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The formal accomplishment of Michael Palmer’s poetry is in tension with one of his recurrent themes: the limits and slippages of language. A poem dedicated to the trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith concludes: “It must not flow, / must come out wrong, / since such is song.” I can almost imagine Palmer giving these injunctions to himself—something like Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (“It must be abstract”; “It must change”)—pushing himself to work against his unmatched fluency, trying to hit an off note given his perfect pitch. For it can be wrong to get song right if, like Palmer, you are suspicious of any glib resolution or false consolation, if you are committed to exploring the contradictions of art making in dark times, if your paradoxical task is to represent what escapes representation. Palmer’s poems are full of beautiful self-cancellations that offer both an image and its erasure, eloquence and its failure, flow and fragmentation. One figure for this lyric negativity—in my mind linking Palmer and Keats—is silent music, the unheard melody: dancers fill the streets and fields with “silent song / thinking they could go on and on”; “A silent symphony engulfed the city”; etc. The poles of presence and absence in Palmer’s poems can reverse suddenly, ode becoming elegy, but this tenuousness is also a sign of possibility. Thus “Nord-Sud,” a poem in memory of the French poet Pierre Reverdy, concludes by refusing to conclude: “This poem is to be continued indefinitely.” It can go on (and on) precisely because meaning never stabilizes; any definite statement will be liquefied by song.

Palmer has written more than a dozen books of poetry, most recently The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions). He has published important translations from the French, Portuguese, and Russian, and collaborated with artists across media, including on more than twenty works with the choreographer Margaret Jenkins. He has lived for many years in San Francisco.


All the beautiful women in my life
were called Sadie or Sadist I forget
the color of that flower also its name
now that you ask

where I have been these past few months
between the solstice and the total eclipse
of all that we once had known
or thought mistakenly to know.

Perhaps the snow blinded us
or we gazed too long at the startled sun
forgetting our strict instructions
like so many others

who had assembled there for the event
that came and went
without a word without a breath
while the dancers so young filled the streets

and the fields with a sort of silent song
thinking they could go on and on.

Photographs by Gregory Halpern © The artist/Magnum Photos


The hotel of my childhood
spoke several languages at once.

I marked the box for None of the Above
and pointed to the sign:

No Pets Allowed.
The river froze solid that winter

and the kindly whores huddled in doorways,
their litheness undiminished to my eyes.

Ice seemed more beautiful than childhood,
its enveloping silence and bluish light,

no words required,
only the premonitory

winds of change assembling
along the half-deserted avenues.

The hotel of my childhood
spoke several languages at once

in its desperate need to be loved
by its privileged guests,

its celebrants and suicides
now here now gone.


To Wadada Leo Smith

To complete the tune
the trumpeter raises the ember,
the glowing coal to his lips,
the pentacle, the pistol to his lips,
between known time and no time.

To complete the tune
after a chorus about silences and seasons,
after a chorus about hours before evening,
hours that accelerate as day wanes,
hours like pages torn from a notebook

and fluttering to the floor,
pages of new snow, snow
that like a tune is silent,
snow with a hint of blue in it
here and there like a tune . . .

To complete the tune
he raises the bell of the horn,
there where he and the bell, the bell
of the horn are alone, knowing
that the music in the room

and on the stairs is not his own,
knowing that he must undo the tune,
that it must not flow,
must come out wrong,
since such is song.


I know a silent movie star named Jane.
She speaks without moving her lips.
She once starred in a film called Shadow Train.
Her memoir is full of lies.
She’s perfectly honest about this.
Such is life as we know it
and if you don’t like it just turn the page
until you arrive at the one that feels right
since you can always find another
on some distant sister world
I was told many times as a child.
I love Jane because of her silence
which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to emulate
throughout my adult life.
Lately it’s become a bit harder for me
to walk and breathe and sleep. We all love Jane
because of her unbridgeable distance
like that far-off sister planet
on which life can barely be imagined.
She is nonetheless a star not a planet.
She retains her cool and distant glow
even as the superstorms here
grow ever more violent
and the surging tides and flames
display themselves to those many miles above
circling and dreaming their circular dreams
in endless earth orbit.
I know a silent movie star named Jane
though that of course is not her actual name
only that of the distant star
she once suddenly became.


That day when I thought of Pierre Reverdy
for the first and final time

I counted the butterflies in Rome.
In Rome I counted the butterflies.

There were always three,
three on Trajan’s bloodstained column,

three within the Memoirs of Hadrian,
three alight on the Virgin’s left thigh,

three perched amidst the eternal dust.
(I counted to three because I felt I must.)

Electric blue were these creatures of air
born of the mind of Pierre Reverdy

mourning the death of a violin by fire.
The Tiber is flowing somewhat lazily today

past a distant echo of Pierre Reverdy,
past the burning manuscripts of Pierre Reverdy

lighting the banks not of Tiber but of Seine.
I counted the butterflies in Paris then

as they caught fire one by one,
one by a lock at the Quai de Valmy,

one by the dying guillotine
on the Place de la Cloche Vide

where three last songs could be heard.
You waved graciously and sang along

as poetry, that blind ballerina in flames,
bid you farewell while taking one last bow

with no regrets other than a few.
The earth is perfectly still

and the butterflies have ended their day
in the north and in the south.

Listen, Pierre, the hands on the clock
point towards the snows of yesteryear.

Pierre, you died as we were about to meet.
This poem is to be continued indefinitely.


When the silent symphony engulfed the city
even the naked emperor was forced to sing

When the snows of yesteryear suddenly reappeared
the poets of dust drew a deep breath

and said, Let us begin, let us begin again
not from the beginning but from the end

And when everywhere the E-strings suddenly burst
the cats of Cremona flashed a smile

that lit the deep night
so that even night’s hooded guardians

retreated in fright
and the bell towers and spires trembled at the sound

and the novels of romance untold their tales
of corsets and rustling silk

and who knows what
And who knows what

When the silent symphony engulfed the city
even the solid citizens were forced to dance

twirling on their crutches as one—
undoubtedly a kind of waltz—

as the naked emperor watched from above
a stain of secret knowledge on his lips

that only the cats of Cremona could see
And in the ancient, twisting streets below

each of us recited our silent parts,
sleepers and singers both,

caught between thought and breath
as the emperor fondled our naked hearts

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