Steven Stewart

Can we get to the point where we do not need to be reassured by meaning which accompanies language? Can we use language not as a lens through which the world is pleasantly or wrathfully distorted for the purposes of lulling the reader into another world of lies and symbols?
–James Sherry

All those words we once used for things but have now discarded in order to come to know things.

–Michael Palmer

In his book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes delineates the characteristics of modern poetry, and what distinguishes it from the work of other epochs. He sets modern literature apart from unselfconscious, transparent "classical" or "bourgeois" literature, characterizing it as the "problematics of language" (3). Barthes sees the evolution of language terminating in its present condition, one of absence, where literature only exists in the "absence of all signs," hence the "zero degree of writing" (5). Modern literature inherently deals with forms and modes; there presently "is no Literature without an Ethic of language" (6).
Barthes’ clearest setting forth of how poetry exists as the problematics of language comes in the chapter "Is there any Poetic Writing?" For him, the language of poetry no longer exists as a means of signifying or representing the world. Whereas the project of classical literature was to express an existing thought or image with the right words, the project of modern literature is to organize words in such a way that a new, previously-nonexistent thought or image is expressed. Barthes argues that in modern poetics, "words produce a kind of formal continuum from which there gradually emanates an intellectual or emotional density which would not have been possible without them" (43). What the words will emanate is unknown and unknowable prior to the writing; the poem then becomes a matter of "verbal luck" and a "possible adventure, the meeting-point of a sign and an intention" (43). As words come together in this way, the very nature of language—how words mean—is called into question.
Though each poem is an exploration into the conditions in which meaning is created, the poet is best seen not merely as an explorer of previously uncharted language, but as a demolitionist of the word. For Barthes, modern poetry attempts to eliminate "the intention to establish relationships and to produce instead an explosion of words" (46). It is through this explosion of words that something new is brought into being. The phrase "explosion of words" itself presents an interesting ambiguity: it can refer the words of a poem, which are themselves detonated or exploded, leaving the reader with their husks, or it can refer to the poem as the explosion, with the words exploding forth.
This explosion of words that occurs in modern poetry "destroys the spontaneously functional basis of language, and leaves standing only its lexical basis," retaining "the outward shape of relationships, their music, but not their reality" (46). While any words juxtaposed or placed together on the same page will necessarily force a relationship, the relationships forced between words in modern poetry are illusory, false leads that refuse to yield an ultimate sense to the reader. Barthes elaborates on this change in the relational nature of language in the following quote:
Connections are not properly speaking abolished, they are merely reserved areas, a parody of themselves, and this void is necessary for the density of the Word to rise out of a magic vacuum, like a sound and a sign devoid of background, like ‘fury and mystery.’ (46)
While words don’t relate in the classical sense, each word furthers the creation of the "continuum" until a critical “density” is achieved and the reader experiences the poem as “fury and mystery.” The poem becomes like a Zen koān, an unanswerable riddle that resists the reader’s efforts to solve it. As the reader experiences the poem, chasing the false leads, she comes to a type of enlightenment, a sense of the mysterious, problematic nature of language.
Meaning in the modern poem is not static; it fluctuates as the relationships between the now-unhinged words shift. Words no longer refer to the external world, and can even be viewed as non-referential. Words are brought to a "zero degree" (I would say "reduced to a zero degree," but this zero degree is achieved as readily by expansion as by reduction), where each word becomes a "Pandora’s box from which fly out all the potentialities of language" (48). Much has been made of what this "zero-degree writing" consists of. Steven Ungar contends that degree zero is a matter of alienation, an alienation that is "a silence" (12). He traces the use of the term to the work of Danish linguist Viggo Brondal, where it refers to a "neutral mark or voice irreducible to positive and negative terms" (13). Barthes himself uses the term to refer to the work of Kafka, Camus, and Blanchot, and particularly the inhuman, hyper-objective literature of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
While degree zero may encompass the types of writing practiced by these authors, the term as set forth by Barthes himself is equally applicable to various strains of twentieth century avant-garde writing, including Language writing. An effective "silence" can be achieved either through an absence of sound or through the proliferation of noises to the extent that nothing can be heard. Irreducibility can be arrived at in two ways: either through the constricting or paring down of language, like the (attempted) valueless objectivity of a Camus or a Robbe-Grillet; or through a stretching of language and meaning, an expansion or proliferation of potentiality to the point that the degree is effectively zero, where reducibility ceases to make sense. "Potentialities," "mystery," "Pandora’s box"—Barthes’ own terms for zero-degree writing actually point more toward the proliferations of meaning occasioned by avant-garde writing in the Language vein than the objectivity of a Robbe-grillet. Neutrality or irreducibility, then, can be a matter of indeterminacy and multivalence. Mexican poet and philosopher Octavio Paz proposes an understanding of modern poetry that echoes Barthes’ notion of degree zero. Paz also recognizes that modern poetry pushes against language in these two ways, through reduction and expansion. He sees the project of the modern poet as "a perpetual struggle against meaning. Two extremes: the poem encompasses all meanings, it is the meaning of all meanings; or the poem denies language any sort of meaning" (67-68).
It is in this "silence" in which a valueless language or a language that potentially encompasses all value or meaning is aimed for that the "emotional or intellectual density" of language can be perceived. This notion of silence is similar to what Robert Kelly calls presentness; he says that the power of poetry is "to employ prepositional language not to make assertions, but to make, for a moment, lush gardens where one is free from assertions, exalted in the fragrance of presentness" (451), This presentness, or silence, of the zero degree serves to defamiliarize language as such for the reader, to cause what science fiction writer Philip K. Dick calls a work of "conceptual dislocation," in which the words of the poem occur as a "convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition" (xiii).
Modern poetry becomes a discourse "full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and overnourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention" (Barthes 48). Words may mean anything, words may mean nothing. A perceived relationship between two words may be genuine, or it may be a false lead. Caught in this territory of uncertainty and struggle, the reader experiences the poem. Again setting forth a notion of poetry kindred to that of Barthes, Paz writes that
Between the cry and the silence, between the meaning that is all meanings and the absence of meaning, the poem arises. What does this thin stream of words say? It says that it says nothing not already said by silence and shouting. And once this is said, the tumult and the silence cease. A precarious victory, ever threatened by words that say nothing, by the silence that says: nothing. (68-69)
According to Barthes, "The bursting upon us of the poetic word then institutes an absolute object; Nature becomes a succession of verticalities, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities" (50). The words of modern poetry cease to be referential, even to each other, and undergo a sort of reification in which the words are themselves viewed as objects. Though the reader may forge relationships between words, any relationships are fleeting, tenuous, existing only potentially. The modern poem becomes "a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential" (50). Paz writes that "In order to experience a poem, we must hear it, see it, contemplate it—convert it into an echo, a shadow, nothingness" (66). The enterprise of the writer as well as the reader of the modern poem is to contemplate the poem’s silence, to probe the problematics of potentiality.
To show how the concepts set forth by Barthes apply to contemporary avant-garde writing, I will closely examine the poem "Untitled (April ’91)" from Michael Palmer’s The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995. Palmer has been one of the most influential writers of the loosely-knit group known as Language writers or poets. He is, if not the group’s leading theorist, perhaps the group’s best poet. Palmer’s work is a heady blend of poetics, emotion, and visionary wordplay. His poetry exhibits the tenets of zero-degree writing: it is focused on the potentiality of language, filled with exploded words and concepts that elude a reader’s attempts to form relationships.
According to Steve McCaffery, Palmer writes a poetry that is a "superb orchestration of . . . displacements" which "activate(s) fissures, architecturally tensified, and phrases that remain stiff in precision of placement as all meaning slides" (257); it is essentially a poetry of exploding language. McCaffery asserts that the process of reading Palmer is an "activity of the mind operating in tension through disjunctions, aborted vectors, non-purposive contexts" (257). These disjunctions, aborted vectors, and non-purposive contexts serve to defamiliarize language for the reader. What results is a poetry of "gaps and lights, "absences and overnourishing signs," which cause the reader to experience the zero degree of language. His poems result in "conceptual dislocation"; they employ words in such a way that they register with a "shock of dysrecognition." Out of these explorations of illusory meaning enacted by Palmer comes what George Hartley calls "an exploration of the very conditions of meaning" (4).
Before dealing with "Untitled (April ’91)," I will briefly examine the beginning of another poem from Palmer’s The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995, "Autobiography" (249-250). This examination will set forth some of the ways in which this type of avant-garde work can fruitfully be approached, and how Barthes’ ideas serve to illuminate it. In "Autobiography," any trace of autobiography seems to be precisely what is absent. Yet the title invites the reader to approach the poem as if there is a speaker, a voiced individual that will identify himself as the poem progresses. Nevertheless, the poem contains only two references to a self: line 8, which says "My dog does not know me," and line 10, "I come from Kolophon, or perhaps some small island." Each of these lines brings into question the speaker’s identity. If his dog doesn’t know him, then is he who he thinks he is? Is he anyone at all? How is the reader supposed to learn anything about the speaker (which is the purpose of the typical autobiography) if the speaker himself is uncertain of his identity, uncertain of his own origins, Kolophon or a small island? The question arises whether the poem should be approached as having a speaker at all.
The poem begins with the line "All clocks are clouds" (249; line 1). But where is the speaker? Shouldn’t an autobiography start with an autobiographical line, something like "I was born in Memphis in 1969?" Or at least move toward a speaker (which it never does)? What do clocks and clouds have to do with the speaker? And how is this line autobiographical? Is the line setting up the terms of the speaker’s existence? Or is it describing the speaker’s perception? His mental state? The title seems to force this type of approach, one which pushes for some as yet unseen connection between the reader’s expectation and any apparently disparate elements that surface. In a poem entitled "Autobiography," everything should add up to a coherent portrait of a speaking self. But the opening line is already putting a strain on this expectation.
"All clocks are clouds." An apparent metaphor, but how? Metaphors are evaluated by looking at the constitutive qualities of each of the items used in the comparison. So I ask, what is the basis for this comparison? What qualities do these share? Both "clocks" and "clouds" are rich words, loaded with connotations and potential meaning. There’s plenty to work with here, but is there anything substantial? I stretch, think, well clouds float, and time can be said to float, and a clock measures time, so . . . But wait, a clock is precisely what makes time stop floating. A clock measures time, cutting it into useful lengths. What could be used to cut the floating clouds into useful lengths? Or rather, what is cut into lengths by the clouds, which are no longer (relevantly) floating, since the quality of floating is no longer what we can be discussing? Something is wrong with this approach. Yet I can’t escape this approach, something about the poem seems to force it.
Clocks and clouds seem more disparate than similar. Yet any connection between clocks and clouds seems possible. The poem gives the reader plenty to work with, but the further I delve after this type of meaning, the less plausible it seems that any real, substantial meaning can surface. To view this opening line as intended metaphor is a tantalizing false lead, an exhilarating mind trip that is so wide open, so expansive that ultimately nothing can come out of it. The line is irreducible; it hints at some ultimate meaning, yet resists it. When the line is approached as metaphor, the reader can strike out in any direction, but is forced to concede that no direction can be definitive.
But the poem’s conjoining of "clocks" and "clouds" is not semantically arbitrary, a comparison made merely on a musical level, made because each word has the same initial sounds as the other. The words are selected for their capacity to create an intellectual density in the Barthian sense, to elicit this un-probable sense of depth. The placing of "clocks" and "clouds" under the mantle of "Autobiography," without any development of a speaking voice, serves to explode all three terms. A residue of potential, unrealizable meanings litters the poem. Rather than setting up the terms of the speaker’s existence, the line "All clocks are clouds" sets up the terms of the poem, and of Palmer’s work in general: he points a reader in a direction, only to simultaneously reveal to the reader that the direction is impossible.
This strategy of presenting the reader with false leads which demand to be pursued, only to prove themselves hollow, also characterizes the poem that will be the main focus of this paper, "Untitled (April ’91)" (215-216). This poem consists of seventeen couplets of varying lengths. In the first couplet, Palmer writes that "La narrativa says you must paint a flower / paint a flower with a death’s head" (lines 1-2). La narrativa, or narrative (or fiction) in Spanish (or Italian), presents itself as the subject of the poem. Narrative can be read as the unproblematic use of language, concerned with painting, or representing, external reality in a classical Aristotelian way. By using the Spanish instead of merely saying "narrative," Palmer presents his first undoing of language. Not only does the use of Spanish mark or defamiliarize the term, it imbues narrative with a mock authority, making it appear pretentious.
But how do the words "la narrativa" relate to the other words of the poem? Who is the "you" to whom la narrativa refers? The poet who creates the narrative, or the reader who encounters it? To what does narrative pretend? To say that narrative needs be representational, that a poet’s intention should be to "paint a flower," to represent or imitate her world or experience? Or that a reader must paint himself into the narrative? I would argue that the poem isn’t making either statement, or any such statement overtly, but is rather enacting how narrative must but cannot be undertaken. "Untitled (April ’91)" itself is an example of language exploded, narrative after Palmer paints it with a death’s head.
The reader is often left to wonder to what extent the lines within the couplets relate, an effect that is accentuated by the poem’s lack of sentences and punctuation between couplets. Connections always seem to lie at the edge of plausibility. The second line of the couplet presents an ambiguity in that in can be read either as modifying the previous line or as an imperative that contradicts the first line. If it is functioning as a modifier, it seems to be a call for the use of metaphor to represent reality; narrative is calling for the death’s head. If it is an imperative, then it is Palmer or the poem’s speaker, and not "La narrativa," that is saying that the flower should be painted with a death’s head. The word "flower" connotes beauty and fertility, the opposite of what the words "death’s head" connote. To describe a flower in terms of a death’s head is a radically surreal move, the result of which undoes or explodes both terms. In either interpretation of the line’s ambiguity, metaphor is undermined.
The second couplet consists of the lines, "flower with a death’s head at its center / center with a desert at its center" (215; 3-4) The first line is a near reiteration of the second line of the first couplet. The words of the couplet are extremely dense, fertile; they demand to be read symbolically. Yet there is something awry with a flower whose center is a death’s head. Nevertheless, this is what la narrativa says must be painted. It would follow that there is something awry with la narrativa’s project. A symbolic reading of the couplet’s next line takes the reader deeper still, down a rabbit hole, to the center of the center, where a desert is encountered. The desert as a symbol: what constitutes a desert? Aridity, barrenness. Conditions inimical to the flower. From flower to death to a desert; essentially, narrative is empty at its core; there is no foundation. But even these connections are increasingly problematic, dubious. Not only are the relationships between words being strained, so are the relationships between the words and their meanings. As I get to this point, I suspect that la narrativa isn’t the only thing awry, so is the way of reading demanded of me by the poem.
Not only are the connections between the lines within couplets in doubt, so are the connections between the couplets. The third couplet: "clock with ochre hands / its face a sun the sun" (215; 5-6). Another clock. On its face, the clock is a sun. On the face of it, the poem is making radical connections between objects, including a clock and the sun. A clock does indeed have a "face," so it seems reasonable for me to view the "clock" as the antecedent of "its." Ochre hands—what sort of clock is this? What sort of clock has ochre hands? The clock of the desert? What is this clock measuring? La narrativa? Is this couplet to be read as still dealing with la narrativa, or has the poem changed subjects? At this point, the reader cannot be sure. Already in the poem, Palmer is making moves which simultaneously seem to connect the couplets and to make connecting the couplets an uncertain endeavor.
The clock’s face is not just "a sun" but "the sun." The word "sun" is not to be taken merely as the word "sun," or as a symbolic sun, but as the sun. This assertion acts to try to push the reader outside of the language, outside of the words of the poem. The hands circling the sun are ochre, an earthy tone—is the clock the solar system, with the earthiness, the earth, going around on the sun? If the "sun" is the sun, are hands more than the words "hands"? Or is the poem better read as saying that words ("hands") are doomed to circle around things ("the sun"), words and things existing in perpetual circumlocution? Even as the poem pushes me away from a symbolic reading, it brings me back. The "sun" is not the sun, at most it can represent the sun. Yet the poem rejects the sun’s being seen as symbolic. In spite of the poem’s assertion that it is dealing with "the sun," it is becoming increasingly necessary to read "sun" as the word "sun." And "hands" is no more than the word "hands." The words are approaching degree zero: capable of meaning anything, yet reducing to exist not as signifiers but as marks on paper. Any moves to push the reader outside of language subvert themselves, call attention to the fact that the reader is merely interacting with language.
The fourth couplet moves from "the sun" to different suns: "a multiple sun at 3 a.m. / sun of limbs and sun of the lens" (215; 7-8). Moving past "the sun," a one and only, to the word "sun," where multitudes are possible. The "sun" in the couplet’s first line seems to be the sun of the previous couplet, the sun of the clock’s face. Yet this sun is multiple. Is "the sun" multiple? The "sun" is the sun "of the lens." Who is looking through the lens? Everyone experiences the sun subjectively; for every person there is a different "sun." It is impossible to render "the sun" in language, and the poet is left with merely the word "sun" (as is the reader, though the reader is left with a different "sun" as well as sun than the poet). And what about the limbs? Does the sun have limbs? Is each "sun" a limb of the sun?
So the sun is multiple, but why at 3 a.m.? Mustn’t there be something meaningful or symbolic about this time? Dealing with the poem on a symbolic level is necessary but problematic. Language is inherently symbolic; I can’t escape a reading strategy which demands that I treat the words as symbolic, meaningful, even when I have lost faith in the efficacy of this type of reading. The poem plays off this need to find symbolic meaning even as it undermines it. The sun at 3 a.m. is absent. And without the sun’s light it is too dark to read the clock at 3 a.m.. Though a clock made of the sun could still be read. While the reader of the poem is reading the word "clock," who is reading the clock at 3 a.m.? The clock is forcing itself as a symbol. At 3 a.m., the (ochre) hands of the clock are at a 90 degree angle, a right angle. By arriving at this, is the reader to understand that he has approached the poem in the right way, that he is interpreting the poem from the right angle? If the poem is to be read symbolically, this reading seems as plausible as any, yet it is thoroughly implausible. Again, the poem rejects the very reading it demands.
To continue with the poem: Elements from previous lines are resurfacing. Limbs as well as flowers return to the poem in the fifth couplet. The couplets appear to be connecting, adding up to a greater whole: "flower as if it were a limb/ anemone, rose, yellow marigold" (215; 9-10). Flowers are limbs, the limbs of the sun. This is a beautiful, poetic image. But is it trustworthy? Is it more than happenstance? Is it a meaning or the meaning of the poem? The diction of the poem is increasingly rich, promising numerous possibilities for reading. The reappearing words in this couplet cause me to return to the initial issue raised by the poem, the project of la narrativa. The different equations made by the poem can at this point be connected, made into a whole. Narrative is a matter of painting flowers—anemones, roses, marigolds—with death’s heads. These flowers, painted with death’s heads, are the limbs of the sun. The sun is the face of a clock, and is therefore a manifestation of time. So narrative is a matter of painting the appendages of time with death. Right? Only if Palmer is writing symbolically, unproblematically, playing fast and loose with the dense words he’s deploying.
While the poem pushes the reader in this direction, it also tells the reader why this isn’t the ultimate direction of the poem. A better synopsis of the poem at this point would be that "La narrativa" is a matter of "painting" a "flower," an "anemone, rose, yellow marigold" with a "death’s head," and the "flower" is a "limb" of the "sun," which is a "clock’s" "face"; each word is isolated, exploded, with no connection or deduction possible. The point isn’t to be making a statement about narrative through the words used, but to show how slippery the relationships between words and meaning can be, to show the reader how problematic these apparently easy connections between words really are. To show how potentially specious an unproblematic approach to language can be, how problematic language and reading must be.
To this point, I’ve been making distinctions between objects and the words that refer to the objects, a move that so far may not appear wholly justified in this poem. Beginning with the sixth couplet, the distinction between words and the objects named by words becomes explicitly central to the poem. It reads, "gravity a word from the narrative / word that bends in the narrative" (215; 11-12). The words bend in the narrative, the words bend the narrative. Here, the word "narrative" is used instead of "la narrativa." Why? To refamiliarize the term? Or to give it as an example of how a word can bend (transitively and intransitively). The notion of gravity is new to the poem. Gravity as in physics, or gravity as in weighty, momentous? Words bending, words that perhaps tell the truth, slant. Even the word "word" exploding. Bending flowers toward death’s heads, suns toward clocks. Concepts, objects referred to by words, gravitate toward each other through language. Anything is possible with language, except certainty, except confidence that the meanings yielded by this bending can be more than illusory.
The poem’s seventh couplet reads, "as if suns would flower as sparks of paint / then fall before the retinal net" (215; 13-14). Here, "flower" has been bent into a verb. Words from previous couplets continue to be pulled through to succeeding couplets. A sun, flowering, the word "sun" and the word "flower," exploding. A sun, flowering, but not as a sun, but as "sparks of paint." Like the word "sun", another representation of a sun. The key to the seventh couplet is "as if." Since the poet or speaker is working with words, this flowering is possible in language only. Language becomes an irreducible potentiality. This "as if" renders any symbolic or connectative reading of the poem "as if." As if we were dealing with objects, or even with words whose meanings weren’t so easily stretched, exploded. As if a word were an object, as if a word represented an object. As if the reading of the poem could proceed beyond potentiality. As if language could be approached unproblematically. As is words could proceed beyond degree zero.
Words exist only as potentialities. The eighth couplet reads, "fall into actual space / space of minarets and streets" (215; 15-16). As if the words could "fall into" the "actual space" of "minarets and streets." Falling into narrative, through the "gravity" of the narrative. Narrative is inescapable, it forces itself on any set of words. Yet narrative is always illusory. All words are without actual space, except for the space on the paper, space in which it is a word on paper, not a sign, not a referent. A minaret and a street. A "minaret" and a "street." Even these words which are meant to represent what exists in "actual space" cannot elude the poem’s drive to make words be seen as words and not as objects represented. As if the space of minarets and streets in the poem were somehow connected to an actual space of minarets and streets. The poem is like a black hole—words which are used to represent objects get sucked in, and cease to represent anything.
The ninth couplet begins with the first capital letters since the initial line, "Says, Here is a word you must erase / a word made of particles of paint" (215; 17-18). Who or what says? The capital "S" of "Says" returns the reader to the beginning of the poem, where "La narrativa says." Narrative is calling for the erasing of a word, erasing of the word on the page. Narrative, language unproblematically, demands that words be not seen as marks on a page, that words refer to objects, that they tell a story. For narrative to work, the actual, physical space words need to give way to referential words, words that mean. For narrative to work, the illusion of meaning must be effected. Again, the couplet refers to "you"; and again, who is "you"? The poet, the creator of the narrative? The reader? If the poet or narrator erases a word in actual space, then the reader never encounters it. Though the poet, to make narrative work, must make the marks on paper disappear, must erase them, render them invisible, replace the "particles of paint" with meanings. And, to find meaning, the reader must buy into this illusion, must let the words transcend themselves.
The tenth couplet reiterates the notion of space which was first brought up in the eighth couplet: "Here is a word with no points in space / The Higgins black ink has dried in its bottles" (215; 19-20) The capitalized "Here" links this line to the previous couplet, as something which la narrativa says. Which is the word with no points in space? The subsequent word, "The," in the next line? The word "Here" itself? Each of these choices seems plausible, but I think the word with no points in space is the word which doesn’t show up in the poem; it is the blank space following the line, it is the word that has not or cannot be written. This is the ultimate in exploded language, the ultimate potentiality: the word which exists only as a possibility; to write it, to give it a point in space, is to pull it back from infinity. So what about the "Higgins black ink"? Dried, unused ink is unrealized, unrealizable potential, and this is the ultimate possibility for narrative. The ultimate narrative, and perhaps the only credible one, is that which has not been or cannot be written.
The eleventh couplet and twelfth couplets must be examined in connection with each other: "so it’s true, as angels have said / that there are things of glass" and "light gatherers, cat’s eyes, keys, and bells / and that glass is a state of sand" (215; 21-24). The "so" doesn’t connect to anything that has come before; it instead refers to an assumption the reader likely doesn’t have, that angels have made any sort of statement about whether things are or aren’t made of glass. The use of the word "angels" demands that the reader ask, why, why "angels"? Perhaps because they are transcendental beings capable of writing these words that have no points in space. The line says "it’s true." True or "true"? The notion of truth, but what truth? The truth of things, or of words?
There are things of glass, but there are also the words, "things of glass." The twelfth couplet elaborates on these "things of glass." Why glass? Why the word "glass"? Again, a symbolic reading seems necessary. What are the qualities of glass which make it a suitable type of "thing" for this poem? First, its relationship to light, as in the light-gatherers and cat’s-eyes. Next, the way glass makes a cohesive whole out of discrete, individual particles. Not only can sand come together to make up something like a key or a bell, it can come together to make something transparent.
What about these "things" made of glass? According to the thirteenth couplet, "It’s impossible to hold such a key in your hand / and it’s light you see traveling through angels of glass—" (216; 25-26). Why is this "key" impossible to hold? Because it’s just a word. It isn’t merely a transparent key made of glass; it isn’t made of "glass" at all. Words are made of this glass; close inspection renders words transparent, without substance. Words are the angels made of glass, and light passes through them. This unholdable "key" is "such a key," is a key made of glass. Yet to see the "key" as a glass key or even as some symbolic key, say as the key to this poem, is to go astray. Though it is tempting to say that the way the reader approaches the word "key" is the key to the poem. The use of the word "key" demands that the reader see it as a key, yet everything about the poem says that to do so is the wrong move. As the words "key" and "glass" on the page explode, the very act of reading is exploded. The reader is caught, needing to find meaning, unable to believe meaning; hence the "terror" of language that Barthes refers to.
The fourteenth couplet says that the light passes through "knells" (216; 27). This image is synesthetic. The light suffuses the sounds of the knells, the sounds to the "bells" in the twelfth couplet. The light of the knells of the bells—the l’s proliferate. Light passing through the knells causes the "il- lis- les- the li- lil- lit-" (216; 28). L morphemes, meaningless sounds or marks on a page until they are illuminated by this light. Where is this light coming from? The sun? The clock? The "sun" of the "clock"? The blending of sight and sound—light travels through the angels and creates the l’s, the knells. The synesthesia of the couplet is another manifestation of the problematic way in which words connect or relate. Experiencing light and interpreting it as sound. As conceivable as a flower with a death’s head at it’s center—completely and not at all.
The fifteenth couplet, "forming the l’s you’re never to understand / like the tongues of syllables wreathed in the wells" (216; 29-30), along with the first line of the sixteenth, "like tongue-tied and transparent angels" (216; 31): You can never understand these l’s; they can never be reduced to meaning. Why can "you" never understand what these sounds create? Back to the problematic "you." I’ve been treating "you" as the reader, as an actual person, someone outside the poem. Why should this pronoun receive special consideration? The "you" is the word "you." The "you" in no more outside the poem that the l’s that "you" cannot understand. Both are just words, each without capacity to understand the other. That the "you" is the poet or the reader or someone else is another illusion exploded by the poem.
The synesthetic l’s, caught between sight and sound, cannot be pinned down. Like the "tongues" in the "wells." "Tongues" in the "wells" could refer to languages that have passed away, or utterances that are deep and unfathomable. But is "tongues" either of these, or is it a word made of particles of paint? The conundrum of language ties the tongue of anyone who would use words to mean anything. As the poem progresses, meaning becomes increasingly paradoxical. There is no meaning beyond the illusion of meaning. An illusion that must arise out of nowhere, pull itself up by its own bootstraps, so to speak. By the sixteenth couplet, the angels themselves are tongue-tied, unable to speak, unable to create meaning. The angels of light, the angels of meaning. Tongue-tied and transparent, it is as if they do not exist. Meaning hovers between transcendence and nonexistence. Meaning and understanding aren’t possible in this language of Palmer’s; the very notion of what it means to understand language has been exploded by the poem.
The second line of the sixteenth couplet and the final couplet together end poem, without ending the way it has problematized language: "The painting wall still stands" (216; 32) and "Studio at night / Everything in place" (216; 33-34). All three lines beginning with a capital letter. A studio. A workshop, the workshop of language. The workshop of understanding. Or is it just the word "workshop"? A painting wall, but it is night. There is no sign of a painter. No speaker to create illusions of understanding on the wall. The "wall" itself is what counts. Everything is "in place." But what place? A final image of actual space, replete with "everything." Who has placed or ordered this "everything"? The mistake is to look at the lines as an image, as something besides words. The poet has placed "everything," where it exists at night, multivalent and irreducible, away from the illusory light of the glass angels. There is no work, no painting being done. There is no work to be done, no meaning to be worked out. Night. Barthian darkness. Degree zero. The terror of language, undone. Irreducibility and darkness.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford. (Vol. 1). Citadel Press, 1990. Preface.

Hartley, George. "Textual Politics and the Language Poets." 17 Nov. 1996. 2 Sept. 2000.

Kelly, Robert. "Spirit/Vanguard Art." Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Eds. Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster. Jersey City: Talisman House Publishers, 1996.

McCaffery, Steve. "Michael Palmer: A Language of Language." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale and Edwardville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. 46-47.

Palmer, Michael. The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995. New York: New Directions Books, 1998.

Paz, Octavio. Alternating Current. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990.

Sherry, James. "Postscript." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale and Edwardville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. 257-258.

Ungar, Steven. Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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