Some poets put a premium on ambiguity, even obscurity, and ground their work in an acknowledgment that language is elusive and indeterminate. This orientation underlies much experimental poetry, but it yields a kind of paradox, in that the presumed instability of language becomes the bedrock of a secure — and potentially complacent — poetics. The poet and translator Michael Palmer is ever aware that writing must not be too pleased with itself or its assumptions. “All poetry is, of course, translation,” he has written, “a voyage out of the self-same or the self-identical or the self-satisfied into a fluid semantic and ontological field.” His particular call to make poetry new once again extends well beyond the usual skirmishes against cliché fought by writers. In his poetry, Palmer often aims to give glimpses of what words do not say, refuse to say, cannot say. “Words have lives apart,” he writes in his most recent collection, The Laughter of the Sphinx, and much of that life is hidden from us. Palmer’s poems can suggest multiverses, silent but spectrally there.
The Laughter of the Sphinx is a gathering of silences, its varied forms palpable and insistent throughout the book. In “Poem (Oct–Nov 2013)” Palmer arrives at the claim that “It is true / that we do not write, / that a measureless silence / writes in our place.” The poems return time and again to the paradox of expressive, speaking silence as an originary force. Songs are said to be unsung, tales untold, words undone: “Unwording — / he thought // the page / swept clean,” runs the poem “Untitled (27 vi 2013)” in its entirety. What he names unwording seems less a destructive imposition of silence or void than a summoning of linguistic renewal. Inhering in the breath and its rhythms, its drawing in (in-spiration) and expiration, silence suffuses the field of poetic utterance as a means of rejuvenation or even as the medium where lost harmonies might be restored: “Things get lost / things whose words / can no longer be heard // Still we try to find them / and place them / inside the silences.”
Palmer’s trust in the generative power that emerges out of silence for poetry runs counter to a deep strain of pessimism throughout The Laughter of the Sphinx. He is far from sanguine about our contemporary political, cultural, and ecological predicaments: he makes glancing references to climate change and the 2011 Fukushima disaster, likens our republic to a monstrous carousel whose young riders will be devoured, and is called to wonder searchingly, “Will the despoilers have it all / to themselves?” The gloom is evident from the outset of The Laughter of the Sphinx, with the chord of foreboding that launches the opening poem, “Idiot Song,” into troubled air: “By permission of the sun / the arctic chill descends.” Palmer, now in his seventies, may be writing of his own mortality, but the lines carry apocalyptic undertones that call out more emphatically at the poem’s conclusion:
What is your name,
What idiot song
will mark your end?
It was said that before history began, Adam was called to name the things in Eden, a task invested with the enormous potency of speech. But here the voice of poetry, speaking from somewhere among history’s ruins (“by the roadside in a ditch / or beneath a buckled bridge”), can only stand vulnerably before a sun that is at once named and not named, obvious yet cryptic, “mindless” and all-powerful. In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Wallace Stevens proposed that one “must become an ignorant man again /And see the sun again with an ignorant eye /And see it clearly in the idea of it,” but what is seemingly brought forth at the end of “Idiot Song” is not the lucidity of such radical ignorance but only the prospect of impairment, confusion, and babble, perhaps an Eliotic whimper at the end of time.
Yet because Palmer is the most dialectical of poets — he will often utter a statement only to soon retract it, assert its opposite — the speechlessness figured with unease in a poem like “Idiot Wind” can assume an altogether different guise. In “Isle of Dogs,” the baying of animals affirms the primacy of poetic sound:
On the Isle of Dogs we barked.
We had our say
from day till dark.
A chorus we were
of piebald hounds
Our howling spiraled out
across the downs.
We howled at the redness of light,
bayed at the rising waters
and approaching night—
we lived on an island of sounds.
None listened, none heard,
the sounds were entirely ours.
None listened, none heard
but we didn’t care
as long as our howls
shaped the still air—
we lived on the Isle of Sounds.
This chorus of dogs might be read as a marooned community of poets, who perhaps have been banished to a realm where their sounds go unheeded and unheard. But if this is exile, there is no lament about being cast to the margins of a world that, getting and spending, is far too much with us. Instead, defiance (“we didn’t care”) marks the acknowledgment that this howling chorus has done nothing more — or less — than “shaped the still air” in a world of their own, and ultimately of their own making.
“Isle of Dogs” is a deceptively simple lyric grounded in the immediacy of song, of its repetitions and rhymes that are not far removed from music, dancing, and the rhythms of the pulse. But it also, I think, invokes and leaves open the unresolvable question of what, if anything, poetry can make happen. Palmer’s has articulated his own paradoxical stance on the matter in the 2003 essay “Poetry and Contingency: Within a Timeless Moment of Barbaric Thought”: “To keep the conversation with language alive and open — this makes nothing happen. Yet, does it not somehow, and crucially, contribute to the restoration of Logos as ratio, as measure, and as human bond.”
Palmer’s sense of the import of human connection comes across most strongly in his frequent reaching out to other writers and artists, living and dead alike. Sometimes this engagement takes the form of overt partnership, as with poems and sequences used in performances of the Martha Jenkins Dance Company, long a collaborator with Palmer. He also enters into dialogue with the work of others through acts of memory, as when he movingly recalls walking through the streets of Paris with the composer Ivan Tcherepnin, or by the homage he pays to his fellow creators — homage conceived in the widest sense, not necessarily as praise but rather as an occasion to use what another artist has done, often in a different medium, as a point of departure. In “A Dream of Sound Inside the Mountain,” written “after” Anish Kapoor as a response to his sculpture “Large Mountain” (among poems by several poets in a chapbook that accompanied a 2013–14 exhibition of the work in Brussels), there is nothing remotely descriptive or illustrative of Kapoor’s work. On the contrary, Palmer takes the sculpture’s solidity and mass as a prompt to create a verbal counter-structure, its forms evanescent and subject to the markings of time: “It is too long / this spiral life // It is too brief / How the wind and light pass / through our bodies of glass.”
Life itself, long and brief: once again Palmer guides us into a paradox, his favorite poetic figure, asking us to consider our place in the universe without moving beyond the fragility of the body, the only register for our perceptions to speak within us as, fitfully, we make our way through time. Perhaps what is most impressive about the poems in The Laughter of the Sphinx is the way Palmer manages large, even cosmic themes without ever abandoning the intimacy of human scale — he speaks not through bardic pronouncements but with the music of lyric and song, of breath and its immanent pauses and quietness. If he sometimes reminds us that we are wandering through a wilderness, he also offers a voice that might help navigate through it.