This poem by Michael Palmer was published in 2000. The news coverage of refugees and migrants which is all over the television and in the newspapers at the moment keeps bringing fragments of it back to my mind.
I Do Not
I do not know English.
I do not know English, and therefore I can have nothing to
say about this latest war, flowering through a night-
scope in the evening sky.
I do not know English, and therefore, when hungry, can do no
more than repeatedly point to my mouth.
Yet such a gesture may be taken to mean a number of
I do not know English, and therefore cannot seek the requisite
permissions, as outlined in the recent protocol.
Such as: May I utter a term of endearment; may I now proceed
to put my arm or arms around you and apply gentle
pressure; may I know kiss you directly on the lips; now
on the left tendon of the neck; now on the nipple of
each breast? And so on.
Would not in any case be able to decipher her response.
I do not know English. Therefore I have no way of
communicating that I prefer this painting of nothing to
that one of something.
No way to speak of my past or my hopes for the future, of my
glasses mysteriously shattered in Rotterdam, the statue
of Eros and Psyche in the Summer Garden, the sudden,
shrill cries in the streets of Sao Paulo, a watch
abruptly stopping in Paris.
No way to tell the joke about the rabbi and the parrot, the
bartender and the duck, the Pope and the porte-cochere.
You will understand why you have received no letters from me
and why yours have gone unread.
Those, that is, where you write so precisely of the
confluence of the visible universe with the invisible,
and the lens of dark matter.
No way to differentiate the hall of mirrors from the meadow
of mullein, the beetlebung from the pinkeltink, the
kettlehole from the ventifact.
Nor can I utter the words science, seance, silence, language
Nor can I tell of the arboreal shadows elongated and shifting
along the wall as the sun’s angle approaches maximum
Cannot tell of the almond-eyed face that peered from the
well, the ship of stone whose sail was a tongue.
And I cannot report that this rose has twenty-four petals,
one slightly cankered.
Cannot tell how I dismantled it myself at this desk.
Cannot ask the name of this rose.
I cannot repeat the words of the Recording Angel or those of
the Angel of Erasure.
Can speak neither of things abounding nor of things
Still the games continue. A muscular man waves a stick at a
ball. A woman in white, arms outstretched, carves a true
circle in space. A village turns to dust in the chalk
Because I do not know English I have variously been called
Mr. Twisted, The One Undone, The Nonrespondent, The
Truly Lost Boy, and Laughed-At-By-Horses.
The war is declared ended, almost before it has begun.
They have named it The Ultimate Combat Between Nearness and
I do not know English.