Michael Palmer: New poems from 'The Laughter of the Sphinx,' for Mac Low, Tcherepnin, & Artaud



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, outlined.





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 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.





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.





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.





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 MacLow)





So many sounds flower but they are not flowers.

They are mangled girders in a field,

a field of flowers, echo of hooves, 

heavy-metal of tanks,

music’s lost memory.


In the enveloping mist

our shoes squealing

upon the paving stones

while winding through

your Paris streets,

which one of us said,

The absolute

secret of art 

lies in the tongue

of a shoe?

Who said, The true

secret of art

resides in the gaze

of a cat,

and that’s that?

Which one of us asked,

Is this the buried sound

of the future-past?

Do electrons still sing

when no one is listening?

(A little stoned perhaps?)

We spoke of corpses

waving batons, hierophants

professing poems,

as the mist cloaked our words

and mid-summer night

measure by measure

finally arrived.



Ivan Alexandrovich,

is it only the fugitive things

that ravel the cells

and ring through the air,

le va et le vient as you put it,

the slow rise of a half-step,

followed by falling semi-tones,

in a day of one birth and one death?


So many sounds flower but they are not flowers.

They are street calls and cries

and the promises of bone,

and the bright sightless eye

at the flower’s brief heart.





At the tomb of Artaud

wherever it may be

we hear a howl, unmistakable,

the howl of a wounded wolf

gnawing at its foreleg

caught in the teeth


of a hunter’s steel trap

At the tomb of Artaud

wherever it may be

a sleeper and his double

throw dice made of bone

Should the dice fall


just so, they explain

it will snow

on the tomb of Artaud

Should they fall


the earth will be dry


A dancer and her double

make love

on the bright stones

the light bringers

by the tomb of Artaud

that has become a book


of stone

they care not to read

whatever it may mean

as the fitful


dragonflies alight


on the wet heat

of their bodies

Only later

will they piss on his grave

as a clock without hands

applauds in the dark


[Michael Palmer is an internationally celebrated poet with numerous publications, translations into multiple languages, & active collaborations with dancers & artists over a span of more than forty years.  His latest book, The Laughter of the Sphinx, from which these poems are taken, is scheduled for publication by New Directions later this year.  The dedicatory nature of the poems shown here – to two poets & the French composer Ivan Tcherepnin –  indicates Palmer’s sense of presence within “that company I always hear as I work, and for whom I write, and to whom I write.”  The lyric force of his later poetry is a turning that illuminates the power of the work that came before.

     N.B. “At the Tomb of Artaud” first appeared in an issue of The American Reader, volume 2, number 2, some months back, and the poem for Ivan Tcherepnin is scheduled for the next issue of Nathaniel Mackey’s magazine Hambone.]