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Michael Palmer
Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks reviewed by
Vincent Katz
New Directions, 2008

Michael Palmer, Berlin, 2001, photo John Tranter

Michael Palmer, Berlin, 2001, photo John Tranter


Michael Palmer, a poet and translator, was born in Manhattan and has lived in San Francisco since 1969. He has worked with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company for over thirty years and has collaborated with many visual artists and composers. His most recent poetry collections are Codes Appearing (Poems 1979-1988) and Company of Moths. His selected essays and talks Active Boundaries, was published in 2008. In 2006, he received the Wallace Stevens Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at various universities in the United States and Europe, and his writings have been translated into more than 25 languages.

To Speak Out Of Difference

Michael Palmer will be a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival in Sydney, Australia, 17 to 23 May, 2010.


Michael Palmer is renowned as an experimental poet and also as a translator. The citation of his 2006 Wallace Stevens Award, given by the Poetry Society of America, reads in part, “Michael Palmer is the foremost experimental poet of his generation, and perhaps of the last several generations. He is one of the most original craftsmen at work in English at the present time.” To experiment is to try something one has not tried before; it is the hallmark of those artists to whom we attach the modifier “great.” And yet, great artists are also capable of wide communication, and they are able to tackle the timeless topics of love, life and death.


For Palmer, poetry represents a formal and a political commitment. In “Active Boundaries: Poetry at the Periphery,” the title essay of a recent collection of writings on poetics and culture, Palmer defines poetry thus: “By ‘poetry,’ I mean that poetry often marked by resistance and necessary difficulty, by a certain rupture and refusal, and by the use of exploratory forms.” In a 1991 essay on Shelley, he attacks those he calls The New Formalists — a name that recalls the The New Critics — as being poetry-world Neo-Cons. “In poetry,” Palmer writes, “as a poet committed to an exploratory prosody, an assertion of resistance to ‘meaning’ and ‘expression’ as givens, and a radical questioning of our means of representation, I have been struck by the quite determined recent movements to reassert order under the familiar flags of ‘craft,’ ‘value,’ ‘taste,’ ‘excellence,’ etc.”


If we are interested in the mind behind the poems, we can get hints from poets Palmer has translated. That list includes Arthur Rimbaud, Emmanuel Hocquard, Vicente Huidobro, plus numerous contemporary French and Brazilian poets, clearly indicating Palmer’s European-inflected modernist base. Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks allows the reader to go off the beaten path — regionally, intellectually, and psychologically — with Palmer as an ever-entertaining and stimulating guide.


The essays are arranged in reverse chronological order, which functions well in this case. We start in medias res as it were and delve progressively deeper into the poet’s aesthetic origins; his poetics receives its most direct statements in the earliest essays, making for a climactic conclusion to the book. Some were written for talks on particular occasions — for the 22nd George Oppen Memorial Lecture at the San Francisco Poetry Center, as the keynote address for the Evergreen State College Synergy Symposium, for the Keats-Shelley Society in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s birth, and as an introduction to the Objectivist Conference at the Fondation Royaumont. Others are introductions to books by other writers — to a new compilation of Robert Duncan’s Ground Work, for a recent publication of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s The New Life, for a book of Bei Dao’s poems. Still others came about as contributions to books on a given author, while two were written for exhibition catalogues by visual artists. Knowing the sources from which these works sprang, where they were originally contextualized, helps us know more about Palmer’s universe — how he has functioned as a writer, and in which worlds he has found comfort and interest.


The pieces are diverse in length and format. One gets the impression this diversity of style is not simply in response to the subject or to the type of contribution required for a given occasion, but also as a conscious choice of prose style. It feels like a personal commitment to making the writing as interesting as what is being said. From a two-page letter addressed to Walt Whitman to the expansive “Danish Notebook,” Palmer finds particular ways to write about his subjects, at appropriate scale.


Unlike most books of critical writings, this one is a page-turner. The writing and the mind go hand in hand and take the reader down pathways bathed in the light of an attention that shows us the world — the outside world and the world of words — in new ways. I am reminded of a book by a writer Palmer much admires, Robert Creeley. Creeley’s novel The Island does not so much tell a story, the disintegration of a family, as it carefully, methodically focuses attention on the words used to tell the story. That focus is so fierce that it forces our awareness away from the narrative, which begins to seem paltry in comparison.


Here’s an example of how Palmer can use mute objects from daily life to paint vivid pictures:


Life on the road — what I keep in my room: Japanese rice crackers wrapped in seaweed, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, single malt scotch, mineral water.

How this varies according to location. For example, in Paris the time before last, in my room at the Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles: clémentines, bread and cheese, calvados, mineral water. A friend had brought me the clémentines.


And in Leningrad, 1990, whatever we could fit into our luggage, from a Helsinki supermarket, before our trip to the Finland Station: crackers, grains, dried soups, bottled water, fruit juices.


This is from “The Danish Notebook,” a diary work composed in small sections (the above is a complete section), separated by asterisks. The tri-partite account of hotel-room provisions is followed by a section that begins, “Did I mention solitude, which in traveling across multiple time zones seems to deepen and darken?”


When I began Active Boundaries, I began making discreet dots in pencil in the margins to mark passages I wanted to recall. However, at a certain point in my reading, I realized I needed to amplify that. The pencil notations were sufficient for what I now labeled “ideas”; I began to use a blue pencil to mark those sections I needed to remember as “writing.” Ideas and writing overlap and are sometimes identical, but I found Palmer’s use of language in writing about artists and ideas was generating multiple areas of experience in my brain, and I needed to be able to try to distinguish those areas, however crudely. So I began underlining in blue such phrases as “disturbingly attainable,” “the layerings that constitute identity or presence,” “false autobiographical collage,” “the mechanisms of displacement that inhere in language,” “a complex and ironic document,” “isolated and isolating self-examination,” “radical alterity.”


While Palmer’s poetics comes through clearly in this book, and one can extrapolate from that to his own practice as a poet, there is less emphasis on his personal methodology. This probably stems from a desire in these pieces to be in the service of others. The following, from “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice,” is an exception. Here, we are given a window into both how Palmer distinguishes himself from poetic models and how he conceives of poetic composition, a method he refers to elsewhere as “palimpsest.” Significantly, Palmer finds a new method of writing in a different art form:


One of the things that I learned from de Kooning was how to deal with an emerging work, not in terms of correcting the work — again, in discussion with people like Creeley, I found that Bob’s model of the one-shot poem, that you either made or you didn’t make it, was simply inadequate to the notion of layering I was involved with, and the fact that a lot of my work takes a great deal of time to complete, and yet I was drawn to his sense of staying away from one aspect of revision, which is the normative sense of revising to conform to certain expectations. And so, I turned to de Kooning, who in an interview talked about returning and returning to the first moment of the canvas, and the layering process, the process of accretion and the process of emergence.


We have a sense of the person behind the writing in Active Boundaries. There is a naturalness to the way one thought triggers an associated thought. There is real humor too and it concomitant, wit. In “Autobiography, Memory and Mechanisms of Concealment,” he gives examples of various paradigms of writing about oneself, including a section from Erik Satie’s Memoirs of an Amnesiac, the schedule in “The Day of a Musician”: “Get up at 7:18 a.m.; inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 p.m. and leave the table at 12:14.” The wit can arrive in moments that are not funny but which allow us to see a radically different way of conceiving of a problem.


In the same essay, while considering to what extent and how all autobiography is fabrication, he includes, by way of exegesis of his own poem “The End of the Ice Age and Its Witnesses” (“a kind of false autobiographical collage that might turn out to be quite true”), an excerpt from the Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr’s ghostwritten autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. The scene of two actresses confronting their loneliness and then finding consolation in spontaneous sex comes as an unexpected thrill (for the writing style as much as the subject matter) within a more sober context.


Palmer is constantly making parallels, drawing on the thoughts and words of a kaleidoscopic array of diverse intellectuals. Most critics fill their texts with references, calculating that support from already-sanctioned writings will beef up their case. Reading Palmer, one finds — in place of the deadened, predictable litany of re-hashed scholarship — the continual wonderment of someone who is amazed at how people from very different times and places are working together in poetics-politics. In this typical paragraph (from “Active Boundaries: Poetry at the Periphery”), he transitions, without a second thought, from Zukofsky to the Caribbean:


The multiple dialects of “A” and the pastiching of sources and citations in “Poem beginning ‘The’” bring to mind the echoing and multiphonics found in sections of X/Self, the final volume of a trilogy by the great Caribbean poet and cultural scholar, Kamau Brathwaite.


After quoting from Brathwaite’s poem, in which, Palmer tells us, “we experience the sound of ‘young Caliban howling for his tongue,’” Palmer effortlessly locates the poem within its particular context:


Caliban cannibalized is, of course, one of the central symbols of Caribbean anti-colonial thought, representing, among other things, the dilemma of reclaiming language through the language of the colonizer, and the multiple ironies attendant to such an undertaking.


After discussing Brathwaite’s “nonmetrical and cadential” approach to prosody, Palmer takes another hairpin curve:


The space of the page is taken as a site in itself, a syntactical and visual space to be expressively exploited, as was the case with the Black Mountain poets, as well as writers such as Frank O’Hara, perhaps partly in response to gestural abstract painting.


In a single paragraph, Palmer takes us from Zukofsky to Brathwaite to Black Mountain to O’Hara to abstract expressionist painting before ending up with the Ukranian poet Alexei Parshchikov, all supporting his basic point of a poetry that must remain at the periphery of the general culture, can never be central.


One constant tone throughout the book is what I would call political necessity. Palmer finds it exigent to include current political dilemmas of the times in which he writes into discussions of authors who may or may not be from the same times. By so doing, he contextualizes his own comments, issuing a reminder to the reader that one cannot think (or write) in a vacuum. In the 2005 letter to Walt Whitman, entitled “Dear Walt,” Palmer writes, “I don’t know whether you keep abreast of the news, Walt, but it is not good. The current administration, a dungheap of pious hypocrites and liars, has used the pretext of the war against terror to dismantle the founding principles and values of the Republic and to abrogate international treaties.”


14 years earlier, in “Some Notes on Shelley, Poetics and the Present,” he had written, “Ten years of Reaganbush, coupled with the vicious attacks by the likes of Jesse Helms and Donald Wildmon on free speech, and racial, sexual and cultural difference, have been only the most visible signs of a rightward drift toward a shamelessly exploitive materialism and a know-nothingism worn with a kind of violent pride.”


Always, such passages, explicitly or implicitly, connect with attacks on blinkered poets, whose poetics reinforces entrenched powers. At the end of the same essay, Palmer praises Shelley as an example of a poet who “represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry that risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness.”


It is hard to give an idea of the pleasure Palmer’s prose provides, without simply quoting from it wholesale, as much of the thrill is in the connections; you never know where he’s going to go next. Here is the opening of “Autobiography, Memory and Methods of Concealment,” originally a talk given at New Langton Street in San Francisco in 1980, first published in Hills 8 in 1981:


Possibly to begin: dinner at Michael Davidson’s Berkeley apartment with Robert Duncan in 1971. I mentioned the difficulty I was having writing, that is, inventing, an autobiographical note for my first book with Black Sparrow Press… the question who I had been or was going to claim to be, alongside a poet’s face, apparently mine, on final page of book that same poet had apparently written. Cloned as a chance by-product of the Manhattan Project in the early forties? Born in Tierra del Fuego under still mysterious circumstances to the mistress of the British vice-consul? Dago alto saxophonist from Boston? (Novelists are great at this — they all seem to have worked on lobster boats.)


Perplexed by the dilemma of his identity as a young writer, Palmer mentioned it to Duncan, who composed the following biography:


I think Michael Palmer was delivered two blocks away in 1943 because he was aborted at our address two months before. Now he has arrived I think a long way from the Rhinelander Apartments in Greenwich Villagewith a poetry addressed to occupant to refund the Indians for the Manhattan sell.


Black Sparrow did include Duncan’s text but also added the following:


Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943. He was educated at Harvard University and now lives and works in San Francisco.


Intriguing here is Palmer’s early insistence that poetry (Duncan) should be the primary reference of reality, while what is normally taken for reality (“true” facts and figures) must be given secondary position, or none. Questions of what is reality and what is fantasy or imagination take particular significance when the subject is oneself.


Ultimately, Active Boundaries is a book the reader must come to terms with. For all the enjoyment it provides — its palpable delight in the act of writing communicates its enthusiasm directly to the reader — it also raises thorny questions the reader needs to sort out. Is regret limitless, as Palmer states in “The Danish Notebook”? At another moment, he champions Shelley’s optimism, and some readers may choose to put their lot into that vessel. Where are we today vis-à-vis The New Formalists Palmer identified in 1991?


Although he does not state it, he heavily implies we have a duty to find answers to such questions, to determine where our own poetics stands in relation to the center and the periphery, to resistance to and acceptance of the status quo. “What was interesting to me, actually,” Palmer writes in “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice,” was the possibility of a life entirely given over to the poem. A life that was not referential to ‘the literary,’ what qualifies as literature, as to the actual exigencies and demands of the poetic vocation.” What gives poetry its power is its very location on the periphery.


I’m not sure I’d classify Palmer as an “experimental” poet. That term always brings to mind for me a more violent, rupturing, experience, whereas reading Palmer’s poetry, I feel I am in the presence of a lyric master, one who has taken the time and practice to master all the arts of poetry — or as many as are possible during a single lifetime — and he has sifted and combined, re-combined, erased, added, fitted, until his surfaces are pristine. Reading Active Boundaries gives a very tangible sense of what may lie behind some of the shards Palmer polishes into his verse.

Vincent Katz, Vienna, photo by Vivien Bittencourt

Vincent Katz, Vienna, photo by Vivien Bittencourt

Vincent Katz is the author of ten books of poetry, including Cabal of Zealots, Pearl, Understanding Objects, Rapid Departures, and Judge. His most recent book of poems is Alcuni Telefonini, collaboration with Francesco Clemente published in 2008 by Granary Books. Katz curated an exhibition on Black Mountain College at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, whose catalogue, Black Mountain College: Experiment In Art, was published by MIT Press in 2002. Katz won ALTA’s 2005 National Translation Award for his book of translations from Latin, The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius (2004, Princeton University Press). He is the publisher and editor of the poetry and arts journal VANITAS and of Libellum books.

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