they dream
on the locked shelves, in The Book of Signs

And the Book of Delights, Queen Dido's book,
and the book we sought but couldn't find?

Bright archive, sad merriment,
those waters that once we bathed in,

spine against spine, their banks lined
with the smallest of flowers, pale blue.

Did you see them, darting beneath the eaves?
Hear them, right before night?

Should we share a breath or maybe two
with the ghost of the future, the slant rain,

the brindled rose, the keeper of the code?
What do they know

with their sealed lips, scattered limbs,
of the books that they rewrite?

Although there are differences between these two poems from a stylistic standpoint, they share a preoccupation with the way our world is structured by language. The speaker is restrained, perhaps even distant. But that state seems like an act of will, requiring considerable energy to maintain. Something stirs beneath the still surface of thought, but never breaks it.

Thats what makes another one of the poems in The Company of Moths, "Your Diamond Shoe," so interesting. A number of the pieces in the book reflect on the post-9/11 political landscape. But in "Your Diamond Shoe," the point of reference is honed to a razor-thin point:
Your Diamond Show
Don't write poems about what's going on.
Murderers and liars, dreams and desires,

they're always going on.
Leave them outside the poem.

Don't describe your sad-eyed summer home
or wide-eyed winter home.

Don't write about being homeless
or your home-away-from-home.

Don't write about war,
whether you're against or for,

it's the same fucking war.
Don't talk about language,

don't talk about loss.
Don't mention truth or beauty

or your grandpa's bones.
No one wants to know

how your father/brother/lover
deducted himself. Razor, rope or gun,

what's the difference?
Whisper nothing of the snow

on the Contrescarpe,
nothing of moths, their fluttering arcs,

or the towers -- how we watched them fall.
Don't write at all.

While the overlap between this poem and the one I've quoted above is clear, the restraint has given way to self-permission. The speaker's frustration and anger breaks the surface, reminding us that the strength needed to maintain a glassy calm is subject to dissipation, particularly in an era like this. I love the way that the sandwich end-rhyme of "war" and "or" invokes traditional verse form under the sign of rage-fueled irony.

"Your Diamond Shoe" got me thinking differently about Palmer's poetry. Maybe the consistency I have discerned is actually just part of a rhythm in which the breaks matter as much as what they interrupt. Or maybe it's simply that, as he approaches old age, Palmer is growing impatient with his own patience. Either way, the shift in voice it demonstrates is powerful.
Tags: commonplace book, poetry, theory

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