Late in Palmer’s new volume we encounter “threnos—thread—lament,” a half-false etymology grounded in initial sounds. It lets us know that this book, like his last, is about filiation—the delicate connections between persons in the Republic of Letters. But this particular filament of sense also transforms filiation until it’s a fact of sound as much as of concept. The word “thread” will appear many times towards the end of the volume, but it doesn’t build up a conceit’s argument so much as mark out a material, repeatable, elastic presence. It is also a figure for the poems themselves, which offer many examples of loose monometer and dimeter. Their svelte verticals suggest that the poems are tenuous threads of threnody (“love’s silent / mirror held up / to the crimes of war // within the small poem”) in the polis of appearances, perhaps connecting nothing to nothing, stray. But only perhaps: one of the book’s central concerns is art’s dangerous and necessary affiliations with the history of suffering. Are a poem’s sounds and figures the way to another, better, virtual world complete with “counterlight” and “antiverse” or the symptomatic expressions of this one? Palmer knows that they are certainly the latter, but that knowledge doesn’t abolish the question because “counter” doesn’t have to mean “other,” can instead mean a lyric criticality threading historical speech with “things other than we thought”—the “what I did not say” of the senses, poetry’s “this word” which is also “not-a-word” and that always “seems to want to mean / still another thing,” “as the music of the book / . . . instructs. Thread figures this wondering about poetry’s relation to the “labyrinthos” of history via its frequent and dramatic “summonings” of the “coiled voices” of two twentieth-century U.S. poets, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. Stevens might represent here a Sidneyan male poet as birther-of-world, a world in which the imagination can imagine itself a mind of winter, somehow free of ideology (“the nothing that is”) and free to build an invisible city from the ground up (“the wise man avenges by building his city in snow”). Palmer summons Stevens in explicit reference (“realist crows” and “harbor lights”) but also as lyric tone and trope: “Let there be that music then // retuning the evening air.” (Stevens would have written “returning” while Palmer writes both at once). Ashbery, on the other hand, is the poet of this world, if on its outside looking out, braiding multiple idiolects till the poem is “song and counter-song” stitched together by the “bindweed” (cf. Ashbery’s “Scheherazade”) of present U.S. speech. Ashbery too is summoned by more than allusion—in one of Thread’s several prose poems, “L’Azur,” he’s given a speaking part:
I returned a book to John Ashbery last week. It was 1” x 1” x 1”, a perfect cube. “Gee, Michael, you’ve had that book for twelve years. What took you so long?” “It was surprisingly dense,” I answered….
The ensuing poem, “What I Did Not Say,” is also prose and continues this allegory of art-in-history, narrating the cubical book’s one impossibly dense word as at first banned then for that reason made part of a resistive “common parlance” until “the ban itself became a subject of ridicule, and those who had imposed the ban were reviled.” The poem ends “Is it possible to conceive that this almost invisible book, with that one word in it, may have been responsible for this turn of affairs?” Yes, it is possible to conceive that it may, but the condition string expresses both the allure and thinness of interventionist hopes for poetry, especially after Palmer’s long and brilliant career of lyrical engagement with war after war and the system that needs them. Poetry’s silent word “with no specific referent or single meaning” is for Palmer neither the foundation for another Stevensian world nor the potentially transformative political fiat of this one’s Spains and Egypts, but a material thread of meaningful sound between them