Michael Heller: The Poet Revealed
I will attempt here to piece together a portrait of a must-read poet, Michael Heller, who, as the critic Mark Scroggins has described him, is "one of the most thoughtful, lyrical and philosophically profound of contemporary American poets." Perhaps this portrait is most comprehensibly drawn, in the brief space I have here, if I use a loose essay format which "narrates" as it guides the reader through a maze of extended excerpts from Heller's work of both poetry and prose.
a compilation by M.L. Weber
Let me start with an insight from a recent critical book devoted to Heller's work, edited by Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman--The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory-which will lay out the basis of his value as a poet for our times. The collected essays in this book, from critics worldwide, reveal a vast trove of poetic accomplishment, for Heller has been extremely prolific since he began to write in the 1960's, and he continues to be a very active poet and essayist; his latest book, Dianoia, is out this year from Nightboat Books, NY (2016).
In the introduction to the critical book, Jon Curley makes the case clear that
"Heller has contributed some of the most strikingly interrogatory and dynamic poems in the English language. In over twenty volumes of poetry, essays and memoir, he has explored the mechanisms of linguistic representation in a poetic deliberation richly inventive and scrupulously attentive to the shifting conditions of language."
Heller's poetic development is instructive in the ways it reveals cogent trends in American poetry. He started as an engineering student but while in school hooked up with literary classmates who read the new, exciting poetry of the day. Ultimately, near the age of thirty, he felt compelled to give up an established career as a technical writer to become a "nomad" (his word) when he ran off to Spain for a year to be able to think only of writing poetry.
Heller recounts this fertile period thusly:
"'Truth also is the pursuit of it'--this line was from George Oppen's book, The Materials, which I found among others in the blue footlocker I had dragged across the Atlantic at the beginning of an expatriate hegira in the mid-1960s. My friend Ernie Raia, who had studied with Louis Zukofsky at Brooklyn Poly, had suggested Oppen's work to me, along with that of other modernist poets, William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley. It was 1965; I had won a small poetry prize from The New School For Social Research in New York City, resigned my well-paying job as head technical writer for a major corporation and with my first wife, had taken a Yugoslav freighter from New York to Europe where I planned to live for an extended time.
"In that footlocker were other books, Dante, Shakespeare, some contemporary poets, notes and manuscripts as well as an old Hermès portable wrapped in a blanket to keep it from being damaged. I had little idea what I was doing. Here, nearing thirty and on the whim of a minuscule prize, I had thrown a whole career away, had become "hooked," as Oppen once put, on the sincerity of the poem, and was truly sailing into the unknown. I had never been to Europe before, and my 'research' consisted mainly of reading Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars A Day. I was ripe, split wide open with vulnerabilities and longings. It was a mental condition that I recognized in my own attempts at poems, in my efforts to bind disparate words together, words marked sentimentally for me, that I clasped or bracketed into forms the way one applies a bandage or dressing over a raw wound.
"Two things stick out from that sea voyage as markers of my state of mind. One was the sound, on the radio in the ship's salon, of the empty airwaves in the middle of the Atlantic, a strange roar not unlike the roar of the sea itself, non-human and terrifying. Signaled by that roaring, the vast jumble of phenomena, the world, made any writing--the use, that is, of the intermediaries of words--a seemingly impossible act of translation. I thought about this impasse in my bunk at night, how little words counted against the strange unknowableness of the world. How everything of true depth to the individual struck me as being unnamed, and thereby unsayable even as its shadow in the form of desire swept across one. The other marker of my troubled mental state--I was looking, in the romance of my discomfiture, for such little poetic hints--was that every evening just as the sun was setting and the stars were coming out, the first officer appeared on the bridge, his figure dark against the darkening sky. I watched him, immediately an embodiment of certain masteries, take the sextant from its polished wooden case and "shoot" the first appearing stars and the horizon, thus locating our position on the vast planes of endless water. In those rough and glittering seas, it struck me that only the thin, imaginary line which he constructed between the heavens and the ship anchored us in any way to what was at all human. That line, construed as it was from the symbolic orders of numbers and ratios, was more than mathematics; it was also part of our languages of hope. . . . I turned to the back of the book, to the last poem in it, "Leviathan"--this is a habit I have always had when casually browsing--and read the first line of the poem: "Truth also is the pursuit of it." I read the line over and over, like a chant, feeling a raw ache in my chest. What did the words mean to me? I had only the vaguest idea, but also a sense of wanting to weep. I calmed myself down and began to decipher my response. I took the "it" of the line as art, hunger, and the clarification of the very confusion I was experiencing. Later, I would read that this word was, of course, one of Oppen's substantives, an order of nouns like "sun" or "rock," a "taxonomy," as he referred to them collectively, which hinted or pointed at the real. In my own receptive state, the line, with its functionally medial "also" bridged a chasm between a pure skepticism of language induced by my uneasiness and some obdurate sense of the otherness of the world. "Truth" as I saw it in the line was not some abstract category of universal knowledge and fact but the more humble sense of what was going on around me. In other words, the facts before me, the room, my vertiginous almost nauseous falling into an abyss were also "truth." I could begin where I was--indeed, was there any other place?
"A bit further down in the poem, there were these lines which vaguely reconciled me to my state of mind and fueled my desire to write:
We must talk now. I am no longer sure of the words,
The clockwork of the world. What is inexplicable
Is the 'preponderance of objects.' The sky lights
Daily with that predominance
And we have become the present.
We must talk now. Fear
Is fear. But we abandon one another.
"I was looking at these lines, not only or necessarily as a poet; rather, I was reading them as one might read a theological tract or guide to the perplexed, as a form of wisdom. I was, in this reading, unaware of the 'art' of these lines, the way Oppen distributed cadence or language, or used parallel structures to link the "inexplicable" with the "preponderance of objects", with "talk" and "fear." There was, in the most profound sense that I can imagine concerning my response, no admiration present. One does not admire the spar to which one is clinging.
"Instead, a certain kind of transparency was taking place, decidedly unliterary. I did not understand then how the style of the work contributed to this effect. I sensed only that the words were entering into me, inscribing themselves in a place where moments before fear was regnant. In retrospect, I believe I was inoculating myself into a way of apprehending poetry, not as a literary product at all. For even now, I still strip down my response to a poem to the, for me, essential question of its use- or meaning-value in my life."
In Heller's collection, Accidental Center, from 1972, we find the fruits of his commitment to poetry, as shown in the following poem, of which the critic Jon Curley has said: "Much in keeping with the volume's title, these poetic sequences are pursuing centeredness despite being continually decentered and upended by the shifting conditions of words and world."
BIRDS AT THE ALCAZABA
so it might end
so it might end and all things
above the brown oval of the bullring
above treetops, the wide blue
space to sea
shredded by sound
thousands of birds
screaming down the sun
among them the peacock
its almost human shriek
which, by that, still touches. . .
it is an old world
we have come to
the shock of the known
the imagined as known
enough to hold us
--as the sea and metal
hold its light
we come here on the ferry,
watch the dolphin's
we stand on deck
in harsh relief
grinding down details
of skin and pores
and the dolphin's body
thrusts down the waves
is lustrous for an instant
in the sun
the pang as it dives
the sea wipes away its passage
in that terrible light
to barely see ourselves
the thick glinting cliffs
of strange continents
encircle and confront us
it was our place
it was not our place
and like those storks
which abandon their nests
--some shift in brain matter
meaning they roost elsewhere
this year, maybe next--
we come here to explore
to perch ourselves
on these rocks
above the coast
and the sea
and its beings hidden in the mist
for the eye seeks
with unclouded remembrance
seeks the world
beyond all dimensions
the roof, the sun
under which the mind
staggers to the next thought
and the heart and lungs
scratch on the thin air
of some landed fish
an unquenchable synapse
which knows no answer
it was ourselves
and the end of ourselves
the house at night
its lives twisted in the bed sheets
and I walked
the parched silt hills
knowing neither you nor anyone
grateful when I knew
the path I was on
its stones and shade trees
yet the night's sexual spell
was cast across the days
we went out
we may have suffered
and surely we came back
as different people
but to a precise feeling
which sustains us
the almond and the oleander
on the roads at dusk
the paths which spiral
towards fortress walls
yet we come here
the transplanted Sequoia
the transplanted swirls
of Arabic art
we come here to partake
of the transplant
of beauty. . .
and the birds cry
their tremendous noise
--thought tries to place the sound
yet nothing in the mind
can contain it
foreigners in a foreign land
--can one call another foreign
who in that dusk
is tremblingly clasped
for the otherness is beautiful
and terror and delight
in the same moment flood the heart
In his overview of Heller's lifetime of work, Jon Curley introduces Heller's next collection, Knowledge, with the observation that: "Somewhere between Accidental Center and Knowledge, his restive incursions into compositional space began to incorporate more personal and historical material, with poems particularly responding to Jewish heritage."
Here follows an excerpt from a long poetic sequence dealing with the Heller family's ancestral home in the town of Bialystok, Poland.
from Knowledge (1979):
from a book of old pictures
The scene filled with photographer's light
This sparsely furnished room
In the corner of which
A china-closet Ark
The old men
Under green shaded bulbs
The prayers are simple,
To what they think larger
--the place almost bare,
The flat white light
Adds no increment
He sits in the armchair
Beside his bed
In his hands
A Yiddish paper
On his head
A high black
The room's things
Furnished by donation
Reads a small brass plaque
Above the headboard of the bed
A bed, a hat upon his head
A yiskor glass, the candle for the dead
Burnt down, the wax scraped out
He uses it for drinking
You can almost
Smell the pine oil
A few feet apart
So the old men
Tired of the world
In the evening
Can face each other
But now the shades are half pulled up
Sun streams in the windows
The room almost empty
But for the two directors
Sitting stiffly on chairs
Who, like the white painted beds,
At one side
Two grey bedridden men
Finished too with dignity
The old bind with phylacteries
--between the leather turns
The pinched flesh bulges, the old
Skin, the hairs burn
As if to do this is also
For the pain
To Him of what it is
They are made
Thus, why they fail
This one and that one
Look like madmen
With their long wisps of hair
They scream: I chant, I dance
Like a crab
In the room the women wail
A plangent erotic note
Their loins itch with double fire
As he in topcoat-who-is-blessed
Screams their demons back
Until their innocence
Stands naked as desire
He whirls, he spins
Till the beard is out
From his face like a flag
And in wild wisdom
Throws her to the boards
She, who would
That next instant
Have pulled him down to her
But for the trick
Of the ritual
THE JEWISH FIRE COMPANY
There was one fireman none knew
Neither his family nor friends
He had good eyes, though they looked
A little wild. He was sent
To the watchtower
One day, almost at once,
Two fires broke out in town
The Hasid grocer's
And a gentile butcher
The fireman warned
Of the butcher's blaze
But said nothing about the grocer
Whose place burned to the ground
When what he had failed to do
Was discovered and explanation demanded
He said: those who do not
Follow our God's way
Must be helped
And those who do
Must accept his justice
This one joined
So the young ladies
Should see him in uniform
And flattered the brass and the leather
But not him
Finally, he charmed a farm girl
Of pious family into the fields
And the manner of the orthodox
Threw his cap to the hay
Where he thought to take her
To his delight, she bent toward
The straw, raising her skirt
As she kneeled. Suddenly,
She whisked the cap up
Tucked it in her girdle and ran away
So ashamed was he
The next day he left for Warsaw
Years later, the farm girl
Placed the cap on her first-born's head
I will now select representive work from the volumes subsequent to Knowledge--they are titled: In the Builded Place; Wordflow; Exigent Futures; Eschaton; Beckmann Variations; and This Constellation Is A Name.
from In the Builded Place (1989):
WITH A TELESCOPE IN THE SANGRE DE CRISTOS
Where the mountains bulked
Above the valley floor
And town and ranch lights
Made shallow bowls
Into other heavens
Raw nature actually seemed less raw.
Again and again that night
The glass checked
In its round frame
The nebula's thumbprint swirls:
This fine life of bonds and connections...
I looked in
At another's eyes
Looked past that image
Of the self,
In at the pupil's black hole
Where light gives up
Becomes a maelstrom
Beyond the phenomenal
To a lightless, frightening depth.
O this fine life of bonds and connections...
ON DRY LAKES TRAIL
Mother and father gone, and I, the new orphan,
new to my orphan ness, summon what I can
to staunch the little gap.
For these rounds of my grief, I imported fauna
into the poem. For father, who died first,
the heron was imploded into lines and stanzas.
I thought of white feathered Chinese death
and tic like nervous beauty. So many times,
in his last years I saw him with his fingers
worrying his lower lip.
Mother, I played on reversals, the facts
of your life. You'd been cut by a dozen
operations, both breasts gone. And when,
by accident I found insurance photos
in an envelope amid the memorabilia,
I saw how the surgeon's knife had given
you the body of a male.
O miracle, that the force of you survived.
I saw it in that Bighorn ram at 12,000 feet
just above the Dry Lakes Trail, who pawed
and pawed at his succulent piece of turf,
flashed white battle scars in the brown fur
of his sides. I sensed the great warp
of distance by which you had to protect yourself.
High, high, high the reminders take me,
first against the sky, Horn Peak
to the right, Jane's photograph
catching you all silhouette, back lit
and black, authority and severity
flowing from you into horned isolate strength,
bone and space twisted on itself.
Yes, that was your grass, and it was we
who left, stumbling down the slope,
down to the trees and air, warmer air,
down to the path. But I hung back, Mother,
because of tears, hung back, as did you,
I walked home alone.
from Wordflow (1997):
SAG HARBOR, WHITMAN, AS IF AN ODE
And so again, to want to speak--as though floating on this world--
thoughts of Sagaponak, of Paumanok, "its shore gray and rustling,"
To remember late sun burnishing with a pale gold film
the feathery ghosts of blue heron and tern, of that same light
furrowed in the glyphed tracks to bay water. And at night,
to scrape one's own marks in sand, a bio-luminescence underfoot
by which we playfully signaled, as the heat of bodies also
was a signal to turn to each other in the guest house buried
in deep sunk must and trellised scents. As though, again, to be
as with mossed graves which, even as they lie under new buds,
are worn and lichened, chiseled over with letter and number,
entrapped, as in the scripts of museum words: trypots and scrims.
And so, like whalers, whose diaries record a lostness to the world
in the sea's waves, to find ourselves in talk's labyrinth where
the new is almost jargon, and we speak of lintels of a house
restored or of gods who stage their return at new leaf or where
pollen floats on water in iridescent sheens.
But also now, to sense mind harrowed in defeats of language,
Bosnia, Rwanda, wherever human speech goes under a knife.
And to be unable to look to the sea, as to some watery possibility
which would break down the hellish rock of history that rides
above wave height as above time. Strange then, these littorals
teeming with sea life, with crab and ocean swallow. Strange then,
to walk and to name-- glad of that momentary affluence.
And so to find again the vibratory spring that beats against
old voicings, old silences, this waking to those fables where
new bees fly up, birthed spontaneously from the log's hollow,
to hear again the latinate of returning birds keeping alive
curiosity and memory, as if the ear were to carry us across hope's
boundary, remembering the words: Now, I will do nothing but listen!
from Exigent Futures (2003):
WINTER NOTES, EAST END
to AS, in memoriam
Finding the nothing full, I bring myself back
to the day's page, the window's revealing expanse
of snow, bardos tamped down upon bardos(it is not
possible to contract for a stay), brittle leaves
which sign but do not speak, the frost, the graveyard
across the road leaking its supply of portents, jargons
of elegies, white words without issue, the swan
on thin ice, images which imbue, only to lend perfume
to the acrid taste of being countried outside a soul.
At midnight, Orion and the Dog Star swell in blackness.
And on clouded nights, no constellation and no consolation.
Intelligence unable to code another winter night which, like
a tunnel, leads back to a helplessness only a child should feel.
At the window, January's sparse glories:
ice crystals adhering to rocks,
also winter birds that never quite
belong in snow-struck landscapes--
they signal what burns up old mechanisms,
the rote cyclicals of seasons, routines
into which one-way time-bound bodies are cast.
Winter making one desire--that part of it
containing stars or blankets, anything memory
clings to or words rend open. Stagnant water
reflecting back ridges of heaped up ground.
An autumnal reflux embodying a sorrow
or hunger for unfixed space. Death imagined
as a motionless mode of contemplation.
This world, that--I know one
should stop. Tired eyes
should rise from inked blue
lines inscribed on yellow pad.
And that the eye should elect
this hovering blur which,
if one is tired enough, becomes
spectral green as though
through writing one came
again to a parkland.
Do you trust phenomena? Old literalist,
Blake's guinea sun is mocking you.
These short days blend unawares into nights,
instructions in how to join the great poets.
O yon pillowed laughter! Yet somewhere,
a dog howls, and self-knowledge is suddenly
the heat of an immense banked fire. Gone now,
names sequent to things unnamed. The blank page
no mystery. Composition is, composition is....
Philosopher's stone, shrine room's hoardings.
Everything under the august calm of the sacred.
Still panic that one can't live to the smallest jot,
to the least syllable of the matter. Wasn't it called
ghost or haunting, an iota of someone left?
Remember the dead or must a kind of iotacism
be proposed? Homer long ago: each beat
of the line awash in Heraclitus's river.
Scouring words for the relieving aura,
breathing deeply old vocabularies of sea,
of pine, ever-present tinge of salt.
Panoply of stars, planets. But often
one can't find what is being searched for,
the galaxy seemingly drained of that covenant.
Thus is it written out for syntax's rules,
for the untranslatable memory of black holes,
for voice, for love and against concept.
from ESCHATON (2009):
LOOKING AT SOME PETROGLYPHS IN A DRY ARROYO
NEAR A FRIEND'S HOUSE
If the spiral meant one thing,
and the square with an incised X another
and if the footprint were deeply traced in stone,
and the spider on the rock scurried off, or if,
as Janet said, the boulders were a 'rattler motel'
but the snakes were off molting in another place,
and if our words are off not by being
in another place but in a nowhere
of no help to ourselves or anyone,
if they are just stuff and the proof of stuff,
but might as well be vanished or banished,
if they are the proverbial music of the cosmos
but no longer sing of a self, and if the footprint
is just something to aestheticize and to remember
those tribes who lived here but now go unrecorded,
if the stone's marks are the fleet music that we exist
and exist no more, if the tragic mode was a wondering
about this very fact and therefore had to go like a used car
for next year's model, stationary as an exercise bike
that seemed to drive a lot but stayed in place, if to see
the petroglyph as just there, exposing all this
and we are deluded for thinking elsewise
as someone, me, you, those we care for try to round
the horn of this thought because only love is at the end of it
from BECKMANN VARIATIONS AND OTHER POEMS (2010):
-- Abfahrt (Departure), 1932-1933
The master departs he always departs.
So it is with kings who sail off on boat-like thrones,
who perform the miracles of going. Don't wonders
occur when iron reason has left the scene,
and cruel profanations no longer astound us?
The king-drummer's beat is a ritual, an enclosing
rhythm of prisoners bound by rope. They look glum
in their bundles, one head up, another head down,
hair brushing the same ground on which we place our feet.
Later, there will be torture, but for now, only your servants,
these women, relieve us of slaughter. We embody the gift
of powerlessness. The king sails off, his spirit dispersed
among the males. He sails off, his spirit dispersed among us.
In 2012, Nightboat Books published Heller's large and impressive This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010, its title taken from the following poem, which, in its final lines, evokes the disaster of 9/11:
This constellation is a name
no god has a hand here,
and distillates of memory
crystallize then reveal
unplanned as cells
gone wild in a tumor
Possibly, the bird
was once an eagle
but now a mourning dove
coos on the window ledge,
abandons its two white eggs
to the pigeon or the peregrine
The hole in the downtown
sky is of another order,
purchased from the fractals,
made one with the incalculable
past tense about to conjugate a future
While Heller's poetics engage a wide range of history, traditions and cultural tendencies, he has never strayed far from his belief in the testimony of the individual caught in time and history, the witness to what happens, as suggested in this "poetics" of a poem from his most recent book, Dianoia:
before each word,
exhale the sense of form
as one's sensibility
is part of talk,
mounted on word,
as rider on horse,
but first intensity:
"the grammar of survival
requires personal pronouns"
poetry has no laboratories
but the self
forget your fear
of the personal "I"
fear is market strategy
but also poetry
Heller has a large amount of prose to his credit which I will not survey here, but one should take note of his book of critical essays, Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry( 1985) and his memoir, Living Root (2000). I will end here with excerpts Heller gave in the course of an interview with Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman in late 2014.
Heller interview excerpts:
"The feel of closure, of the little box clicking shut, as Eliot speaks of it, has been one of the reasons for pursuing poetry. This has nothing to do with whether or not one is working in so-called closed or open forms; rather, closure is deeply a part of human experience, enabling us to understand, to "move on" as the pop-lingo has it. So let us say I've tried to make compositions that satisfy me, which is not the same as saying I've tried to make artifacts. Damn it all, Archibald MacLeish, I've tried to mean, not be!
"If I'm a poet, I'm a "poet," which means I have a particular inclination or stance toward the handling of language, that is, I want to make poetry, even if I write and read and, in a sense, am trapped in American English. But for a poet, language is less an instrument than a horizon, the flatness of which is always beckoning to be figured. Sure, I'm a child of Whitman, but his legacy is complicated. . . . Yet from the point of view of technique, I heed his call to reject the court tradition, the received forms, the iron draperies and ornamentals of European and English poetry. His acts of refusal are as moving to me as his affirmations, which are full of refusals as well-isn't the very defamiliarizing act of art and poetry somehow, whatever else it is, also a refusal? In other word, mustn't it break the horizon line?
"The poet, at least this poet, is a citizen, and therefore has the political arena before him, with all the possibilities and responsibilities that that entails, voting, participating in causes, being an activist, a donor, an anarchist or whatever one chooses. But these choices are quite different from imagining one's poetry as politically, culturally and socially enacting change or realizing political ends. I'm fond of Shelley's idea of the poet as "unacknowledged legislator," someone whose perceptions-let's say those of certain poets at least-saturate and work slowly through societies and cultures. In the nineteen-sixties, just after my return from Spain to a U.S. in turmoil, I underlined in Barthes's Writing Degree Zero this sentence: "All writing will therefore contain the ambiguity of an object which is both language and coercion," and further down that same page, "for it is power or conflict which produce the purest types of writing." I read this nearly fifty years ago, and it has stayed with me. Barthes seems to speak to me of two things at once, the brutal instrumentality of language and also the need to thoroughly understand this fact for one who takes up language. So I see a responsibility, call it a political responsibility if you wish, for the poet.
"For me, the word "real" is a sum word of all the realities, realisms, Realpolitiks, etc., that float around among humans. Language is the arena in which these various realities are communicated and negotiated. Poetry is interactive and performative, always related to and in a sense resolved by an audience (I include the poet as part of this audience), so the imagining is multiple, and not the product of an individual philosophy or even sensibility."
More information on Michael Heller can be found at:
Amazon author page
and Excerpts on Youtube
with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson: This Art Burning, Constellations of Waking (a multi-media work based on the life of Walter Benjamin)
(Nightboat Books, 2016).
The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory
(Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2015).
This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010
(Nightboat Books, 2012).
Beckmann Variations & Other Poems
Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the work of George Oppen
Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics