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On "Song of the Round Man"

Norman Finkelstein (1992)

[Noting that the poem is dedicated to Palmer’s daughter, Finkelstein identifies "Song of the Round Man" as the first of a series of texts scattered through Notes for Echo Lake and First Figure that "appropriate the peculiar linguistic habits of the child," which he describes as marked by "pre-grammatical flexibility and semantic dislocations."]

… If poetry for Palmer is at least on one level a highly stylized form of play, then what better place to engage in such a practice than in a poem which addresses a child’s concerns?

… Euphoria and terror: these are the emotional poles between which young children run over the course of their day, and few parents can ever forget how rapidly a child can swing from one to the other – or how oddly mixed these two apparent opposites can appear at a single moment. Thus, Palmer’s songs for Sarah are both children’s poems in that they enter wholly into the child’s world and sophisticated works for the mature reader in the total self-consciousness of their artifice.

[Finkelsetin quotes lines beginning "I am sad today" and "what you find?".]

Like Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle ("’Once,’ said the Mock Turtle at last with a deep sigh, ‘I was a real Turtle’"), the round man mourns for the loss of cognitive unity and the wholeness of the perceiving subject. With his head in a Japanese box, the round man’s sense of physical integrity is threatened; likewise he no longer experiences the object constancy so important to children as they learn to perceive the material world. … The result is his pathetic plea for help, for he cannot know the world as he once did.

He is answered by a reader who is also the speaker of the text, a figure often found in Palmer’s work who has even more definite links with [Wallace] Stevens … But whereas in Stevens the act of reading is often enabled, in Palmer it tends to frustrate, breaking the link between perceiving subject and perceived object:

[Finkelstein quotes lines beginning "I cannot I replied" to "as if we were alive".]

Once the speaker and the round man discover that they share a single identity all that remains is for em to accept that it is writing and not perception that inserts the subject into reality. A little sadly but in good spirits, the poet, the poem, and the reader (in this game they are all one) can puff cigars – entertain themselves with the smoke of verbal play – as if they were something more than words.

from Norman Finkelstein, "Michael Palmer’s Songs for Sarah" in P. Michael Campbell, ed. Palmer / Davidson: Poets and Critics Respond to the Poetry of Michael Palmer and Michael Davidson (Berkeley: Occident, 1992), 51-53. Copyright 1992 by Norman Finkelstein.

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