Thread, by Michael Palmer.
Like a library, Michael Palmer’s Thread prioritizes silence. Within its passages, words fall out of circulation, singers swallow their songs, and Orpheus performs without a sound. Even as these poems unspool, expression itself seems to hang on by a thread.
Yet Palmer’s work argues that art—like fireworks—is designed for an explosive finish, for an extermination that doubles as actualization. A singer performs while aflame; a dancer splits in two, and both halves continue dancing. When the mystical Master of Shadows announces, “you must commit your verses to the flames,” his diction double-deals: flames signal destruction, but “commit” hints at perpetuation. Thread illuminates the uneasy interdependence of surviving and succumbing, knitting them together as intimately as the warp and weft of a textile.
Palmer’s most astonishing poems do function like fireworks, seemingly innocuous until they burst out with brilliant implications. A particularly charged example is “Poem Against War”:
She raises both arms
to free the clasps binding her hair.
Initially, the two-armed poem seems to embrace a simple argument, pitting the intimacies of the domestic against the hostilities of battle. (One would be forgiven for yawning, even for letting down one’s hair.) But like a document in triplicate, this woman offers three overlapping readings. In the most obvious, she lifts her hands to free her hair. In another—permitted by a pun on “arms”—she raises weapons in a declaration of war. And in the third, which clashes with the second, she adopts a posture of defeat. Here, as throughout Thread, vitality and weakness unite within a single gesture.
The second line seems to banish all doubt, assuring us that this poem is merely a hair piece. Yet the vocabulary of combat—words like “free,” “clasps,” and “binding”—break through that line, suggesting how subtly war invades domestic enclaves. Rarely in war poetry does the personal grow so artfully political.
Even as it explores grand questions—war and peace, life and death, the paradoxes of it all—Thread, which is stitched through with lyrics, also comments on what some might consider a less consequential concern: the possibilities of the short poem. Some brief works, such as “Poem Against War,” “Move,” and “Difference,” share what we might call the firecracker principle: while tiny, they threaten detonation. They’re quick reads that slow us down, as if to freeze time. (From the non-Palmer canon, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—influenced, like Palmer’s sparer work, by haiku—exemplifies this phenomenon.) Here’s “Move,” which takes cessation as its subject:
Move that barn a little to the left
if you would
and that memory of a barn
a little to the right
until they coincide.
Palmer’s casual phrasing belies the momentousness of his request. He responds to a common conundrum—the realization that nothing is quite as one remembers it—by urging memory and reality to merge. Such a union would prove that age has warped neither his mind nor the barn. The assonance of “right” and “coincide,” like the rhyme of “would” and “good,” emphasizes his desire to liken unlike items, and thereby stop time. And in a way he does, though mostly because he doesn’t: the unacknowledged impossibility of this request grants the poem an emotional richness that takes time to savor.
Other short poems take only an instant to appreciate: their gift is to be simple. Listen to “Coloring Song”:
You can’t hike deep into this poem and lose yourself on its forking paths: the lines are too straightforward. It’s fitting that some little poems should demand little of us, particularly when they take nothingness as their subject. Such works speed along with the hours; rather than argue with time, they enforce time’s argument.
But the quickness of “Coloring Song”—indeed, perhaps the quickness of any poem—depends partly on its forgettability, which may or may not be intended: Palmer offers plenty of fizzles along with his fireworks. Frequently weaving in fire, shadows, and death—to say nothing of that Master of Shadows character, whose name suggests either Vermeer or vampire—Thread can feel as predictably creepy as a haunted house. Unless you’ve had the experience described below, perhaps you’ll join me in giggling at the prospect:
Say that a spider with a death’s-head
crawls into your bed
and offers to make love.
—From “Say (5)”
At its best, however, Thread induces tears rather than giggles (and, perhaps, a faint curiosity regarding human/insect interaction). “It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book” confronts the major paradox that anchors this volume—the inextricability of living and dying, for art and for us:
In the palm garden at night they set fire to the book
and read by the light of the book.
It is the role of the lovers to be figures of the book.
In the palm garden—a likely pun on Palmer’s name, and a suggestion that these lovers loll in his garden of verses—the light of comprehension mingles with the light of destruction: the lovers burn the book in order to read it. In the process, they become literally absorbed in their reading. As “figures of the book,” they might represent the volume, or they might serve as its characters. While they read, they “change” “as the music of the book / . . . / instructs,” “now tearing at throat and vein, / then splayfoot, then winged, then ember.”
On one level, this poem advances a simple and unsettling argument: we’re just as mortal as the art that moves us. But this garden doubles as a forge; the lovers aren’t exactly dying, but “changing” from flat-footed to fleet to fiery. They transform at last into ember, a dying thing that nonetheless glows with life, reflecting at once time’s slowness and its speed. So, perhaps, goes art, and so do we.
All This Could Be Yours, by Joshua Trotter.
Joshua Trotter’s All This Could Be Yours, a miracle of meter and meteorology, teems with rollicking weather reports. In “The Soloist,” a siren’s song brews storms as well as other kinds of trouble. The speaker, who evidently runs a kingdom by the sea, notes of his companions:
It’s not with sweat their clothes are wet, nor rain.
Her song slides down the sides of their bowed brains.
I listen to the drips, the drops and trickles. My kingdom drowns.
Like a siren, this debut poet offers mesmerizing music that can set us at sea, inducing a pleasurable madness drawn largely from sound, not sense. Aswim in the drips and drops of assonance, alliteration, and other sonic effects, his poems at their most enchanting nearly register as songs without words.
In “Hearing,” as in “The Soloist,” words turn literally to water:
Mornings after we gave up words, we still loved
to lie and graze the day awake
watching our old chit-chat thatch the street like rain.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon
now the dead grow sound limbs to stand upon
nourished by discourse we once loved.
In their sodden crypts they sigh awake
solitary, listening to the rain
heartened by our lost and rousing homilies—the rain
engaging vacant brains it falls upon
until everyone we love or once loved
is dying tonight or lying still awake
listening, for our sake, as rain rains the dead awake.
There’s something diplomatic about rain
strewing phrase upon phrase upon...
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
hold words they love from rain. I’m held awake
by heavy sentences the rain might lay upon them.
Wooed by acoustics, we accept Trotter’s premise that conversation has condensed into precipitation—partly because the poem enacts that very effect. Like raindrops hitting a roof, words and sounds strike and resound: “lie,” “sigh,” “dying,” “lying,” “I.” Several terms refract into multiple meanings: “morning” hints at “mourning”; “watch” and “awake” suggest “wake”; “sound” and “here”—a homophone for “hear”—enforce the poem’s appreciation for verbal music.
“Hearing” echoes another poem, “Rain” by the wwi soldier Edward Thomas. For Thomas, rain signified not company but condemnation:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die.
Trotter’s revision permits Thomas an exquisite consolation: If rain and words are the same, then Thomas, hearing rain, was really hearing poems—as he was, in a way, since the rain inspired him to write a poem—and thus the company of fellow poets eased his isolation. Similarly Trotter, hearing rain, detected Thomas’s poem, and let it leak into “Hearing.”
The poem’s pretty but perplexing coda might give us pause. Trotter has not hinted at the significance of keeping words from rain, nor has rain seemed punitive, so what are we to make of his prayer that “none whom once I loved/hold words they love from rain” and his fear of “heavy sentences the rain might lay upon them”?
Such mild confusions trickle through All This Could Be Yours, and they exert odd effects. On the one hand they break Trotter’s spells, indicting him of pursuing mood at the expense of meaning. Yet even as our frustration mounts, we notice the poem winking at us from its island perch. It hisses that meaning might not matter after all: if that line doesn’t make sense, neither do a lot of the great things in life, like string cheese, or love. Stop thinking and just listen! Let go! Fall in! (Whether you drop into the waves or cling to the mast depends on your attitude toward meaning, which I confess I’ve always liked.)
Like us, Trotter seems at once flummoxed and fascinated by the nonsensical. Recalling efforts by Keats, Hardy, and principally Frost, the fledgling poet continues poetry’s long (and, one fears, unreciprocated) love affair with birds, which produce an unparsable verse of their own:
Decode the cries of birds, is why I came
at dawn to press record on each machine.
Oscilloscopes and spectrographs and hoists
grew hot then moist then rust I stayed so long
unknown among my future-perfect hosts.
I stayed so long and never heard them sing
a theme I couldn’t transfer note for note
to satellites that thronged above unsung
repeating birdcall bleep for bleep—but not,
I told myself—restating what they sang.
I’d caught the pitch, the point remained unclear.
Dead air, I said, as I prepared to leave
for they, like me, had little to declare
so I declared and made myself believe.
This poem dovetails with Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same,” which describes Eve’s voice weaving into birdsong, infusing “an oversound, / Her tone of meaning but without the words.” Trotter’s speaker is interested not in tone, but in meaning: like an augur, he believes the birds carry messages for him. Yet his many machines serve only to record and repeat the pitches they detect, transforming cheeps into bleeps. When he catches the pitch but not the point, he fails to understand that, in birdsong—as, perhaps, in Trotter poems—the pitch is the point.
In the end, he declares this medley “dead air,” an expression borrowed from that mechanical means of music production, the radio. But his phrase also suggests the birds are singing dead airs, useless songs—and that the poet, who similarly has “little to declare,” is doing the same. That suspicion could trouble us, too, for some of Trotter’s choices, here as in “Hearing,” prove difficult to “decode”: Why, for instance, does Trotter toss in a baseball metaphor (“caught the pitch”)? What’s the sense of the tense pun (“future-perfect”)? How heavily are we to weigh his words?
The poem’s conclusion might tip the scales in his favor. “So I declared and made myself believe” suggests, among other possibilities, that Trotter “declared” something—anything (note the lack of object)—and thereby created belief: even when words offer little content, they can produce emotion, just like Trotter’s poetry at its most elegant and indecipherable.
Yet in response to Trotter’s flirtations with sense, meaning mavens like myself can’t help but wish for something more, well, meaningful. His many strengths, however, keep us listening and wanting to understand. He makes us, if not birders, then worders, hoping his lovely and peculiar songs will eventually yield secrets worth knowing.
Money Shot, by Rae Armantrout.
Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.
Poetic peekaboo is Rae Armantrout’s game. Emotional appeals appear and disappear; speakers flutter in and out like moths; scenes materialize only for moments. Her restraint renders her disclosures both moving and brief, as when a shy person suddenly mentions his secret love affair, only to blush and hush up. And it sensitizes us to the undercurrent of feeling that courses through even her most objective efforts. Take “Spin,” which argues (peekaboo!) that we ourselves are barely here:
That we are composed
of dimensionless points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
which is a mapping
So intellectual as to feel nearly cold, the lines above might leave us cold if not for the repetition of “nonetheless,” which gestures vaguely—lifting, perhaps, just one index finger—toward amazement. The very subtlety of the move invites us to stare, until the speaker’s amazement, like an affective balloon, seems to puff up beyond its original scale.
This poem about the strangeness of size considers the paradoxical mathematics of our existence, which calculates our presence as the sum of our many absences. And it doubles as a sly statement of poetics, explaining how Armantrout often “composes” her own work out of points—near-dimensionless notions whose pithiness complements the brevity of her lines and stanzas. Her purposes emerge, like pointillist images, only when we consider her observations in relationship to one another.
Armantout’s points “spin” in various directions and to various effects: sometimes, signifying a change of mood or mode, they choreograph poetic turns. Sometimes they tell stories—“spin tales”—and sometimes they add spin to received accounts. And quite often, as in the haunting, haunted “Second Person,” they whirl us around, making us dizzy:
You are known
for your voluptuous retreat,
on the air,
if you think
a bead on a string.
I can take it with me.
If sentiment lurks within the severity of “Spin,” “Second Person” declares its openness (“You are known”) only to close itself off. Armantrout’s addressee is pointedly dimensionless: she remains absent not only from the speaker, but also from the poem, which offers no description of her. Only her departure maintains staying power, lingering in the air like a whiff of perfume. That withdrawal invites uninformative adjectives: her retreat is “voluptuous,” and her absence “illicit, thin”—inappropriate and conflicting descriptors that serve only to limit our insight into her (who might, for all we know, be a “him”).
Armantrout tries to undo us, similarly, with this cognitive knot: “I know / you think / I wonder / if you think / of me.” The two halves of this “reflection” function as mirror images, symmetrically balancing first- and second-person pronouns, as well as the word “think.” Like a “bead on a string”—like a “dimensionless point”—that stanza “spins” disorientingly, a circus of “I”s and “you”s that nearly disguises the speaker’s reticence: rather eloquently, she has said hardly anything. Yet her statement insinuates that speaker and addressee have toured one another’s mental landscapes, and understand the terrain. How else could you know what someone thinks, or wonders, or thinks you wonder?
Like a good therapist, “Second Person” feels intimate without sharing anything we want to know. The “I” in the poem is as vague as the “you,” a vacancy that permits readers to project our personalities onto speaker and addressee alike, transforming them into reflections of us and of each other. The profoundly stirring achievement of this personal poem is to share nothing personal at all. We don’t merely learn about absence; we experience it for ourselves. Armantrout is far from the only contemporary poet to use distance as a means or end, and yet few others do it to such immediate effect.
As we continue our spin through Money Shot, Armantrout’s speakers excuse themselves from her poems in ever more inventive ways. In “Autobiography: Urn Burial,” she writes:
I might hazard that my life’s course
has been somewhat unusual.
When I say that, I hear both
an eager claim
and a sentence that attempts to distance itself
by adopting the style
of a 19th-century English gentleman.
The failed authority
of such sentences is soothing,
like watching Masterpiece Theatre.
Here, the speaker appears to talk about herself while sharing nothing of substance: she might hazard that her life’s course has been somewhat unusual (but would she hazard, and how unusual?). Rather than clarify, she analyzes her own sentence, offers two conflicting readings, evaluates their combined effect, and compares it to a relevant cultural landmark. As with “Second Person,” we might feel distanced and displaced: If this speaker is her own best critic, then readers and reviewers need not attempt interpretation.
Yet we readers and reviewers are an incorrigible bunch. The speaker’s statement, designed to prevent us from thinking, merely makes us think about her wish for us not to think. Just as Armantrout revises the traditional lyric by seemingly stripping it of feeling, this speaker tries to reform the traditional reader, telling us we needn’t engage with poetry as we long have. The effect is a wash of loss and sadness that refutes her goal. Even when she declares intellectualism, Armantrout gives us a strained, strange emotionalism; even as she alienates us, she suggests we are all—like the wheels of a tandem bicycle—spinning in sympathy nonetheless.