Michael Palmer has been widely lauded for his voluminous body of work. He may be considered a poet’s poet whose output exhibits a dynamic range, even within a single volume such as his latest collection, Little Elegies for Sister Satan. Palmer has defied categorization. The litany of adjectives that come to mind in describing this shape-shifter’s work might variably include cerebral, philosophical, allusive, and surreal. Some of his lines are sprinkled with religious references; politically charged observations about child soldiers are on hand, and even the odd scatological turn of phrase. Unusual, to say the least, is a book a poetry mentioning the Higgs boson in the same line as the Knave of Hearts. He also can be tongue-in-cheek, yet even several of his stray thoughts and lighter aphoristic poems showcase mastery. Palmer’s lines are typically populated by eye-widening turns of phrase delivered with musical sensibility. His use of rhythm and meter mimics that of a virtuosic percussionist, and he will often deftly dust a poem with rhyme and half-rhyme sweet to the ear.
Throughout this collection, and especially among the poems in the last section, Palmer is acutely aware of his poetic heritage. He is, in fact, in dialog with his forbears. In this volume these include Han Shan, as well as Fernando Pessoa (and his fictional poetic heteronym, Alberto Caeiro). In one poem Han Shan converses with T.S. Eliot as if they were two poetic slivers or ‘selves’ of Palmer, one of whom prods the other (with a tip of the hat to Prufrock): ‘So let us go then, / you and I, to / that place where / there is no time.’ Palmer’s eclectic poetic and artistic influences are consistent with the refractoriness of his work to easy pigeon-holing of his work. Epigraphs from Osip Mandelstam and Zbigniew Herbert are to be found, as well as the names of numerous artists, writers, and intellectuals – the reflection of an omnivorous mind. In one poem, for example, we find a reference to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Several shadows have loomed over Palmer’s career, including Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, but the list is likely endless.
Little Elegies for Sister Satan, although no stranger to the occasional surrealist poem, such as ‘The Cats of Cremona,’ is, perhaps, most notable for the ambitious and lengthy titular sequence, with which it opens. This suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ consists of eleven elegies and three ‘commentaries.’ It might be claimed that, in this cycle of poems, one poet holds the greatest sway, namely Wallace Stevens. While Stevens was an inveterate atheist (until, possibly, shortly before his death), he wrote of ‘The Necessary Angel,’ the human constructs of reality that inform poetry. Here, however, in Palmer’s opening sequence, we have, rather than an angel, ‘Sister Satan’ who serves as a symbol for the false promise of language.
Both Stevens and Palmer are preoccupied with poetics and, particularly, the inadequacies of the written word. Stevens, despite his capacious intellect and poetic gifts, ultimately had to content himself with notes toward a supreme fiction, cognizant as he was of the vast crevasse between reality and our human imaginings of it. Stevens’ later ‘hibernal’ poems speak of a cold and sparse reality, ten times removed from our fabricated renderings of the world we inhabit. In fact, in Stevens’ ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ we find these telling lines: ‘I should name you flatly . . . / Check your evasions, hold you to yourself. / . . . You / Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational / Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.’ In ‘Add this to Rhetoric,’ Stevens speaks of ‘evading metaphor.’ This poet understood the limits of poetry. The irreparable schism between reality and the imagination, and our inability to completely understand or capture the true essence of things in language, led Stevens, I think, to a write a despondent couplet in his poem, ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ as he contemplated mortality and the value of his oeuvre toward the end of his career: ‘A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.’
In the Eleventh Elegy in Palmer’s suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ affinities between Stevens and Palmer become clear. We are told, that ‘the sea is an abecedarium.’ Neither this sea nor the sisterhood of Sister Satan (Poetry) saves or comforts the poet-narrator. ‘Words don’t mean anything’ and the poet must wait. For what, precisely? The supreme fiction? The poet continues to wait endlessly, of course: ‘. . . And I waited in the alphabet’s shadow, waited . . . for the words to reveal their names.’ Still, toward the end of the poem, the poet must contend with a world inhabited by ‘two suns and two moons’: reality and the dull mirror of the world expressed in language. Twins that can never be reconciled.
Later in Palmer’s collection, a poet is likened to a ‘prophet with no tongue’. At times, given the limitations of language, he favors silence over speech. Palmer believes the words we use are flawed, but, in ‘Solunar Tables,’ they appear to be all we possess: ‘our alphabets without end / that spell themselves / and weave themselves / into a trembling web as the poem.’ The gossamer-like insubstantiality of the poem, foregrounded here, takes on a beauty of its own, rooted, in part, in its transience in the arc of the universe. Many other outstanding poems fill these pages, such as ‘The Bell’ (an ode to a trumpeter, who, like the poet, knows that the tune “must come out wrong / such is song) and ‘Pillows of Stone.’ Some might argue that Palmer’s work is ‘difficult,’ but almost all the poems in his latest collection carry interpretable meaning, which may be nuanced. Active reader participation is, however, advised if the marrow of these poems is to be savored.
David Sahner 5th March 2022