Michael Palmer, Thread (New Directions, 2011)
Craig Watson, Sleepwalking with Orpheus (Shearsman Books, 2011)
“Welcome back. Did you enjoy the afterlife?” Thus begins “Obit.” from Craig Watson’s latest book, Sleepwalking with Orpheus, and time and again, this collection explores the seemingly porous boundary between life and death. Dedicated to Watson’s friend and fellow poet Michael Gizzi, Sleepwalking is the culmination of a decades’-long obsession with the Orpheus myth, and when Watson gives voice to the lovelorn musician, it is with his trademark dark humor. In each of the eight related poems entitled “Exaddress,” “O” speaks directly to “E” in a manner that is by turns plaintive, indifferent, and embittered. His ambivalence is particularly clear at the close of the first of these poems: “Turn your back. // I don’t care. // I hate dreams. // Waiting In Air, / O.” Watson’s Orpheus is left in this suspended state of longing, then, his narrative arc forever unresolved.
Orpheus’s thwarted desire echoes the interpersonal tensions and uneasy eroticisms that run throughout this collection. Particularly in the poems entitled “What Cheer,” Watson is sparser, paring his quasi-narratives to their essence:
If this is indeed Shakespeare’s Desdemona, we know passion will take her nowhere but a brutal, unnecessary death, an off-kilter reflection of Eurydice and countless others in these poems.
“One chance,” Watson writes, “Don’t look back,” and yet looking back, either literally or figuratively, recurs throughout Sleepwalking, even as time trudges onward despite our efforts to pause and take stock. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from a piece entitled “Wake Up, Dead Man”:
A man in a room imagines a man on a road strolling one way, then back, attached in a single file to direction. This could be the story of anyone’s life, paths wiggling in and out from forests and deserts, solar rays falling on mute and imperceptible atoms, new strategies ascending spontaneous and futile.
Or this, from a later installment in the same series:
But how many unifying principles does one consider, adapt and discard during a life? There is love, there is anti-love, there is no trace of either. The present is also here, escaping its ruins, masticating its fences, positioning its K-force. Imagination sends its signal: passion’s tongue locked between atrophying thighs.
In my mind, this grouping of poems provides Watson’s most fully-articulated vision to date, and his overall strategy for structuring the book – eight sections, each with one poem from each of the book’s seven ongoing sequences – allows for a collection that is stylistically divergent but thematically whole.
Michael Palmer’s latest collection, Thread, includes its own nod to the Orpheus myth (“I am Orphée today / Orpheus né Morpheus / far above and well below // the lid of sleep..”.), and the twilit landscapes between life and death (and between waking and sleep) permeate this collection as fully as they do Watson’s.
In the long title sequence that makes up the latter portion of the collection, Palmer speaks directly to an international band of poets who have died within the last few years, including Joao Cabral, Mahmoud Darwish, Gustaf Sobin, and Robin Blaser. “The moth, Robin,” Palmer begins one section, “we’ve both learned at different times from its motion,” thereby continuing a dialogue with Blaser beyond that poet’s death. In his collection The Moth Poem, Blaser once wrote, “in the dark morning you are circled / by loss of sleep you lean forward / from the balcony to see the moth / dying in the window swept by / still wings,” and 50 years later, Palmer continues, “dusk to dark morning / before full day, / a battering of wings, / night notes sounding / beyond our extinction.”
Against this backdrop of mourning and reflection, Palmer searches for occasions in which we can still find worth by “trac[ing] the sleeve of praise / against the liquid dark.” “Poem Against War” reads, in its entirety, “She raises both arms / to free the clasps binding her hair,” a tiny, hopeful vision of intimacy in the face of atrocity. For the most part, though, Palmer’s poems here are grounded by recurring images that mark both the passing of time and the lives lived within it: books (“...Creeley’s On / Earth, his last, / on a simple shelf”), rising tides, hawthorn, rust.
Interspersed throughout Thread are several Borgesian prose pieces that amplify or extend Palmer’s long-time concerns with concepts such as art and time (“When [the dancer] terminated time, we rose as one.”), adding a bit of levity to a book that otherwise grows increasingly somber. Some of these pieces, though, seem to be nothing more than diversions, such as “Nam,” whose narrator was given a rather peculiar, if necessary, task: “Our orders were to keep the base free of serpents, poisonous land crabs, anything of that sort that might present a threat,” he says. While the piece offers an engaging riff on language (“We gave our prey various names: The Night Sky, The Singer, The Poet, Waltz Time.”), it ultimately felt as insubstantial to me as the wisps of opium smoke that float above the piece’s final scene.
That said, the setting of Vietnam certainly serves to evoke an earlier era of Palmer’s career, and his previous collection, The Company of Moths, was filled with ruminations on a world overrun with war as well. (For his part, Watson’s poems have long presented a version of humanity a hair’s breadth away from barbarism and apocalypse, and Sleepwalking with Orpheus is no exception.) In “Second Fragment,” one of several poems in Thread that evoke Dante’s explorations of the afterlife, Palmer writes:
And she clasped my arm and said,
you, my son, who have lingered
too long among the dead, go
and return to the lighted shore
for those brief moments you have left
there among the hypocrites,
the torturers and deceivers
who have locked our republic in their thrall...
While both of these poets, then, devote many stanzas here to explorations of individual loss and longing, they remain cognizant of the need to “wake up,” as Watson puts it, and fully inhabit this world of deeply flawed creatures we know as our collective here and now.