This cycle of poems focuses on Palamedes, credited with inventing letters of the Greek alphabet and dice.
In these poems, some previously published, Anderson (Songs of Bethlehem: Nativity Poems, 2014, etc.) takes the few surviving references to Palamedes from ancient texts and tells his story. According to mythology and surviving fragments from sources including Euripides, Plato, and Ovid (but not Homer), Palamedes was a Greek, the son of Nauplius and Clymene. He reputedly invented dice and 11 consonants in the Greek alphabet, and he notably made an enemy of Odysseus after exposing his stratagem to avoid the Trojan War. In one version of the story, Odysseus writes a fake letter that gets Palamedes stoned to death as a traitor. Paradoxically, the creation of writing is Palamedes’ doom. And though the miracle of written language is that it withstands living memory, almost nothing inscribed about him survives. Anderson conjures a vivid life for Palamedes that fully explores these paradoxes and others. The author’s voice ranges flexibly from lyrical to conversational, as when Palamedes’ brother tells him his efforts are futile: “Palamedes, stop.... / Before you finish this book of alphabet / A thousand poets will have sung what you want to write.” These strong lines, seeming both inevitable and surprising, are characteristic of Anderson’s poems. This effect can be emphasized by rhyme, as in “Sea Language of Palamedes,” in which the Greek imagines fleeing Earth’s demands for his grandfather Poseidon’s realm: “On a sea horse, I will ride the surf and breathe salt air. / Warriors, if you want to go to war, walk there.” The collection is deepened and complicated by several sequences in which figures address and respond to each other. Palamedes replies to Odysseus’ reluctance to leave Ithaca, not seeing his own danger to come: “Here you will rot like fruit in ripe manhood / While we write on the walls of Troy.” In his poems, Anderson beautifully considers the ghosts that haunt language.
A rich, thoughtful collection that generously breathes life into its ancient subject: very fine.