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Michael Palmer


On October 9, 1942, Michael Palmer was born in New York City. In 1963, he attended the Vancouver Poetry Conference, taking part in three weeks of workshops, readings, and discussions. While there, he met Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Clark Coolidge, who each became important influences on the development of Palmer's poetics.

Palmer is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Thread (New Directions, 2011); Company of Moths (New Directions, 2005), which was shortlisted for the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize; Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988 (2001); The Promises of Glass (2000); The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 (1998); At Passages (1996); Sun (1988); First Figure (1984); Notes for Echo Lake (1981); Without Music (1977); The Circular Gates (1974); and Blake's Newton (1972). He is also the author of a prose work, The Danish Notebook (Avec Books, 1999).

Palmer is frequently associated with Language Poetry, a connection which he responded to in a recent interview in Jubilat by saying: "It goes back to an organic period when I had a closer association with some of those writers than I do now, when we were a generation in San Francisco with lots of poetic and theoretical energy and desperately trying to escape from the assumptions of poetic production that were largely dominant in our culture. My own hesitancy comes when you try to create, let's say, a fixed theoretical matrix and begin to work from an ideology of prohibitions about expressivity and the self—there I depart quite dramatically from a few of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets."

Palmer has also translated work from French, Russian and Portuguese, and has taken part in collaborations with both painters and dancers. He edited and contributed translations to Nothing The Sun Could Not Explain: Twenty Contemporary Brazilian Poets (Sun & Moon Press, 1997), and Blue Vitriol (Avec Books, 1994), a collection of poetry by Alexei Parshchikov. He also translated Theory of Tables (1994), a book written by Emmanuel Hocquard after translating Palmer's "Baudelaire Series" into French. He has also frequently collaborated with others artists, including the painter Gerhard Richter and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Michael Palmer's honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and he was awarded the 2006 Wallace Stevens Award. In 1999, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He lives in San Francisco.

Michael Palmer
Photo credit: Thomas Victor

By This Poet


Eighth Sky

It is scribbled along the body
Impossible even to say a word

An alphabet has been stored beneath the ground 
It is a practice alphabet, work of the hand

Yet not, not marks inside a box
For example, this is a mirror box

Spinoza designed such a box
and called it the Eighth Sky

called it the Nevercadabra House 
as a joke

Yet not, not so much a joke
not Notes for Electronic Harp

on a day free of sounds
(but I meant to write "clouds")

At night these same boulevards fill with snow 
Lancers and dancers pass a poisoned syringe,

as you wrote, writing of death in the snow, 
Patroclus and a Pharaoh on Rue Ravignan

It is scribbled across each body
Impossible even to name a word

Look, you would say, how the sky falls 
at first gently, then not at all

Two chemicals within the firefly are the cause 
Twin ships, twin nemeses

preparing to metamorphose
into an alphabet in stone

               to Max Jacob

Who Is to Say

Who is to say
that the House of Tongues is not that place 
where rats swarm around your feet 
under blooming sofas

is not that place
of poisoned snows, pens run dry 
and secrets now too late to know 
and certainly the murmuring there below

was a mur-  was a mur-  was a 
murmuring almost to be heard 
a bubbling like water 
invisible, underneath

And look the shadow of a wing 
does fall here as blood 
does drink deeply of itself 
and does whisper yes for no

Once these faces behind glass 
might have returned your glance 
might even have gathered up 
their limbs, in order to stand

Who is to say
that certain of their words did not spill out 
as far as the eyes of cats could see 
across the river in the dark

                             15 sept 90


Write this. We have burned all their villages

Write this. We have burned all the villages and the people in them

Write this. We have adopted their customs and their manner of dress

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X

In the notebook it says, It is the time of mutations, laughter at jokes,
secrets beyond the boundaries of speech

I now turn to my use of suffixes and punctuation, closing Mr. Circle
with a single stroke, tearing the canvas from its wall, joined to her,
experiencing the same thoughts at the same moment, inscribing 
them on a loquat leaf

Write this. We have begun to have bodies, a now here and a now 
gone, a past long ago and one still to come

Let go of me for I have died and am in a novel and was a lyric poet, 
certainly, who attracted crowds to mountaintops. For a nickel I will 
appear from this box. For a dollar I will have text with you and 
answer three questions

First question. We entered the forest, followed its winding paths, and 
emerged blind

Second question. My townhouse, of the Jugendstil, lies by 

Third question. He knows he will wake from this dream, conducted
in the mother-tongue

Third question. He knows his breathing organs are manipulated by 
God, so that he is compelled to scream

Third question. I will converse with no one on those days of the week 
which end in y

Write this. There is pleasure and pain and there are marks and signs. 
A word may be shaped like a fig or a pig, an effigy or an egg
there is only time for fasting and desire, device and design, there is 
only time to swerve without limbs, organs or face into a
silence, pinhole of light

Say this. I was born on an island among the dead. I learned language 
on this island but did not speak on this island. I am writing to you 
from this island. I am writing to the dancers from this island. The 
writers do not dance on this island

Say this. There is a sentence in my mouth, there is a chariot in my 
mouth. There is a ladder. There is a lamp whose light fills empty 
space and a space which swallows light

A word is beside itself. Here the poem is called What Speaking Means 
to Say
      though I have no memory of my name
Here the poem is called Theory of the Real, its name is Let's Call This, 
and its name is called A Wooden Stick. It goes yes-yes, no-no. It goes 
one and one

I have been writing a book, not in my native language, about violins 
and smoke, lines and dots, free to speak and become the things we 
speak, pages which sit up, look around and row resolutely toward 
the setting sun

Pages torn from their spines and added to the pyre, so that they will 
resemble thought

Pages which accept no ink

Pages we've never seen--first called Narrow Street, then Half a 
Fragment, Plain of Jars or Plain of Reeds, taking each syllable in her 
mouth, shifting position and passing it to him

Let me say this. Neak Luong is a blur. It is Tuesday in the hardwood 
forest. I am a visitor here, with a notebook

The notebook lists My New Words and Flag above White. It claims 
to have no inside
                 only characters like A-against-Herself, B, C, L and 
N, Sam, Hans Magnus, T. Sphere, all speaking in the dark with their 

     G for Gramsci or Goebbels, blue hills, cities, cities with hills, 
modern and at the edge of time

                               F for alphabet, Z for A, an H in
an arbor, shadow, silent wreckage, W or M among stars

What last. Lapwing. Tesseract. X perhaps for X. The villages are 
known as These Letters--humid, sunless. The writing occurs on
their walls

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