Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Michael Palmer, Little Elegies for Sister Satan
New Directions, 2021, $16.95
Review by Norman Finkelstein

‘Pillows of Stone’: A Poem by Michael Palmer
A Close Reading by Henry Weinfield

A new book of poetry by Michael Palmer is always an important event. Palmer is generally seen as an “experimental” poet; the citation when he won the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets calls him “the foremost experimental poet of his generation, and perhaps of the last several generations.” I totally concur with this description—indeed, let me state quite plainly that I regard Palmer as one of our greatest living poets—but I also want to note that as Wallace Stevens himself tells us, “All poetry is experimental poetry.” I take this to mean that all poetry is engaged in a process of discovery; it is seeking to uncover something new, to reveal, through the medium of language, what we never knew, or perhaps what we only intuited but could not yet put into words. Why, I wonder, is Palmer seen as an “experimental” poet, if it is a term that in one sense is intrinsic to poetry itself? Labels tend to adhere to artists even when they may no longer be completely accurate. As I hope to explain regarding Little Elegies for Sister Satan, Palmer’s poetry is central to our poetic concerns, not only because of its experimentalism, but because of its roots deep in the wellsprings of the lyric tradition. What Palmer tells us about his friend and mentor Robert Duncan applies equally to himself: “Duncan felt the need to assert the force of heretical opinion, which in turn for him was grounded in the authority of timeless heretical gnosis. The poem was to stand as a ‘grand collage’, a constellation of myriad myths and voices from an eternal counter-tradition, as well as of impulses, accidents and intrusions, disciplined and informed by an attention to the poem's ratios or measures. Into its field, ‘where sympathies and aversions mingle’, closed and open forms, harmonies and disharmonies, the mythic and the mundane, the hieratic and the demotic, were to be equally welcomed.” (“Robert Duncan and Romantic Synthesis”) This vision of poetry as “an eternal counter-tradition” looms large in Palmer’s new book.

Palmer is also often characterized as a “difficult” poet. He has spent a lifetime producing a challenging, radically defamiliarizing body of work of uncanny beauty and grandeur. But again, what is “difficult” poetry? In his magisterial essay “On Difficulty,” George Steiner posits four different types of difficulty. As he summarizes, “Contingent difficulties aim to be looked up; modal difficulties challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy; tactical difficulties endeavor to deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of words and grammar.” Palmer’s work fits all three of these categories, but most importantly, it also fulfills Steiner’s fourth category, that of ontological difficulties, “which confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a poem.” Presumably then, we may come to Little Elegies for Sister Satan anticipating challenges to our poetic expectations, language that baffles us and stops us in our tracks, novel forms and modes of discourse. Above all else, we can anticipate what Steiner calls “the status of signification” to be called into question.

Let me note at this point that I have written extensively about Palmer’s work on several previous occasions, most recently in On Mount Vision (2010). In regard to the matter of Palmer’s signifying practices, I observe that “the highly inventive semiological play that characterizes his work through the late eighties…has given way in recent years to an equally inventive, equally philosophical engagement with agencies of desire, meaning, truth, and yes [quoting from one of his interviews], ‘Spirit, with that troublesome, rebarbative capital letter.’” Hence we see a body of work that in some respects moves from an aggressively experimental stance to one in which the experimental aspects of the work are increasingly subsumed in what may appear to be more traditional lyricism. Palmer’s poetry in the twenty-first century continues along this trajectory. Writing at a relatively steady pace (Little Elegies is his fifth collection since 2000), Palmer has produced a body of work of increasingly refined musicality, achieving a surface style that is all luxe, calm et volupté. Below this surface, however, many of the same themes he has always engaged produce an inescapable verbal—and ontological—turbulence. Little Elegies for Sister Satan registers this turbulence in a poetry of grace, pathos, and surprising wit.

Little Elegies consists of three sections: the title series, World Enough, and Midnights. Seriality has always been fundamental to Palmer’s method of composition. The individual lyric poems in each series maintain relative autonomy; they stand as discrete entities yet resonate with, and sometimes speak directly, to the others in the series. Additionally, the concept of the Book, with its roots in such diverse writers as Mallarmé, Jabès, Derrida, and Spicer, creates an overarching structure, so that again, a more or less subtle resonance informs the totality of the work. Increasingly prominent in this new book, however, is the sense of the poem turning upon itself, of a self-conscious making (poesis) through unmaking. As Palmer writes in “Elegies: First Commentary,” “Many things bring me to a state of near paralysis, as when the demands of form, its counterlogical certitudes, begin to take hold, without so much as a word” (23). The notion of poetic form as a kind of “counterlogic” has been at work in Palmer’s oeuvre from the beginning, but here, “the demands of form” point toward silence, a silence that is both antithetical and fundamental to the writing of the poem. Thus “We ask the words to do their work / but they have nothing to tell” (“Pillows of Stone,” 73). If language speaks us, as the structuralists believe, then what will become of us—what will become of poetry—when words no longer do their work? Perhaps, as at the end of “Solunar Tablets,” we have reached the point where “the poem-road below / of silences and stones // comes to a final turn” (34).

But Palmer understands, like Beckett before him, that coming to the end of the road, the terrifying possibility of language collapsing upon itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, for this situation compels writers to return to the roots of their art. The result in Beckett is a bleak comedy staged at the edge of the abyss. The result in Palmer (though he too, as we shall see, has a quirky sense of humor) is a rhapsodic, fluid lyricism that is always unsettled by the impossibility of the visions it conjures:

I saw a house of ink-dark glass
and Minerva’s Owl flying backwards

towards that city with a future
never to be. It’s there we learned
those countless lessons about falling,
night falling, and the inner sky, it
too falling, and the masters of Doo-Wop,

Techno and Ska,
of tone row and dice throw,
and angel-winged messengers
of Utopia, their showers of light
and open-tuned guitars, the Green

Dancer in her flesh-clinging mist,
Flora and Kiki and Mme. X.,
glistening Ava, fading Echo
and, silently, the Anti-Icarus
falling among concrete cliffs,

his welcoming arms outstretched.
City of conjurors and crumbling gates,
mute buskers and alphabets aflame—
                                          (“Seventh Elegy,” 12-13)

In the “house of ink-dark glass” that is the poem (as in The Promises of Glass, Palmer’s collection published in 2000, at the cusp of the new century), Minerva’s Owl flies backwards. Palmer alludes to Hegel’s famous aphorism from the Philosophy of Right, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk,” meaning that philosophy, or more generally, wisdom, comes into being only at the end of an era. Palmer’s owl flies backwards, into the past, leading us “towards that city with a future / never to be.” There is no going forward; the city has no future, and it is there, understandably, that “we learned / those countless lessons about falling.” What follows this gnostic insight is another of the catalogs of strange figures, slightly out of place cultural references, and surreal, disquieting images which Palmer has given us in some of his most haunting poems since his book At Passages (1995), if not before. Without unpacking all of these references, I cannot help wondering whether the “angel-winged messengers / of Utopia” can deliver their messages in this “City of conjurors and crumbling gates, / mute buskers and alphabets aflame.” Would it avail them to do so in a city with no future?

The figure to whom these prophetic words are addressed is the enigmatic “Sister Satan.” At the risk of narrativizing what is essentially a sequence of lyric poems, the poet first encounters her in opening lines of the “First Elegy”:

Singing is prohibited in this café.
Torture is permitted in this café.

I’ll have a double, thank you.
in ¾ time, Sister,

may I call you Sister, you
almond-eyed, unsmiling,

in this ever-changing light
that cloaks the feral world? (3)

“Feral”: gone wild, no longer domesticated. The world in which the poet finds himself in the company of Sister Satan, the world, or the vision of reality, which she represents, is not evil per se, but perhaps beyond good and evil, outside of accepted ethical norms. Torture is permitted, and indeed, the poem goes on to name “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Abu Ghraib, // Oradour, Terezín, Deir Yassin, / Vel d’Hive, Vorkuta, Magadan”—all more or less famous sites of inhuman cruelty, terrible suffering, and genocide—but seen as “that waltz, that dance.” Modern history with all its horrors is ironically portrayed in aesthetic terms: “All the beautiful names, // Sister, the infinite names, / roll off the tongue // innumerable as the stars / that frolic in the sea” (4). Palmer has interrogated the dialectic of art and politics throughout his career (see, for example, the “Adorno poem” in the Baudelaire Series), but in the poet’s relationship to this “Sister,” I sense an unprecedented pathos. Given Palmer’s attitude toward the notion of self-expression and poetic voice, I must put this cautiously, but there is an intimate, personal note here that sorrowfully links the poet and Sister Satan as together they face the horrors of our “ensorcelled earth.” It is a bond that comes into being through loss, as Palmer explains with rueful irony:

They ask me now at readings
about the strange creatures

suddenly turning up in my work—
you, Sister Satan, among others—

and I try patiently to explain
that as my truest friends in this life

begin one by one to vanish
I must find new ones, equally strange.
                                          (“At Readings,” 55)

This bond becomes both more loving and more frightening through a device which Palmer has used before, but rarely with as much foreboding and poignance: the rhetorical question. Here is one of any number of examples, from the “Fifth Elegy”:

How many languages, how many limbs,
are scattered along the roads
of this earth? How many sounds
meeting their anti-sounds?
How many books burning

to light the way?
How many pure believers
to shatter the icons
of the pure believers
while the ensorcelled earth spins

on a turtle’s back? (10)

The questions which the poet asks of his “ghost sister” (“Sixth Elegy, 11) or which they ask together, adumbrate the terrible contradictions of our contemporary politics. By the “Ninth Elegy,” the poet watches “the crazed sister / as she hurls / wine glasses and dinner plates / from her apartment window” (“Ninth Elegy,” 16). And in the “Tenth Elegy,” “Sister Satan declares, When poetry reinvents itself without words, I will be first in line to listen” (17). Again, we approach the point at which poetry yields to silence, as implied in Adorno’s famous dictum (now bordering on cliché) that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Like Celan’s work before his, Palmer’s poetry is both a refutation of Adorno and an acknowledgment that his dictum must be taken into account.

Thus we are led back to the making and unmaking in this book, the “sounds / meeting their anti-sounds” from which comes Palmer’s unique lyricism. As the passages I’ve quoted indicate, Palmer’s sense of measure is remarkably subtle. Stanza structure, repetition, enjambment, occasional rhyme—from poem to poem, all work to produce a sustained rhythm that still registers every perturbation of thought, every surprising shift in affect. And in poem after poem of great integrity, the poem deconstructs itself:

Never beg for mercy
from the poem,
since it can offer none.

Do not ask
what language it speaks
since the answer is none.

Remember that the light and the dark
are the same,
if you can,

if you can,
that the I
and the Thou are the same,

the above and the below,
the far and the near.
Embrace the words you cannot hear.
                                          (“Tbilisi Thoughts,” 65-66)

In words one cannot hear, in a language that does not exist, the poem asserts a terrifying, liberating unity. Creation unmakes itself, the existential distance between Buber’s I and Thou collapses, and the poem reminds us of the ancient hermetic truth of the Emerald Tablet, “As above, so below.” Note Palmer’s use of the imperative here, which may be regarded as the converse of his use of the interrogative. The poem questions, the poem demands: both are rhetorical means which Palmer deploys to simultaneously dethrone and reinstate the power of lyric utterance.

The portentous tone of many of the poems in Little Elegies for Sister Satan is leavened by other, mostly shorter pieces, that demonstrate Palmer’s rarely noted wit. A mordant ironist regardless of the mode in which he writes, Palmer is not what one would think of as a humorous poet (though if you want a laugh, however bitter, read his “Falling Down in America” in The Laughter of the Sphinx). What are we to make, then, of “Midnights: A lifetime”:

It took me a lifetime
of midnights
to realize
that the signifier and signified
are just a bunch of jive. (92)

This kind of play is especially prevalent in the Midnights section of Little Elegies. Floating in and out of these poems is Han Shan, the legendary ninth century Chinese poet, the laughing Master of Cold Mountain. “If you // can’t improve / upon // the silence / of deep night,” Han Shan tells the poet, “then please / just shut // the fuck / up” (“Midnights: Crazy Han Shan,” 114). And even more to the point: “As I scribble / these “Midnights” / in the dark, / wise Han / Shan advises, / Above all, / don’t get them right!” (“Midnights: Wise Han Shan,” 116). A marvelous carelessness obtains here, a wild permission that may be found in late work of this kind. As Palmer writes in “Midnights: Moments,” the last poem in the book, “So it is that we spend our moments or midnights fashioning a language from that which cannot be said” (117). Palmer has devoted his entire career to fashioning such a language. He has transformed the unsayable into high art.

*   *   *

“Pillows of Stone”: A Poem by Michael Palmer

A Close Reading by Henry Weinfield

Michael Palmer’s new collection, Little Elegies for Sister Satan, contains a poem entitled “Pillows of Stone” that is at once extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily enigmatic and complex. Here it is in its entirety:

A man is talking to a wall
A woman is weeping by a well

We ask the words to do their work
but they have nothing to tell

The ancient mulberry is finally dying
The tales it’s heard will vanish as well

Perhaps it will outlast me yet
Impossible to tell

I imagine them gathering elsewhere,
these friends so recently gone

So as one we’ll chant Down With Love
and rest our heads on pillows of stone

We’ve sung all of this before of course
but still it remains unknown—

the woman, the well, the man at the wall,
the endless talk and the pillars of stone

One more drink to the swollen moon then,
Whose face has nothing to tell (73)

The poem is divided into two-line segments, or distichs, in which the second line always answers the first and always produces a cadence. Although the poem has very little punctuation (there is not even a period marking its conclusion), it is entirely devoid of enjambment: all of the lines are end-stopped. Although Palmer’s distichs are mostly unrhymed and are thus not couplets in the usual sense, each distich—except for the break in the middle of the poem that occurs after line 8 and marks the beginning of the second section—rhymes with the previous one. So, in the first eight lines, we get the repetitions of the a-rhyme: well, tell, well, tell; then, in the second half of the poem, we get the same pattern but now with the b-rhyme: gone, stone, unknown, stone, until in the final distich, closure is produced by the return of the a-rhyme and the word “tell.” The word “stone” occurs twice: first in the phrase that is also the poem’s title, “pillows of stone,” and then in “pillars of stone.” The word “tell” occurs three times in the poem and seems in some way to be its most important word. But what, if anything, is this poem trying to tell us?

The title is drawn from the story of Jacob’s ladder, as conveyed in the King James Version of the Bible. This can easily be demonstrated, but why Palmer has taken his title from this crucial story remains enigmatic and open to interpretation. The passage from Genesis needs to be quoted at length:

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and I will bring thee again unto this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. . . . (Gen. 28:10-19)

Note that Palmer’s phrases “pillows of stone” and “pillars of stone” are lyrical condensations. The biblical passage says that Jacob “took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows” and that he “took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar.” Palmer must have been drawing from the King James Version because of the tonal convergence of “pillows” and “pillar.” For the translators of the KJV, that may or may not have been inadvertent; but note how, by making “pillar” plural to match “pillows,” Palmer has brilliantly improved upon them.

“Pillars of stone” has a biblical ring to it, but “pillows of stone” does not, at least to my ear; and I was unaware until it was pointed out to me by Norman Finkelstein that Palmer’s title draws on the Jacob’s ladder story. Sometimes one’s ignorance enhances one’s understanding, however, and in this case it made me aware that what has to be interrogated is not only why the poem is alluding to the biblical story but why the allusion does not seem to be functioning as one at all. It is as if the poem simultaneously alluded and did not allude to the story, or as if it alluded to the story and divested itself of this allusion at the same time. But that makes sense. The story of Jacob’s ladder is a theophany that involves not only the appearance of God but a codification of man’s relation to the divine and of his meaning on earth. It may be that all of this is undone by the poem, and that the undoing of the story is part of its raison d’être in the poem. If so, then what is also undone is the possibility of meaning—of meaning in itself.

“A man is talking to a wall / A woman is weeping by a well.” So the poem begins. One could interpret the first line of this opening distich simply in terms of the blockage of communication, as in the idiomatic expression, “Talking to him is like talking to a wall.” Palmer’s symbols are overdetermined in terms of their possible significance and therefore underdetermined in terms of their ultimate meanings—and this in itself constitutes a blockage of communication. But I would want to point to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a second ancient text embedded in “Pillows of Stone.” The wall and the mulberry of line 7 are both present in Ovid’s story, and though the well is partly generated tonally from the wall, it too has a place and function in the story. Having been forbidden by their parents to marry, Pyramus and Thisbe converse through a wall. They agree to meet at a tomb, “and hide behind a tree / in darkness; for beside that tomb there stood / a tall mulberry close to a cool spring” (translation by Allen Mandelbaum). When Thisbe arrives at the tomb, she comes upon a lioness whose mouth is bloody from a recent meal. Thisbe flees, leaving behind her shawl, which the lioness chews on; and when Pyramus finds the bloody shawl, he kills himself in despair. Thisbe then comes upon his dying body, and she too kills herself, but before dying, prophesies that the mulberry’s berries will be changed from white to red. Shakespeare’s rendition of the story in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is comic, but fundamentally, as in Romeo and Juliet, it is a tragic tale of missed connections.

The Latin phrase in Ovid that Mandelbaum translates as “cool spring” is gelido fonti, and fons can also refer to a “well.” The woman at the well is also a biblical archetype, however, or what Robert Alter, in The Art of Biblical Narrative, calls a “type-scene.” “The well at an oasis is obviously a symbol of fertility and, in all likelihood, also a female symbol,” Alter explains, and so when betrothals occur in the Old Testament, they typically occur at wells. If, in line 2 of Palmer’s poem, the Ovidian story and the biblical type-scene come together, this is because both seem to involve the conjunction of Eros and Death.

What does the embedding, conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, of the Pyramus and Thisbe story tell us about Palmer’s gorgeous, albeit stripped-down, lyric? Between the opening distich and the line about the ancient mulberry, we have these lines: “We ask the words to do their work / But they have nothing to tell.” I think two things are happening here simultaneously. On the one hand, there is the apocalyptic sense that we are coming to the end of stories, to the end of our story as human beings. But on the other, there is also a Wittgensteinian meditation on language at work. For Wittgenstein, words have functions, but we should never “forget that a word hasn’t got a meaning given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us, so that there could be a kind of scientific investigation into what the word really means” (The Blue and Brown Books). For Wittgenstein, in short, meaning is not transcendentally conferred, and so there is no depth to language. The words have “nothing to tell” beyond themselves.

If there is thus a dialectic in the poem between an apocalyptic sense that we are coming to the end of stories and a Wittgensteinian sense that the lack of depth was always already there and only waiting to be discovered, this would explain the simultaneous presence of a crucial biblical text and of a narrative from one of the greatest storytellers in the tradition, Ovid. In any event, the two interpretative possibilities come together in the poem. Palmer’s use of the word “tales” with reference to the ancient mulberry—“The tales it’s heard will vanish as well”—may seem a small thing, but it strikes me as a mark of his genius as a lyric artist.

As I noted, the musical break in the poem comes in the movement between the a-rhyme and the b-rhyme. And with the lines that open the second part of the poem, we see that Palmer’s elegy in “Pillows of Stone” has a personal dimension: “I imagine them gathering elsewhere / these friends so recently gone.” The poet, anticipating his own death, brings death and love together in the next distich, with the biblical phrase “pillows of stone.” Palmer transforms the passage in Genesis (“and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows”) into an outright catachresis, a contradiction in terms that conveys, as in the old euphemism, the sense of a body sleeping in its grave. The italicized phrase in “So as one we’ll chant Down With Love” is lifted from American popular culture: the song “Down with Love” was written in 1937, and, as sung by Judy Garland, was featured in a 2003 film of the same name. In both the Big Band song and the film, the phrase “down with love” indicates (rather fatuously) a desire to do away with love. In Palmer’s re-registration of the line, however, it conveys the chthonic sense of a going down into the earth, where love is buried in death, though not necessarily extinguished by it.

The word “stone” in “pillows of stone” has the connotation of both opacity and death; and with the utterance of this word, the poem begins to seek closure: “We’ve sung all of this before of course / But still it remains unknown—// the woman, the well, the man at the wall, / the endless talk and the pillars of stone.” The opacity not only of this lyric but of lyric in general, of lyric as a genre, is brought home by the rhyme of “unknown” and “stone,” and the repetitions indicate a summing up and a coming to an end. Note the transmutation of “pillows of stone” to “pillars of stone”—gravestones certainly, but also a frequently used biblical phrase for that which upholds (as in the columns that Samson pulls down) or that which designates or demarcates. The presence of the moon in the concluding distich (“One more drink to the swollen moon then, / whose face has nothing to tell”) poses this traditional symbol of change against the unmoving solidity and opacity of “stone.” The internal slant rhyme of “moon” with “stone” brilliantly captures this effect.

In Palmer’s “Pillows of Stone,” we are given lyric in an almost primal sense, where, rather than sound echoing sense (as in Pope’s neoclassical formula), the rhymes do the poetic work—the work of telling—despite the fact that the words announce that they “have nothing to tell.” The poem is in that sense an allegory of the poetic process, in the same way as its precursor, Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en-yx” (originally entitled “Sonnet allégorique de lui même”), is. I think it is a remarkable achievement.

Post by Norman Finkelstein & Henry Weinfield on 6/5/2021 at 12:00 PM

Henry Weinfield’s most recent books are a collection of poems, As the Crow Flies (Dos Madres Press, 2021), and two translations, The Labyrinth of Love: Selected Sonnets and Other Poems by Pierre de Ronsard (Parlor Press, 2021) and The Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval (Dos Madres, 2019). He is the editor of From the Vast and Versal Lexicon: Selected Poems by Allen Mandelbaum (Pennyroyal Press, 2018).