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Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

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

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Brodsky, who died aged 55 in 1996, it can hardly be denied is a major Russian American poet. He took exile in the US from Russia in 1972, also translating some of his own works into English. He won the Nobel in 1987, and was US poet laureate in 1991. It is worth noting also that he has been praised for his essays including Less Than One (1986). 

Preceded by such high praise it can be difficult to an extent to form one’s own view of the poetry. This new Penguin Classics selection arranges the chosen poems near enough chronologically, but does not foreground the original collections in which they appeared, except maybe for A Part of Speech, from which the title poem is featured.

I would tend to the view that Brodsky’s writing is both fierce and unassuming. Two key figures to whom he relates are Akhmatova, of whom it might be said was a protégé, one of the ‘Akhmatova’s Orphans’; and W. H. Auden, another American émigré, whom he counted as a key influence.

On a stylistic note, Brodsky frequently, but not always, wrote in measured rhyme, a challenge no doubt for translators. A key poem here would be the early ‘Six Years Later’, as eg

                        her misty sadness cleared, and showed

            a cloudless distance waiting up the road (p3)

noting the rhyme of ‘showed’ and ‘road’. Yet this is somewhat atypical, albeit intriguing, well coined and accessible.

The volume is a mix of shorter and longer poems. Several are quite lengthy, one could cite ‘The Fly’, ‘Nature Morte’, ‘The Butterfly’, ‘In England’, ‘Roman Elegies’, ‘Eclogue IV: Winter’ (after Virgil), and ‘Vertumnus’.

In numerous respects I found ‘The Fly’ quite pertinent here. It is centre spaced; but I found a key expression here was ‘I am your cellmate, not your warden./ There is no pardon.’ (p110) There is this sense of affinity with even the most fleeting and vulnerable of creatures, and this could be compared too to the long poem ‘The Butterfly’. Brodsky may be fierce in so many ways, resolute, outspoken, chancing risks, but he is not above creatures or being at the lowest level. He seems unburdened by that sense of heavy responsibility linked to the Nobel and the laureateship. 

A poem which finds Brodsky at perhaps his most reflective and candid is ‘May 24, 1980’. It begins ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages’ (p70) and ends

            ‘What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.

            Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.

            Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,

            only gratitude will be gushing from it.’ (p70)

This bespeaks perhaps a strong dose of commitment and resistance.

Brodsky acknowledged among his influences W.H. Auden and Robert Frost. In his Nobel lecture he credited Anna Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, as well as Frost and Auden. Though this suggests a relatively orthodox strain of descent, Brodsky did meet some persecution from the authorities. An interesting footnote is that Walcott translated some Brodsky, and the poet also dedicated a poem to him. (‘Eclogue IV’)

Another very relevant poem is ‘A Part of Speech’, which includes the lines;-

                                         ‘Life, that no one dares

            to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

            bares its teeth in a grin at each

            encounter. What gets left of man amounts

            to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.’ (p53)

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we say, unless one wants a full accounting of the picture, and grinning to boot. Yet we have also the primacy of speech and the use of language as a means to relate if not also of self consciousness and understanding.

What to take from this. Perhaps ironically some of the shorter poems are as persuasive as the long ones. Equally Brodsky is not a rigorous formalist, pertaining eg to rhyme, but neither are his lines particularly loose. He had a difficult life; for example, being exiled for 5 years in Arkhangelsk, though he made the most of it. His travelling to the US in 1972 was not voluntary but owing to state expulsion. His situation must surely relate on a certain level to the conditions of earlier poets in Russia like Akhmatova who were treated by the state with suspicion, Russia verging on an authoritarian position relating to the arts.

I must say I find Brodsky significant predominantly as a key Russian poet, perhaps more so than an American. It would be impossible for him to shed that whelming weight of his past. And though he admired W.H. Auden their styles are radically different, wherein he is surely much closer to Akhmatova. That said, he is a key poet of the 1980s and 90s on the international scene, and one Russian poet who has decidedly made an impact abroad, choosing to be cellmate rather than warden (‘The Fly’).

Clark Allison 27th November 2021 

New from Equipage

New from Equipage

Last Tuesday there was a book-launch in Heffer’s main shop in Cambridge in which Rod Mengham’s Equipage Press presented two excellent new items.

Keith Sands has translated 17 Voronezh Poems from the Russian of Osip Mandelstam. As he pointed out these poems were written between 1935 and 1937 and do not constitute a sequence. Sixteen of the poems are from the Voronezh Notebooks written during exile first in Cherdyn and then in Voronezh. The last of the translations was written in June 1937 just before Mandelstam’s second arrest.

It seems opportune here to note that John Riley, one of the co-founders of Grosseteste Press, published two translations of the Russian poet. Mandelshtam’s Octets appeared from Grosseteste in 1976 and the Stalin Ode Sequence, From the Second Voronezh Notebook was published by Rigmarole of the Hours in Australia in 1979 the year following Riley’s murder in Leeds.

The second new publication from Equipage is Mother Blake by Carol Watts. A sequence of fifteen poems this book makes a fascinating and welcome continuation of work that had been so striking in When blue light falls 3 (Oystercatcher Press) which I reviewed in Tears 55.

These books are available from Equipage, c/o Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL.

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