Singing is prohibited in this café.
Torture is permitted in this café.
I'll have a double, thank you,
in ¾ time, Sister,
may I call you Sister, you
in this ever-changing light
that cloaks the feral world?
These dancers, do you know them?
Do they think
as they glide and spin
of what is to be
and what has been?
Do you know their names
and if so
do their names change
from earliest hours to late
and day to day?
Do their wounds show
as they mimic the music's path?
(Sister, I apologize, but I must ask.)
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Abu Ghraib,
Oradour, Terezín, Deir Yassin,
Vel d'Hive, Vorkuta, Magadan—
that waltz, that dance—
among the café candles
and beyond the fogged windows
the endless allée
of lightning-scarred trees
whispering fractured words
for none to understand.
All the beautiful names,
Sister, the infinite names,
roll off the tongue
innumerable as the stars
that frolic in the sea.
I was blind then, then a thread, then an effigy sledding toward the sun.
Then a child falling unnoticed through space and into the sea, a painting of
The sea an abecedarian.
It did not save me.
Dear Sister, your sisterhood didn't save me, didn't ease me.
Sister, may I still whisper us out into the evening for a walk, a walk by the sea,
even if we are centuries—or light-years—apart?
As we walked near the Tiber that time, laughing like fools at the ruins,
clasping screen memories to our breasts, and swallowing heavy metals from
the Book of Songs.
Cobalt songs, chromium songs, cadmium songs, antimony, mercury, zinc,
and always just then, some listener would inevitably complain, You have gone
too far, sailed too far.
And where, pray, the elegy, where the Hanged Man, the Knight of Wands, the
Sun, where the downbeat and, once again, the elegy?
And where, Sister, the aged pair bent ear to ear, and where now the poem,
so-called, the noetic poem, the poem of unknowing, meant to be placed here,
stumbling along this path "near the Tiber," and where the words of
The sea an abecedarian, a palace of memory, declares the poem, so-called,
while dealing out cards.
Hierophant, Knave of Hearts, Higgs boson, ancient cards dealing themselves.
Sister, pardon this interlude—it came about by chance.
Today, as ever more each day, the innumerable bodies adrift in the sea—
who will count them, who claim them, these particles?
Sister, you once said, It is what it is; once said, You must change your life;
once said, Words don't mean anything; once said, You must wait.
And I waited in the alphabet's shadow, waited, in the half-light, for eyes to
turn from grey to green, for the words to reveal their names, waited for the
cicadas and the night-birds to speak.
In this world, with its two suns and two moons, perhaps desire and grief are
Who will count, who will claim?
Michael Palmer has lived in San Francisco since 1969. He has collaborated with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company for over forty years, as well as with many composers and visual artists. His most recent poetry collection is The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions, 2016). He translates poetry and prose, principally from French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian, and has taught at various universities around the world.