Poet Michael Palmer Ventures Beyond Borders at Saint Mary’s Reading

In poetry, some artists draw upon the past, using memories as inspiration. On the other hand, some artists create entirely new worlds. Michael Palmer, a world-renowned poet, is one of those rare artists who bring new worlds to life.

Palmer, who is both a poet and translator, shared selections of his work with the Saint Mary’s community on December 5. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has won numerous awards, including the presitigious Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets and the 2012 Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. In addition, his work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and he has taught not only in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well.

One of his former students, Robin Caton (author of The Color of Dusk), gave the introduction for his reading, telling the audience that “anything can happen in the space of a Michael poem.”

With that, Palmer brought listeners along for a journey full of foreign places and unfamiliar characters.

In the middle of his reading of “Stanzas in Counterlight” from one of his recent collections, Thread, Palmer apologized, saying, “Sorry, these folks are all dead.” In these stanzas, Palmer speaks to and through several poets, including Alexei Parshchikov, an artist of Russian descent who passed away in 2009. One stanza, entitled “Nighthawk and sun-bird,” grapples with the themes of time and death, with consideration of what makes up a life:

Nighthawk and sun-bird
Who will tell of it

Shore’s eyelid, earth’s rim
light from extinguished stars

in time’s wake

time’s long
stream of slaughter

and song
Some love

the one more
some the other

During the post-reading discussion, he shared his experience involving the stigma that once surrounded American-Russian interactions: “American poets were not supposed to talk to ‘Commie’ poets,” he commented.

Palmer explores different countries, worlds and universes, regardless of stigma or boundaries. The expanse of his writing truly represents something larger than the self, creating what he calls “exploratory poetry.”

When asked about his writing process, he simply stated, “I wait for the poem,” and defined waiting as “living my life.” His poems have been inspired by a number of experiences, from his time spent in Japan, where he filmed a movie about his life, to his 40 years of collaboration with composers and visual artists, such as Margaret Jenkins and her dance company, as well as American artist and painter Irving Petlin.

Just as Palmer’s work must be read with an open mind, it’s evident that the work could only have come from someone with an open mind, one that steps beyond the borders of the United States, and even this earthly realm.

By Audrey Agot