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Company of Moths

Company of Moths

by Michael Palmer
The new collections by America's greatest experimental poet.


The new collections by America's greatest experimental poet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hieratic, hypnotic, at times apocalyptic, Palmer's 10th volume (his first since 2001) offers more of the serious pleasures and delvings that have won him admiration over 30 years. The four sequences here (almost all in unrhymed couplets) sometimes recall techniques of meditation; his tracings and gestures recall choreography (Palmer's other profession), too, envisioning "the dance// of the thing and its name,/ lost limb and its shadow," or chasing a lost blackbird through a seascape of dreams. Despite their mysterious feel, the poems also produce stern millennial foreboding: "Letter to a Vagrant" cautions against "new slings, new arrows,/ new weapons of mass affection," and instructs "prepare to board the burning boat." The best single lyrics combine political warning with intense nostalgia. ("Its sadness is palpable," one such poem rightly says of itself.) Though not a major departure from previous styles, these consistently absorbing works maintain Palmer's high standards and his record of attention to deep mysteries: the nature of naming, the right handling of boats, "the play as they always say// of light against shadow/ first light then shadow then the shadow-play." (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his 18th collection, experimental poet Palmer (The Promises of Glass) again combines spare lyricism and nocturnal visions ("This writing inside/ the lids of the eyes") in poems that resemble dream notes or lost translations from the French symbolists. They derive their tropes from an evocative if limited palette (owl, star, stone, book, moth) and create a sense of metaphysical unease through rhetorical questioning ("And what does this fiction think of us?"), repetition, and paradox ("a blank book, edges cuffed,/ book lying open and shut"). With nods to the Latin American and European surrealists, Palmer allows the words themselves to fulfill their own possibilities ("The red vowels, how they spill/ then spell a sea of red") just as a spirit might move the planchette over an Ouija board. But from time to time, he interrupts the trancelike mood of his "restive songs" with humor ("It's true that sometimes I've used the word raisin in place of reason") and wry self-awareness ("A reader writes to complain/ that there are no cellphones in my poems"). Whether or not one is absorbed by Palmer's deep image aesthetic and metanarrative stance, his enigmatic voice continues to fascinate. For larger poetry collections.-Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt



A New Directions Book

Copyright © 2005 Michael Palmer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8112-1623-3

Chapter One



The ship-what was her name, its name? Was it The Moth? Or The Moth that Electrifies Night? Or The Moth

that Divides the Night in Half in its Passage toward the Fire? The fire of forgetting, that is,

as we remember it, while in the scatter song of dailiness as it eddies out

near turns to far, beeches, red cedars and oaks dating to the revolution, and a few long before, suddenly in unison are seen to fall,

for so somewhere it is writ. And your project abandoned in fragments there beneath the elements,

the snow of the season enfolding it, the flames of the season consuming it, improving it: Hashish, the tales it

tells, the scented oils and modern festivals, the sphinx-like heads and the shining ornaments for ankle, waist, neck and wrist,

dioramas, cosmoramas, pleoramas (from pleo, "I sail," "I go by water"), the hierophant in wax, the iron and glass,

the artificial rain and winds, mosaic thresholds, all of this bathed from above in diffuse light.

We share the invisible nature of these things, our bodies and theirs. And the moon did not appear that night.

to the memory of a suicide


Of this photograph no one has taken

Eyes both a veil and sexual organ The play as they alwayssay

of light against shadow first light then shadow then the shadow-play

Is it in color or black and white?

Yes it is in color or black and white

There are leaves drifting down, a tiny skiff prepared to embark

across the waters of a painter's studio toward a tower of clouds beyond the glass

The scatter of things

the room choking on pages and the torn remnants of pages

No one to answer the telephone's ring (Dearest Reader are there still phones still rings?)

They are afloat the two of them in a sea of something

or perhaps they are drowning or waiting for the wind to gather them up

into a palinode, a canticle, a stanza

If she has a question will it go unasked?

(Are there still questions and questions unasked Dearest Reader from the future-past?)

Berries brilliant orange on the hawthorn this Wednesday late November

Blurred wing at the edge of the frame

Eyes unfocussed lost in her thoughts as they always say

Eyes at once fixed and in motion

gilded aleph emerging from her mouth mouth emerging from her mouth

So, it's claimed, an age begins

This photograph no one has seen offers itself in evidence

The Thought

We breathe in, we do not think of it. We walk and we speak

beneath the blue-flowering trees and do not think. We breathe.

We cross the stone bridge above a fisherman in a skiff.

We pass the blind man, the legless man and the woman who sings of a coming storm.

We sit by the river in the rising wind, we raise the crazed cup to our lips

and do not think, here where the light does not differ from dark,

here where pages tumble to the floor, here in the lake of ink, the stain of ink

where we fashion a calendar from a wall. Invisible lake, unreachable shore.

Exhale and do not think. Close their eyes a final time close our eyes.

to Faraj Bayrakdar


What of that wolfhound at full stride? What of the woman in technical dress and the amber eye that serves as feral guide

and witness to the snowy hive? What of the singer robed in red

and frozen at mid-song and the stone, its brokenness, or the voice off-scene that says,

Note the dragonfly by the iris but ask no questions of flight, no questions of iridescence?

All of this and the faint promise of a sleeve, the shuttle's course, the weave.

What of these? What of that century, did you see it pass? What of that wolfhound at your back?

Untitled (February 2000)

The naked woman at the window her back to you, bowing the violin

behind the lace curtain directly above the street

is not a fiction as the partita is not a fiction

its theme and variations ornaments and fills

not a fiction as the one-way street still

wet from all this rain is no fiction

and nakedness not a fiction. It reads us like a book

as we listen to its music through milky eyes wide shut.

And what does this fiction think of us? The rain, the notes, both softly fall.

Slight errors of intonation do not matter in the faded green

notebooks where we record these things, and conceal other things.

What's the name of that tree, anyway, with yellow flowers, small silver leaves,

planted in the concrete-I used to know.

As for today, Leap Year Day, the window was empty.

Untitled (July 2000)

The painter with no memory paints the very thing

before him, this corner and its web, this clock with its hands

frozen at five, neither day nor night. Singing wordlessly

he paints the red and the green, the shape, the sharpness of the thing,

the clear line of the lover's chin, the one who will betray him.

He thinks: to pass through needle's eye. Spiraling juniper, threaded, illegible

sky, arbutus past flower, groundsel, wild columbine. And at the turn

of the breath it is so, and so: It peers blindly through the eye,

it is white, not quite white and is heard through the eye.

And the blossoming of dust, phosphorescence of bones,

transfigured flight of geese. The painter with no memory

paints the single thing she sees, this ballast of stones,

ladder of mottled glass, oval face, ashen-eyed, the dance

of the thing and its name, lost limb and its shadow,

small paintings all of these, each one the same.

The Turn (December 2000)

So it is the lift, the shifting of earth, the turn So it is the pleasure of green, so simply,

we think, and the singing of stones So it is the same mountain, yet otherwise-

yet not entirely otherwise, slant logic of the half-torn, final leaf,

twig across a sickle moon wobbling in the nightbreeze,

and your moment of wild speech, while dying So the closing of eyes,

then the coining of eyes What color were the eyes

So it is the same house of wood and pitted tile,

ringing of keys, yet otherwise It is the pleasure of things,

disappearance of things, odd feel of those things

turned in the hand this way and that,

remembered by the hand, the winding of the steps,

turning of the page, the book and setting the book to one side

and adjusting the light, fiddling with the light,

setting of the book aside It is a kind of memory of the book,

a blank book, edges cuffed, book lying open and shut

Company of Moths

We thought it could all be found in The Book of Poor Text, the shadow the boat casts, angled mast, fretted wake, indigo eye.

Windows of the blind text, keening, parabolic nights.

And the rolling sun, sun tumbling into then under, company of moths.

Can you hear what I'm thinking, from there, even as you sleep? Streets of the Poor Text, where a child's gaze falls

on the corpse of a horse beside a cart, whimpering dog, woman's mute mouth agape

as if to say, We must move on, we must not stop, we must not watch.

For after all, do the dead watch us? To memorize precisely the tint of a plum,

curve of a body at rest (sun again), the words to each popular song,

surely that would be enough. For are you not familiar with these crows by the shore?

Did you not call them sea crows once? Did we not discuss the meaning of "as the crow flies"

one day in that square-station of exile-under the reddest of suns? And then, almost as one, we said, It's time.

And a plate shattered, a spoon fell to the floor, towels in a heap by the door.

Drifts of cloud over steeples from the west.

Faith in the Poor Text. Outline of stuff left behind.


"The rats outnumber the roses in our garden. That's why we've named it The Rat Garden."

A discussion of the sublime ensued. Aunt Klara served her ginger-peach tea. At ninety-six, many of her parts still worked. "It is life that should inspire fear, not death," she would say, quoting the Dietrich once again.

It was the first May Day of the new millennium, though no one could recall what that day meant. "Perhaps it is the day when the rat lies down with the rose," tiny Perdita remarked. All were aghast, as these were the first words she had ever uttered.

The skywriters were active that near windless day, their most frequent message, in cursive, "Rats Rule!" Slowly the letters would thicken and belly out toward the east, then dissolve into illegible smoke.

The sun declined; the mayflies made their entrance, and the sedulous bats.

Then the great evening feast was placed before us: pea soup with pork knuckle; the little elver, baby eels, almost transparent, quickly boiled and served with mashed turnip; and of course the goose, stuffed with Nuremberg sausage, chestnuts, onion, chopped carrot and cream; and finally a Black Forest cake, that baroque confection of chocolate, whipped cream, sweetened cherries and kirsch.

It was over coffee and brandy, as the evening drew to a close, that Uncle Johann suddenly blurted out, "I'm sorry, I know I'm a terrible poet." At that moment Perdita formed the second sentence of her inchoate life, "All poets know they are terrible."


Figures, what do they know in those old books, asleep

in those brittle books? What do they dream on the locked shelves, in The Book of Signs

and The Book of Delights, Queen Dido's book, and the book we sought but couldn't find?

Bright archive, sad merriment, those waters that once we bathed in,

spine against spine, their banks lined with the smallest of flowers, pale blue.

Did you see them, darting beneath the eaves? Hear them, right before night?

Should we share a breath or maybe two with the ghost of the future, the slant rain,

the brindled rose, the keeper of the code? What do they know

with their sealed lips, scattered limbs, of the books that they rewrite?

Burning Deck

Therefore the choir, underneath Therefore our work books, our waste books

and the dazzle of the streets, the rigged lotteries and the too bright, speech-cancelling hours

Therefore the hand's thought, throat's thought of promises and passages

singing ourselves away (Can you hear the changes, can you,

first words, earliest, almost empty names, tuned thread Adriana spins

up there at the dusty edge?) And our bass player's from Montana

or Milwaukee, or some kinda smack And so the tolling, the teeming shore

and the woman lying naked, curled within the belly of an owl

We'd monitor her dreams if we could across the starry night,

Good Ship Vertigo sliding through shadow, blossoms of phosphor in its wake

Today, they claim, light has been brought to a stop and stored, then sent upon its way

Therefore the bell bird, the clockwork carousel, and the breath's turn-which way?

for Rosmarie and Keith

Tongue Asleep

A wind had cleared things out, stolen things. Had swept down the stairwell, it was that dark and late, dark field with swirling dots. Mass of summer stars, window shattered, all pages gone, all pens, all amulets, lists, all machines but one. How will you now read in the dark? asked the pyrographer. Where will you place your hands, how hold your arms? How hobble, how step from wall to wall? How gather in images forthwith? How focus the eyes, draw a comb through your hair, fix your gaze on the missing thing? How listen, where dwell? Once more, once more, said Khlebnikov. And that was all. Things were years. Idea of light, of flesh, of thought. Stolen things.


Excerpted from COMPANY OF MOTHS by MICHAEL PALMER Copyright © 2005 by Michael Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Palmer (1942-2013) was a physician and bestselling writer of medical thrillers. One of his best-known books, Extreme Measures (1991), was turned into a movie starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Gene Hackman. He is alleged to have decided to try to write a book after reading a medical thriller by a fellow Wesleyan graduate, and thinking "If he could do it, why couldn’t I?" His books have been translated into more than 30 languages.

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