Michael Palmer: 'Tomb of Aimé Césaire' and 'Light Moves (1–6), for Jackson Mac Low'

Editor’s note: I’m using today’s Poems and Poetics to celebrate the publication of Michael Palmer’s new poetry collection, The Laugher of the Sphinx, just out from New Directions. A great & thoroughly distinctive poet in his own right, Palmer in these poems shows his affinity & regard for two of the great ones who came just before him, & in “Light Moves” especially, the work “pointedly echoes and evolves from Mac Low’s 22 Light Poems,” published several decades earlier. Along with this sense of contemporary & historical kinship, the lyric force of Palmer’s own later poetry is a turning that illuminates the power of the work (his & theirs) that came before and the work still to come. The presence here of the attendant linkages is surely one of his greatest resources: “that company I always hear as I work, and for whom I write, and to whom I write.” (J.R.)   


Tomb of Aimé Césaire


I mourned a person who turned out

not to be dead

Of that what is to be said


Surgical noise of the city

Sentence and song under earth


I wept for something lost

a dawn or a dusk or a thought

a thing that couldn’t be bought


Sun throat cut

Woman removing a glove


And the body at once naked

and veiled

waiting and waiting for what


Coma Berenices above the bay

sea wrack beneath


Speech of the bone

and of the polychrome wing

speech of the leaf descending


and of the rubble in a ruined field

Words have their lives apart


I mourned a person who turned out

not to have died

between a feral sky


and a flooded shore where

a wave was frozen in mid-air




Light Moves 1


Mineral light and whale light,
light of memory, light of the eye,
memory’s eye, shaded amber light
coating the page, fretted
light of anarchy, flare of bent
time, firelight and first light,
lake light and forest light,
arcing harbor light,
spirit light and light of the blaze,
enveloping blaze,
century’s fading light,
light of cello, voice, drum,
figures billowing along
horizon, aligned, outline.



Light Moves 2


Bright light of sleep, its
shortness of breath, its
thousand sexual suns, curved
and fretted light, lies of that light,
dark, inner light, its
whispered words:
Now beyond, now below,
this to left, this to right,
scarecrow in stubble field,
nighthawk on wire,
these to cleanse your sight.



Light Moves 3


Light through the Paper House
rippling across floors and walls,
across the words of the walls,
its paper tables, paper chairs,
its corners,
pale light by which it reads itself,
fills and empties itself,
and speaks.



Light Moves 4


Watcher on the cliff-head
in afternoon light, aqueous light,
watcher being watched
in the salt-silver light
amidst the darting of terns,
beach swallows and gulls,
between the snow of sand
and the transit of clouds,
keeper of thought or prisoner of thought,
watcher being watched,
snowman of sand,
anonymous man.



Light Moves 5


Night-sun and day-sun
twinned and intertwined,
light by a bedside,
cat’s eye by night,
owl light and crystal light,
endless motion of the light,
the rise and the fall,
the splintered flare,
churning northern lights,
phosphor, tip of iris,
gunmetal moon’s
far, reflected light,
oil sheen
on pelican’s wing.



Light Moves 6


And yet what have we done
where have we gone
sometimes in light sometimes not
we say the great world the small world
the fields
patched with yellow the sudden crows
the city’s streets
alone among others
the billowing streets
bodies crowding past
outlined by light.
What have we done
among the roads and fields
in the theater’s shadows and the theater’s light
so bright you cannot see
those watching beyond
in perfect rows in the dark.



(in homage to Jackson Mac Low)