Michael Palmer has been one of my favorite poets since I first encountered his prose poem “The Flower of Capital” in the early Nineteen-Eighties. I read and reread his 1981 volume Notes for Echo Lake, reprinted in Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, which collects the three books Palmer published in the Nineteen-Eighties. While I have read and enjoyed all of his subsequent books, and some of his previous ones, Notes for Echo Lake remains my touchstone. Among other things, his work helped me negotiate different and more flexible relationships to normative syntax in my own poetry.
The layering and juxtaposition of different historical eras has always compelled me, both in my work and in the work of others. I am particularly fascinated by the recurrent gesture, found in so many poets’ work, of moving forward by going back. We see this in Pound, in Eliot, in H.D. with her classical obsessions and revisions, and in many other poets, Modernist and later.
In this poem Palmer goes back to some of the earliest Greek poetry, the Homeric Hymns. He goes back as well to a story of death and renewal which is one of the founding stories of Western culture, and which is also the story of art: the moment dies (is killed, really) in order that it may be resurrected, that it may live forever in the artwork. The poem, among other things, is a kind of witness, attesting to Persephone’s descent into the underworld, commemorating her return, acting out and embodying her journey in its own process of creation and recurrence, art's arc from life to death and back to life.
“This is how it happened.”—Homeric Hymn to Demeter
This road ends in a field of grain
and drunken crows are filling the air
or how do we know what we know
He spoke holding his severed ear
The sky moves too quickly through the frame
and the smile has been put on sideways
Veiled Hecate lives in three bodies
lit by approximate light
The daughter receives grief and is alive
The daughter recites grief and is alive
as the mother places her in the fire
and the child holds her yellow hair out
wondering why it’s been cut
The bearded tree is the third part
where the ages of the barley hang down
They have loved a secret architecture
that leaves false evidence of itself
and they love to be as three in one
Our visit has lasted an entire winter
and we have half forgotten each word’s name
The sky moves that quickly through the frame
This poem appears in Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, published by New Directions in 2001.