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On "All Those Words"

Ryan Cull

A number of Michael Palmer's poems (like "Fifth Prose," "Autobiography," etc.) collected in the Oxford anthology display the hallmarks of (the so-called) "language" poetry - in particular, a use of the connotative slippage of the signifying chain as a structuring mechanism rather than traditional narrative, and a willingness to admit that we (as readers/writers/etc.) live as much in the word as we do in the world. Palmer's prose poem "All Those Words," while not entirely discontinuous with such a project, does something rather different - and perhaps even more ambitious. It attempts to provide, paradoxically, a quasi-mythological narrative explaining the source of anti-narrative "language" poetries.

He begins with a sweeping gesture. In a single phrase, one reads what vaguely sounds like a history of modern epistemology - a shift from a confidently empiricist approach to a more self-consciously reflexive one: "All those words we once used for things but have now discarded in order to come to know things." But after this rather programatic start, we are brought to his quasi-mythological setting (which, with its gently surrealist encounter between a human and nature, is not unlike Wallace
Stevens' very late poem "Of Mere Being"), where he describes, in what might be the most important line of the poem, "there in the mountains I discovered the last tree or the letter A." The only curious/disjunctive part of this sentence is its last phrase - the fact that this narrator is faced with a strange choice of perception - is he to view this object as a "tree" or as a "letter"? It appears to be a matter of utility. But it is also a point of transition: this is the "last tree." And there is more than a hint that this choice will have long-term implications: for the fading away of "last tree" coincides with the starting of the alphabet (with the letter A). The inauguration of the era of writing, thus, apparently ends one's association with nature.

The tree's "brief," enigmatic message to the watching human returns us to the initial focus on epistemology: the difference between recognizing and knowing. The tree's point seems to be that while humans can recognize "these herbs" (like "wormwood, all-heal, and centaury") for their "scent" or flavor or medicinal qualities, humans cannot truly know them. The
fundamental particles that give the herbs these qualities are "invisible" and constitute a "language you cannot understand." The human response to this opinion, characteristically, is greedy defiance. Down comes the last tree, its beams brought to the speaker's house and "added to the fire" (where, no doubt, the other trees have been consumed), over which the speaker goes ahead and cooks a nice meal - notably complete with plenty of herbs - as if to prove the stupid tree wrong.

But what does this nice little parable mean? Returning to the first line, it seems important that the poem extends from the apparently increasing need for humans "to know things" ever more deeply, more comprehensively. Yet the human presented here certainly has not achieved this knowledge. He (or she) has acted out of frustration, in effect, suggesting: if I can't know reality, well then I'll just consume it. But what the poem leaves unanswered is what happens when it is all consumed (after all, there are now no more trees). One thing, apparently, that will remain is writing/language, for this turn towards an obsessive need to "know" things, here, is connected to the turn away from nature and towards writing (beginning with the letter A). In this context, thus, one could read Palmer's poem as providing both an explanation for language-oriented poetries and a rather stern warning. Living in the word, illuminating as it is about the fact that we see the world through the lenses of discourse, when taken to its extreme has the potential block out that reality of the world entirely. And once this is done and we're solipsisitically sealed within the proverbial prison-house of language, one has to ask - what use is all that knowledge about discourse, what is the use of "all those words"?

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull

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