A poetry of vision
A review of ‘This Constellation Is a Name’ by Michael Heller
Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 is a culmination of over forty years of poetic exploration by a major voice in contemporary poetry. From his experimental poems of the 1960s to the more assured (though no less experimental) work of recent decades, Heller’s poems wrestle with all the implications of “history and the constellated night,” as he writes in “Gloss.”
Heller draws on lyric, epic, and prophetic traditions of poetry as they inform the modernist writers he most admires: Walter Benjamin and George Oppen primarily, but also Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale and a host of older sources from Heraclitus to Blake to Montaigne. Like these writers, Heller continuously attempts to locate, as Oppen calls them, “handholds” and “footholds” with which to navigate the elusiveness of being in the whirlwinds of history. His work is haunted by the past, by historical forces with which we must contend yet never quite understand, and by the mediation and interrogation of the events via poetic language.
Heller in an interview with Edward Foster offers what might suffice as his ars poetica:
I tend to think first in my poetry about meaning or personal and public discovery and in terms of a vocabulary of self, history, terms which in the present critical climate are often viewed as irrelevant or debased … I’m someone on a quest, my energies directed at what can be said about one’s life or about how the act of writing might impinge or enlarge … one’s life.
Heller, who studied engineering prior to his career as poet, sees similarities in the process of discovery in both science and poetry as requiring “tremendous precision” (51). Both involve a fusing of the rational and intuitive — of knowledge and creativity — with a willingness to forgo past results in order to clarify and articulate new understandings or discoveries. Heller sees that articulating an “upsurge of the world” is accomplished by remaining open to possibility. We live with language and not in it, Heller insists. Writing therefore becomes an act of “individual witness” (52) dependent on honesty, clarity, and sincerity, the same virtues Heller’s so-called “Objectivist” forebears espouse.
Heller’s work is complex and always fascinating. The work collected here means to upset our habitual and nearly always under-scrutinized use of language; how it obfuscates, or worse. His poems restore the tension that exists between the potential for truth and clarity in language and its degradation, its capacity to confuse or deceive. As Heller’s practice demonstrates, the uncertainty that comes with all exploration and the concomitant excitement of discovery exists in the relationship between word and world, the poetic solitude of the “estranged observer” surveying events. By observing, the poet alters events through perception, assigning meaning via complexities of language, the attenuations of its sounds and rhythms, all the discrete adjustments one makes in the careful calibration of thought-event into object-poem. Accordingly, the poet seeks (but may never attain) synthesis, totality, and truth.
The earliest poems collected here date from the mid-1960s, and fit well with the avant-garde poetry and art of its time. Some of these poems (as Heller’s helpful and enlightening notes to this volume tell us) were written in Nerja, a Spanish seaside village, from September 1965 to October 1966. “In my late twenties,” writes Heller, “I came to poetry via a bizarre, accidental and blundering path that began with meeting former students of Louis Zukofsky who worked, as I did, at Sperry Gyroscope in Garden City, Long Island.” On their automobile rides to and from work, Heller and these former students discussed poetry. Heller began writing, taking one workshop at the New School in 1964 with Kenneth Koch and then, soon after, leaving for Europe, where he published his early poems in The Paris Review. “I try to imagine what went into these poems,” he reminisces of this work, later collected in 2006 under the title A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off: “my love of Webern’s ‘pointillist’ music, the background, not yet fully formed, in my love of poets like Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, Zukofsky” (553). Indeed, with titles like “OK Everybody Let’s Do the Mondrian Stomp” (containing such lines as “small red block / beside a long / white block” [Heller 2012, 4]) or the four-line poem “To My Auto Horn” (which reads “Be beep // preserve / my / radiance” ), these poems capture the unbounded creativity of improvised jazz and the repetitive thematics of that heady era, as well as some of its more self-indulgent tendencies. Thus, the primary interest of these early poems is of witnessing Heller’s evolution, and suggestions of his eventual maturation, juxtaposed with the initial approach of certain themes. “Weather Eye,” for example, shows, in its crystalline language, a meditation on the relationship between word, world, and self, particularly in the captivating lines “All things written / in their own lines // perhaps we, one day … // a resembling // the rhymes of many things // … convinced of a common // clarity // before it rains” (14).
Earth and Cave, composed in 1966 while the author was in transition from Europe back to the United States, is a remarkable book, published in 2006 in a handsome edition by Dos Madres Press, which contains both illustrations and prose interpolations between the poems (not included in This Constellation). This work, Heller tells us, begun in Nerja, was completed upon his return to New York City in the fall of 1966. The book’s introduction, reprinted here, points to his original intent: “These pages … are a quick register, haiku-like and notational, of the dissonances not only in the transformations I sensed going on around me” — meaning the political disasters of Franco’s Spain, then in its twilight — “but also of the twists and turns within me as a would-be-poet, semi-tourist, and sentimental traveler” (555).
Heller’s first full-length collection, Accidental Center, published in 1972, received high praise, most notably from Heller’s mentor George Oppen, who described its contents as consisting of “tone perfect poems.” Heller struck up a friendship with Oppen in the late 1960s, which also began a notable correspondence. By now, Heller had worked through his youthful approximations of others’ voices (Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, and Zukofsky), but by that weird alchemy of influence managed to develop his own voice, which made its initial appearance amidst all the echoes and imitations of his forebears. Accidental Center is Heller’s first mature work and it contains, to date, some of his strongest poetry. The assurance of his voice is already apparent, and his work here is fully formed.
Interspersed among its pages are some poems beholden to the pressures of that experimentalist era (notably “Pressure” — reminiscent somewhat of Paul Blackburn’s work). There are also poems comprised of discrete sections, as Oppen often employs, but by now Heller already commands a fiercely original vision, one that at times borders on the surreal: “the way frost coats / a tree // to the finest tendrils / of its branches” (“The Cardiac Poem,” 57). Heller, in these poems, evinces a willingness to explore, always in pursuit of discovery, but at times also displaying a levity that refreshingly sets it apart from most other poetry with a metaphysical bent. He is in his first book confident enough to risk irreverence, playing against tradition, testing it. Always the poems’ integrity trumps the dictates of its idiom. Also apparent here is Heller’s gift for prose poetry, as in “Three Bar Reflections on John Coltrane,” the most impressive of which is the last:
History is a joke. Personal history: unfunny.
Knowing everyone to be serious when sick and banging
on the bed for some stranger, but that he should be
like ourselves. And come get drunk or delirious, falling
into someone resembles us. On this, the heart realizes
itself meaningless — its words have moved off beyond
their meanings, as in the music, the whorls of sound
are an eternal trope — an eternal equivalent. Not to be
admitted to my world — I come to his. (69)
The title of Heller’s memoir, Living Root (2000), reflects a dynamic everywhere apparent in Heller’s careful, attenuated writings, something that is at once fixed and ever-changing. The “fixed” aspect is, as Burt Kimmelman has noted, Heller’s Jewish heritage, something that, from the collection Knowledge (1979) forward, particularly Heller’s much-praised poem “Bialystok Stanzas” (originally published in Accidental Center and reprinted and unpacked by the author in Living Root), is an increasingly prominent aspect in his later work. That poem, subtitled “from a book of old pictures,” is a haunting meditation on Jewish identity in twentieth-century America — in particular, what it means to be tied to a heritage that is without place, in possession of an identity that at times seems fixed in textuality only. For Heller, the Torah and the commentaries upon it are central defining works holding together a people whose culture, post-Diasporic, consists of a continuous struggle to maintain cohesiveness and identity. This dichotomy within the fixedness of identity based in textuality and separateness from a place (an ongoing theme in Heller’s poetry from this era forward) binds the Jew to the written word, making the text into an almost living presence. From “Bialystok Stanzas”:
The scene filled with photographer’s light
The 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
But attention (135)
Another poem, this one from In the Builded Place (1989), entitled “For Uncle Nat,” perhaps most succinctly summarizes Heller’s view of what it means to be a post-Diaspora, second-generation Jewish American:
… Not to make
Too much of it, but I know history
Stamps and restamps the Jew, our ways
Are rife with a momentary deliverance
May I borrow you for a moment Nat. We’ll celebrate
By twos, the world’s an Ark. We’ll talk in slant
American accent to code the hidden language of the Word. (274)
Because of the entwining of Jewish history and world history (and history as text, as narrative), the past is like the word: another living presence. Thus, the more Heller explores what it means to be Jewish, in particular a Jewish writer, the more memory comes into play in the poems.
This relationship between history and text for Heller has as a precursor the work of Walter Benjamin, a writer “whose thought,” explains Heller in Living Root, “flutters inextricably through my own work.” Heller writes of his first encounter with Benjamin’s work while living in Nerja: he found in Benjamin something that “paralleled my own early thoughts on the modern poet’s role one where the poet was no longer able to tell the tale of the tribe but rather had to relate the tale of the tribe’s uncertainty, of its adjustments and compensations to a transformed socio-political and cultural world.” Benjamin’s writing helped Heller to realize that the modern poet was adrift in what Heller calls “a field of disorientations and linguistic traps created by media, culture — the very arts themselves — and the debasement of thought and language in the public realm” (161), in particular the difficulty in language of capturing an increasingly elusive and fragile notion of truth.
In many ways, Heller’s next collection, the appropriately titled Wordflow (1997), represents a culmination (it was his first “new and selected”) of these concerns. The powerful “Without Ozymandias” is a gathering of artifacts treated as a poem, replete with stunning aphorisms and imagery that pulses with a newfound confidence:
Ink and effacement
— only companions
of last things owned
Sand has its texts
mica and feldspar,
stars and nestled bones
to write you to your shadow (This Constellation, 344)
In these later poems, Heller is more willing to trust the poem to its own logic and, I would argue, the poems from this collection forward are experimental in a more original way than his sixties output, more willing to challenge notions of what a poem can mean. With experience, confidence, and less need for caution, by now Heller knows the handholds and footholds well enough to turn his attention away from the immediate footing and gaze out at the distances below and above him.
Wordflow represents a major turn in Heller’s oeuvre. The books that precede it (Accidental Center, Knowledge, and In the Builded Place, from which Wordflow selects) might adequately be considered a kind of trilogy. Aside from another selected, Exigent Futures (2003), Heller did not publish another full-length collection until Eschaton (2009), some ten years after In the Builded Place, and with that work Heller has arguably achieved his masterpiece, both a culmination and an enlargement of his major themes — history, memory, the limits of language and knowledge — and of decades of increased sophistication, maturation, and sublimity. In his notes, Heller remarks of the title poem that Eschaton “is from the Greek … meaning to be about last things. In some contexts, the word refers to a dramatic transformation of reality from what has been known or imagined” (564). Heller captures this transformation in poems rife with temporal shifts, quizzical ponderings, jarring transitions, and philosophical struggle, animated by an ever-incisive wit. The poems’ temporal awareness is often juxtaposed with the burden of history, their visual equivalent that of a tapestry or a mural. The collection’s opening poem, “Looking at Some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House,” questions the concept of language reduced to some idea of its own materiality, that is, as anything more than “just stuff and the proof of stuff” (385). The petroglyphs, a human record of a desire to communicate, are “just there, exposing all this / and we are deluded for thinking elsewise,” and it is only love of the world, of others that “is at the end of it” (386). In “On a Phrase of Milosz’s” (the phrase being “He is not disinherited, / for he has not found a home,” an epigraph on page 387), Heller remarks how “History has mucked up” language’s ability to “resolve” experience: “the words / on the way to language dangling possibility” (387; note the intentional reference to Heidegger’s book On the Way to Language, a study of the metaphysical properties of language). Words are at best potentialities; we cannot resolve language, Heller contends, because “Being is / incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward” (387). We cannot be disinherited, Heller implies, because we never had a home to begin with; we have always been stranded among the ruins of a discourse that cannot possibly bridge the gap between word and world. Yet what the words do afford us, Heller maintains, is a “desperate situation … clarified.” “The worst thing is to feel only irony can save,” Heller concludes, and one cannot help but feel the statement is directed at much of modern discourse, poetry included. “The worst thing,” Heller warns, “is to feel only irony” (388).
“Stanzas Without Ozymandias” (a recasting of the earlier “Without Ozymandias”), another of Heller’s finest poems, is inspired in part by the Shelleyan image of the broken statue of Ozymandias in the Egyptian desert and the desertscapes of southern Colorado, where Heller, a New York City native, typically spends his summers. Here, Heller utilizes the image of sand as representative of text: “grain fixed to speech,” “the geometer / who mourned the mirror’s lack” … “only the colorless semblances of their desires” (443). The word is a pale shadow of an already muted recollection of experience. Of this poem, Heller remarks: “The unwarrantable sermons are what that kind of natural world tells us — remembering that what we derive from that world is already our projection on to it.” The poem is ambiguous without losing any of its clarity and rewards repeated readings, as does “Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin.” (This poem derives from and distils a much longer work, Heller’s libretto for the opera Benjamin, itself derived from Benjamin’s letters.) The italicized dream portion of the poem (“He climbed a labyrinth, / a labyrinth of stairs, / past other stairways / descending” [Heller 2012, 462]) is almost verbatim from one of Benjamin’s recordings of this dream. In the libretto, it is the very last thing said/sung. The poem appears to be an extended meditation on the Fall that is also a fall of language, the separation of language from object, as in “unknowable names” that should have been knowable, that might have kept us in an Eden of logos. Benjamin’s lamentations concerning politics and politicians, though they derive from circumstances quite dissimilar from our own, take on an eerie familiarity to our difficult times:
They too have created infinities, blind alleys, endless monuments to
iniquities, a multitude of pains for others to bear.
They will outlive their brief immortality and leave a grubby ration of
murderous hopes (460)
In the last poem of the collection, the stark, grief-stricken prose poem “Mourning Field, Note Card,” Heller addresses the tragedy of those events on that September day in 2001, a poem that defies clichés or unearned sentimentality. It was rightfully included in the major anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and to this day stands out as a heartbreaking meditation on that day’s implications, not just for the city or the nation, but also for humanity itself. For we are all, regardless of our separate identities, contained in this world and subject to history’s machinations, even in the smallest, imperceptible ways. Walking past the iron railings bordering the walkways of Union Square plastered with photos of lost family members, Heller observes:
... the faces of lost ones gazed out of photos. Grim details surrounded these: the company worked for, a floor in one of the World Trade Center towers, and saddest of all, identifying body marks, scars and moles. With words, the dead were being washed as in a funeral home, swathed in language, touched in secret places by words that only lovers or family members usually know. The disaster had traduced all intimacy. Similar photos and details papered the city. They covered phone booths and kiosks and were taped to the plate glass windows of storefronts and banks.
Like many faces on the notices, most of those in the park were young. They stood and milled around as young people do. And they spoke, and their writings on the long rolls of paper spoke, with that intensity only the young seem able to summon at such times as these. A few guitars were being strummed, playing old folk plaints of solidarity, weariness, and misery. Overheard, the thick canopy of leaves, black against the night, absorbed these sounds, compounded and cupped them in the sickly-sweet smell of incense and burning wax. The crowds had driven off the pigeons, but in Union Square, the notices of the dead flapping in the breeze formed a new immense flock of anguish and grief roosting together. (473)
Heller considers his obligation as poet to register these small, nearly imperceptible encounters, and he does so with exceptional acuity. The poetry on display in Eschaton is rare, striking, and subtle, and, as such, Eschaton registers the increasing refinement of this contemporary master. Moreover, Eschaton is also evidence that Heller shows no sign of slowing down; Beckmann Variations and Other Poems (2010) followed soon on its heels. This work in its original form consists of prose meditations and poetry on the paintings by German painter Max Beckmann. According to his notes, Heller based this poem on Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae, with its “interweavings” of poetry and prose, and its “ruminations on power and violence” (566), the same qualities Heller saw in Beckmann’s paintings. The thesis of the book is helpfully summarized by a quote from Beckmann included in the book’s first poem, “Space”: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, wrote Beckmann, / you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible” (480). In the following poem, “Every So Often,” which consists almost entirely of quotations from Beckmann, Heller quotes the following: “Ugh, this unending void whose foreground we constantly have to fill / with stuff of some sort in order not to notice its horrifying depth” (481). The poems here find humanity populating its world with Gods and kings in an attempt to buffer themselves from the blind force of physics, and the unsettling knowledge that in fact no one is in charge. From the poem “The King”: “Kings bear the force of statuary. Statuary seals up the force of kings” (483). Beckmann Variations is Heller at his most existential; not since Beckett perhaps has there been as convincing a portrait of the remoteness of the world from human consciousness, the ineffectiveness and relative unimportance of human action and experience in relation to the vast experience of the universe or to geologic time. What is it kings do — “how can I still make the planetary systems tremble?” asks Heller. “Only by this — surrender” (483).
Heller’s achievement is having strived to express, if not that which is inexpressible, than at the least the expressible, in an original, insightful, and challenging way, in poems whose torsions with the ineffable manage to extract radiant nodes of poetic language that open up new vistas, new avenues of expression that can only be described as visionary. Heller sets a high bar for himself, and with rare exception, always meets his own strenuous criteria.