Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Navajo Joe

The Incestuous Island Biogeography of Michael Palmer
by Peter Golub

All my brother architects are dead
or else asleep with their sisters in bed

The first time I read Palmer I had the feeling of language changing –I saw a kind of evolution taking place before me. This is not the first time I have had this feeling (e.g. I get this feeling when reading Stein’s Tender Buttons), but this was the first time I thought I saw some of the mechanisms behind this evolution exposed. It is similar to the feeling a child might get at Disney Land, while watching The Pirates of the Caribbean and catching a glimpse of a spring or cog pop out of one of the pirates. It’s like seeing the deus ex machina’s panties.

The mechanism I saw was mutation. Mutation, Drift, Natural Selection (the hitman of evolutionary world), and migration are the four major drives behind genetic variation. Of these four, mutation is by far the most sporadic, and in specific circumstances the most successful.

What causes mutation? Many things can cause mutation. For instance, in the virus HIV the high rate of mutation is the result of the reverse transcription it uses to make RNA into DNA. Its method of transcription is highly error prone, but since it can make copies at such a high rate the number of mutants that die is just lower than the number needed for the survival of the overall population. This makes HIV an optimal creature because it is always evolving to its environment. This is why it is such a slippery fucker to kill. It changes as soon as we develop something to kill it. As soon as we define what HIV is and how we should go about destroying it, it puts on a new set of cloths, sneaks back into the population, and wreaks more havoc on the immune system through its terrorist activities.

Question: What is causing the high rate of mutation in the poetry of Michael Palmer?
Answer: Incest.
Palmer’s poetry is highly incestuous. When a group of words gets together to make more words they don’t disappear after their children appear on the scene. Oh, no. They stick around to copulate with their progeny. Palmer’s words are highly incestuous, and the most incestuous word of all? Word. “Word” is the word that is by far the most promiscuous –it is the alpha male of this desperate population of words.

Now, what might be causing this population to be so incestuous? Why is “word” always having sex with its daughters and sons? Well, the most common reason falls under the umbrella of island biogeography. The idea in a nutshell is that evolution isn’t a blanket of democracy that affects all individuals equally. No, it affects pockets of populations. For instance, it hits Swaziland with a virulent epidemic, New Orleans with a hurricane, and the Iraq with a beacon of freedom (yes, freedom is a force of nature). After a certain population has been hit by a catastrophic event it must evolve or die. Most die. And those that are left over will have to evolve again and again in order to survive in the new changing environment. Grow fur, gills, wings, fancy coreceptor molecules that thwart the entry of the virulent virus whatever as long as it helps that individual survive. Since everyone around is dying who ever wants to survive must change fast. When there is little genetic variation in a population (e.g. if the sexual partners are all first cousins) this creates a situation in which mutation is kicked into overdrive. Most of the progeny that result from these unions will be deformed and most will die shortly after birth, but maybe one will grow some extraordinary pair of wings or T-cells that allow them to escape this terrible island.

A man undergoes pain sitting at a piano
knowing thousands will die while he is playing

he has two thoughts about this
if he should stop they would be free of pain

if he could get the notes right he would be free of pain
in the second case the first thought would be erased

This here is the process of mutation. It is a man pushing at the keys, trying to find the right notes in order to save the population. This is Palmer sticking these words together, in abnormal ways, to see what these combinations will produce.

Here is how I see it. A single word is an individual organism. A word is paired with another word. Then that same word is paired with something else. And then something else. The same word paired over and over with words, which are not to different from it. This goes on until the poem ends. The poem is a collection of meanings that all resemble one another. A row of redheaded step children with their own peculiar mutations. Palmer stands behind them saying, “see, look, this is it, these are the words.” Palmer does this to make us pay attention to the ideas laid on top of these words, and the other words writing on top of these words. Words on top of words on top of words. This is exactly what an organisms DNA is like. It is genes written on top of older genes, on top of genes that have been turned of for millions of years, etc. Palmers work puts us in the memeticists shoes i.e. he puts us in his laboratory and has us count the different memes in each word. By creating these strange combinations he brings out recessive alleles, unforeseen phenotypic variation, ancient repressed memes that haven’t been expressed since the Carter administration, etc.

What’s all this for? Why put this gang of incestuous mutants before us? Well, I think Palmer is scared that language has become too standardized, too Billy Collins, too commodified, etc. He sees the work of Carl Rove’s eumemicists (meme eugenicist) at work and is horrified. So what does he do? He sets up his Island of Doctor Palmer and makes a gang of incestuous mutants, which are meant to stand in opposition to the nice blond blue-eyed children of the linguistic bourgeoisie.

Words say, Misspell and misspell your name
Words say, Leave this life
Misspelling is a kind of mutation. The reason to misspell your name is to cause it to evolve, to take on new meaning. This is also why the word “word” comes up so much, because it is in need of evolution, because it represents so many ideas that are in need of evolution.