Ghosts in the Arcade


Web Exclusive:

Read Study, a poem by Michael Palmer

It’s hard to imagine Michael Palmer writing an epic poem. Palmer, the most influential avant-gardist working, and perhaps the greatest poet of his generation, is after all the guy who put the lyric in “Analytic Lyric”—an imaginary movement invented for a confederacy of poetic radicals who couldn’t stop singing long enough to be Language Poets. And his books, including the essential ’80s triptych of Notes for Echo Lake, First Figure, and Sun, are organized not by story but by a dreamland music of calculus and sway—as if the Velvet Underground had fallen in with Wittgenstein rather than Warhol.

The Promises of Glass breaks neither with Palmer’s poetics nor his musicality. It’s structured as a series of series, seven in all, with names like “The White Notebook,” “Four Kitaj Studies,” and “Q.” Sections might be a single poem or as many as 18. That is, the book looks like a bunch of poems unified by a few central ideas and the consciousness of the poet: the order of the day for the contemporary lyric. It certainly doesn’t present a hero’s narrative, as we’re accustomed to think of the epic.

But Palmer’s never been familiar; as with the surrealists and symbolists in his family tree, his genius is for making the world strange again. And in a way, The Promises of Glass does indeed resemble a world-historical epic: On a fractured matrix, it traces the journey of The Divine Comedy. But instead of descending into Hell led by the ghost of Virgil, the unmoored, lucid voice of this book descends into the pit of modern history, wherefore to visit a loose bloc of uneasy ghosts “under a clear sky of cloudless blue, which formed a dome above the foliage but was made dusty by the millions of pages.”

The quote is from Walter Benjamin. Six decades dead, Benjamin is having a career year behind the English publication of his famed, unfinished Arcades Project (once subtitled Paris: The Capital of the 19th Century). Yet it’s Palmer’s dialectical fairyland the quote now conjures, sensually alluring and phenomenally erudite. Palmer’s title draws from Benjamin’s passage about the promises of glass architecture. And it is into this architecture—Paris, the Arcades, the phantas- magoria of both the 19th and 20th centuries—that Palmer walks, with Benjamin himself as the ghostly guide.

The opening meeting, late in the first poem, goes, “We met at the crossroads/near the small arcades./I can’t recall who first spoke,/who said, ‘the darkness of white.’/We shared one shadow.” This sets the terms for much of the book’s crucial moments: There will be a spectral encounter, architecture will be mentioned, color will be of the essence (mostly blue, which burns through the book with painterly intensity), the borders of the self will shiver. Wandering further, we encounter the ghost of Wittgenstein: “A philosopher lies in a doorway, discussing the theory of colors/with himself.” The arcades hold as well Rimbaud, who gets one last line and at another moment casually seizes the book (“What a hellish season it’s been./For a time I thought I was another”). Even the social philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes a star turn as Quod, another kind of specter altogether. He’s the book’s guilty conscience: “Quod considers the possibility he is no longer a thinker . . . but has become instead merely a performer of thought or, even worse, a professor of thought.”

This is indeed the risk the book runs: that in its relentless exploration of what is called thinking, it will fall into the academic or find itself simply a great-man theory of poetics, as seen from the steps of the Pantheon. But the book means neither to name-drop nor to sterilize; rather it sets up a radical drama between the philosophical and personal, between sense and the sensual—a tension unfolding endlessly outward from history, from the arcade of ghosts, to powerfully unsettle the living.


In a darkened room they
speak as one against the
religion of the word, against
the prophetic, the sublime, the
orphic call. It is a
strange conversation, coming as it
does after hours of making
love, mid-afternoon till now, at
this their second meeting, shutters
closed to block the lamplight
outside. Seated on the bed,
the curve of her back
toward him, she is smoking.
It is unclear whether they
Believe what they are saying.

—Michael Palmer