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Michael Palmer

It may not be obvious to all at first reading, but I cannot think of any of my writing of at least the last three decades that was not inflected by the shifting currents of “the now.” Nor can I think of any time in my writing life when the question, “Why poetry?” did not arise. Nor can I think of any time in my writing life when I could construe a satisfactory answer to that question, any answer that did not resort to nauseating platitudes or pious self-justification. As to “the now,” it is its very instability and undefinability that conjoin it with poetry, with poetry’s potentiality, even as it is ever and again moved to reject the currency and authority of poetry itself.

Some years ago (2010), when I was the Visiting International Poet at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Bei Dao asked my wife and me whether we would care to visit Macao. We toured various sites dating from the Portuguese colonial occupation, including the mythic grotto where Luis de Camões, over several years, produced a number of cantos of his great epic The Lusiads. Then, all too soon, we found ourselves entering a towering casino by the port, shaped like a golden lotus. While Cathy and Bei Dao played the slots, I wandered around the large windowless space where neither day nor night ever reigned. The gambling tables and electronic games of chance emitted beeps and bells, and one occasionally heard the voice of a croupier. The phrase “The world is not all that is the case” came suddenly to mind, as I toured this otherworldly realm. I wondered whether Wittgenstein would have agreed. Was there any “now” in this environment ruled by (calculated) chance? Might a throw of the dice…?

We eventually departed, after my wife cashed in her modest winnings, and we walked toward the ferry to return to Hong Kong. Bei Dao suddenly pointed toward nearby mainland China (from which he was barred). “Look, I could swim across.”

I am attaching a poem from a few years ago that may be relevant to the questions Ann raises, even as it resolutely offers no answers:


Solunar Tables

Pain of the child set afire
before blindered eyes
a world’s eyes

Poem of the bird
exploding in flight
in our random skies

Pain of the ladder
its storm-shattered steps
defying ascent

Pain of the Hunger Moon
dangling over hoar frost
by a failing thread

Should we cut it
for those without bread
Pain of the word

Poem of the word
unheard unread
The darkling river

and the steadfast ferryman
who refuses your coin
The wave that embraces

while it destroys
Our secret entertainments
at the Madman’s Market

and our alphabets without end
that spell themselves
and weave themselves

into a trembling web
as the poem-road below
of silences and stones

comes to a final turn


Michael Palmer

Michael Palmer’s most recent book is The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions, 2016).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues