The art of lyrical commentary
Michael Heller's poetic achievement
1. Ozymandias, a commentary
Commentary: Notes, memoranda, memoirs, annotations, derivations, slips (of paper, of tongue), and, in the etymological sense of commenta, interpretation of scripture. Michael Heller’s work is replete with commentary, an ongoing lateral additive to the world around him, lyric in intensity, vibrant with life, literary and religious in its concerns. From his earliest, second-generation Objectivist work from the 1960s to his recent deep diving variations on the paintings of Max Beckmann or his majestic reimagining of the ethnographic surrealism of Victor Segalen’s Tibetan odes, Heller’s discipline is commentarial.
Consider the opening to “Stanzas without Ozymandias,” a poem that appeared in Heller’s collection Eschaton (2009), at first glance a rehearsal and expansion of Percy Shelley’s legendary sonnet (which, you’ll recall, begins, “I met a traveler from an antique land”):
Who finds the pedestal finds the poem.
To know time had its ruins, its knowledge.
The traveler was fortunate.
And now sand has its texts, its mica
and feldspar, its fulgurites and beaded quartz.
The heart a display case, the eye a catchment.
Granules adhere to fire-drawn surfaces,
mineral led and glassine — acolytes of the grain
fused to a speech of unwarrantable sermons.
The opening line of the poem is pure Heller: subordinate clause as subject repeating the crucial verb functioning almost as an imperative urging readers to find the poem. The poem, we quickly learn, is rich in diction and claims, from its mica, fulgurites, and beaded quartz to its unwarrantable sermons. As often happens in a Heller poem, we’re less witnesses to than investigators of the poem’s phenomena. Shelley’s colossus may loom in our imaginations, but these are stanzas without Ozymandias, after all.
Heller’s poems are often absorbed by the attention he pays to religious realities, more often Jewish than not. Within these religious realities, Heller’s poems are often absorbed by transformative concerns, more often prophetic and mystical than not. Yet much as this absorption can feel like possession, Heller’s poems invariably match this possessive absorption with astute, lyrically incisive but also expansive commentary. Commentary in Heller’s poems operates, to borrow the words of Moshe Idel, on the conviction that “mystery is an inherent quality of the sacred … for ensuring the preservation and the continuation of the sacred,” or, in other words (those of Jonathan Z. Smith), in an act of “exegetical totalization.” Heller’s lyrical commentaries create whole new worlds. Look where he takes Ozymandias after the “unwarrantable sermons”:
Wind and lightning storms roll the high dunes
into long trenches, into tides of erasures, now
smoothed to a nothingness — an abyss for the geometer
who mourned the mirror’s lack, who hungered for stars
hidden in the dark behind the day’s brightness.
Hard to remember what tribes wandered with Moses
or even who invoked that sere alchemy when Jesus disappeared
for the numbered days of an older Flood, or what tempted
the saints to sit in their aloneness at the ledge? Unawares,
the bush burned and the mirage shimmered. Solitude of those
who entered, who sought earthy want, though they wandered
in the skull of an angel, in the trepanned and blanched spaces,
remembering only the colorless semblances of their desires.
“[I]n the trepanned and blanched spaces” is especially deft, invoking a Neolithic shamanism to complement the Abrahamic prophecy Heller’s poem vexes if not quite defies, a vexation just as deftly invoked in the almost casual turn of phrase that begins with “Hard to remember what tribes,” as smoothly spoken as it is implausibly conceived. (The speaker of this poem surely remembers these tribes.) “Stanzas without Ozymandias” treats the closed shrine of Shelley’s sonnet as an angelic skull drilled into by interpretation and suddenly flush with oxygen. “The interpretive nature of reading,” writes Elliot Wolfson, “summons one hermeneutically … to replace the closed book with an open text. What is written is not finished.” “Skull, the old relic box,” writes Heller at the end of his poem “Eschaton.”
“Stanzas without Ozymandias,” whose speaker observes a shifting desert landscape absent any poetical monument, concludes ominously:
So now to place a word on it, like a bit of mica
winking in the sun. And now to place time on it,
as though time were the handwriting of the object’s moment.
Effacement in the grammar impelling one to be only a shadow.
Heller’s literary convictions are on full display in this elegiac, ruminative poem that contradicts its concluding line. Effacement is the action of shifting desert sands. Time rubs away memory, leaving only its remnants, its shadows. The poem comments on literature even as it makes it.
“Stanzas without Ozymandias” vividly recasts an earlier, already vivid poem of Heller’s, “Without Ozymandias,” one written in the more lyrically compressed and fragmentary mode — call it Objectivist oracle — that characterized some of Heller’s work in the 1990s. Originally published in Wordflow, a selected poems that appeared in 1997, “Without Ozymandias” reflects the poet’s experience of a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, where, because of a geographical quirk, dust and debris from the Sangre de Cristo mountain range converges with dust and debris from the high prairies surrounding in a kind of basin to create enormous Saharan dunes close to where Heller has lived during the summer for many years. The earlier poem, less elegiac in tone than its successor, begins:
Time, ruins, knowledge …
the traveler was fortunate.
Who finds the pedestal
finds the poem.
Heller carries much of the language from the first poem to the second, including the mica and feldspar, the fulgurites and the sere alchemy. “What tribes to wander with Moses?” he asks abruptly. And with similar Delphic curtness, “Why to remember the trepanned / and bleached skull of an angel?” (The image that inspired this expression must have been indelible to the poet.) “Without Ozymandias” is a fine poem; it was even recognized for a prize. So, why rewrite it? In a note, Heller admits, “The earlier version … struck me as fragmentary, its disjunctive syntax problematic and exclusionary. In recasting the poem, I wanted to bring the fragments into, as Emerson termed it, ‘a meter-making argument,’ one that drew the reader into a symbolic realm cast by the words, to turn the poem from one of place to one of spiritual thought and its ramifications.” An elegant justification for a revision.
By why keep the earlier version in your collected poems? That’s a warrantable question. Most poets would ditch the earlier version. Characterizing Louis Zukofsky’s work in Conviction’s Net of Branches, Heller’s groundbreaking study of Objectivist poetry, Heller insists, “[T]he impulse behind Objectivist poetics, as formulated by Zukofsky, lies not in presenting a better version or understanding of reality but in creating an art which aspires to complete transmissibility.” What moves between “Without Ozymandias” and “Stanzas without Ozymandias” is complete transmissibility. What shifts between them is exegetical totality, Heller’s lyric gift.
2. View from afar
Though his style has shifted over the course of fifty years, generally from sparer to more luxurious, Heller is primarily a writer of elegies, not so much in the original form of songs of mourning (though these exist) but in the more expansive form of “the expression of personal sentiments (as distinct from narrative), for exhortations and reflections on a great variety of subjects, grave or gay.” So informs The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. For Heller, these exhortations and reflections have been nourished on the work, as he puts it, of the “Jewish Objectivists”: Reznikoff, Oppen, Rakosi, and Zukofsky. Absorbing the influence of these poets, modeling his outlook on their attentions, Heller began to write his own poems: “The gloss of the eyes across and over streets, as though the city were made of languages, inscribed in the ages and designs of buildings, in the oddities and samenesses of people one passed.” His early poems were written in the grip of Objectivist convictions, and also through the experience of living in the Spanish seaside village of Nerja in the mid-1960s. These poems weren’t published until the early aughts; they are like looking into a capsule of a time when, after two decades of silence, the Objectivists had started to publish again and their influence could be newly felt.
Absence of light
Be as one displaced
by the lesson of light
Two early books, Accidental Center, published by Dan Gerber’s Sumac Press in Michigan in 1972, and Knowledge, published by Sun in New York in 1979, established Heller’s place as a second-generation Objectivist, along with other New York poets such as Hugh Seidman and Harvey Shapiro. Norman Finkelstein neatly summarizes the ethos of the work of these poets as emerging “into this world from a cultural matrix that has endured the attenuation of tradition, the decay of wisdom, the shocks of immigration and assimilation.” In Accidental Center, a poem, “The Portrait,” reflects some of the stylistic concerns of this next-generation Objectivist moment:
in the silvered depths
in continuous time
the fact of image
flung in photons
into the moment
there in the emulsion
is the figure
at its back
and on the wall
into the film
The diction is plain but marked by technical clarity and proficiency —“flung in protons” and “there in the emulsion.” It’s a description Heller is after, but one hinting at a psychology in which lurks a destiny, if not perhaps a prophecy. The poem concludes:
at some other labor
bearing the burden
of its darkness
and its death
that the forward
might rise from
No punctuation, no capitalization, clausal repetitions: The poem is plain but with the force of a mantra.
Heller has another poem about a photograph in “Bialystok Stanzas,” which comprises the second section in Knowledge, auguring the ruminative, elegiac mood that has absorbed so much of Heller’s subsequent work. The first section of this poem runs:
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
This first Bialystok Stanza is comparable to “The Figure.” It concerns a photograph. There is some technical language along with the integrity of a plain description and the mostly unpunctuated lines. In this poem, Heller has capitalized the first word of each line. Does this reflect the practice of George Oppen, that most austere of practitioners among the Objectivists? Perhaps. The flat white light that adds no increment but attention could serve as an axiom for Objectivist knowledge. There has been a shift. Regarding Oppen, Heller has written, “George Oppen, in his late poems, expressed a kind of poetic radiation. He identified the poet as a lighthouse turned back on the coast, searching out the edges of the continent. … His entire poetic oeuvre was for me an endless efflorescence, a singular linguistic act of the truth of boundaries and boundedness.”
In Living Root, Heller’s memoir, you read that Bialystok, in Poland, is where the Heller family comes from. Heller’s great-grandfather David as well as his grandfather Zalman were both rabbis in the city. From here, the Jewish cultural and religious material in Heller’s poetry emanates, providing a major current in his work to match the urban Objectivist attentions. Others will array themselves in the work, including commentary and reflection on European cultural achievements, especially those in the painting and poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as an interest in Tibetan Buddhism (owing to Heller’s involvement as a practitioner). But Jewish cultural and religious material will prove a mainstay in Heller’s work, along with the features of the natural world.
Despite its title, In the Builded Place (Coffee House Press, 1989) includes spectacular nature poetry, revealing Heller’s Romantic bent, showing him to be a kind of latter-day but essentially unreconstructed adherent to a Spinozan Naturphilosophie of panentheistic ebullience, tempered, as ever in Heller, with elegiac reflectiveness. New York City, and the rent-controlled apartment where he lives, might be the builded place from which his work arises, but life experience and circumstance have permitted Heller repeated contact with extraordinary natural spaces, including southern Florida, where he spent part of his childhood; coastal Spain, where he cut his teeth as a poet; the Hamptons on Long Island, where, when it was still quite affordable, he bought a modest house; and, as mentioned, the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado. The poem that opens In the Builded Place, “With a Telescope in the Sangre de Cristos,” is exemplary in this regard:
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 …
One of the tenets central to Romantic Naturphilosophie is that of “living nature,” the conviction, as Antoine Faivre puts is, that “Nature as a whole is a living net of correspondences to be deciphered and integrated into a holistic worldview.” Characteristically, Heller’s holistic worldview emerges relationally, by looking into another person’s eyes to see “this fine life of bonds and connections.”
Now watch how Heller integrates mountains and the sea into a wider-angled holism in another poem from In the Builded Place, this one from a sequence called “Being at East Hampton,” specifically, section five in that poem:
Again, the foam-tip dark of waves
Brings on its curves
Images of living and of dying.
Not identity, but a visionary lesson
In the drama of the littoral.
And the birds come and go,
Are duly noted. I swear
We do not live on fixities,
Shells or stars which once discovered
Seem always with us. Do you remember,
These too, found amid
Those inland mountain tops?
Yet the sea … the sea does not strive
to emulate the granite.
You are here; no need to put this note
In a bottle in the breakers.
The sea is just … the sea a few feet away.
To give it that.
Here, the integration of these forms in the natural world — mountains and ocean — happens in the person witnessing them and being addressed by the poem, in a mixture of tenderness and awe: “a visionary lesson / In the drama of the littoral.”
Two collections of new and selected poems, Wordflow, published by Talisman House in the US in 1997, and Exigent Futures, published by Salt in the UK in 2003, appeared next, filling a twenty-year gap until Eschaton, published by Talisman House in 2009, was published. In this new work, you see Heller emerging into new powers with new confidence. For one thing, he dramatically lengthens his line, which permits him recursive expansion of his rhythms and thoughts. For another, he begins to work more conscientiously with a ruminative, lyrical prose form, one that recurs in his later work.
The last poem in Wordflow, “Sag Harbor, Whitman, as if an Ode,” reveals a yet-unexpressed debt to Whitman. It’s one of Heller’s finest poems. Here is the first of two sections:
And so again, to want to speak — as though floating on this world —
thoughts of Sagaponack, of Paumanock, “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 the 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.
Early in Conviction’s Net of Branches, Heller quotes from Whitman’s “Starting from Paumanok”: “Was somebody asking to see the soul? / See, your own shape and countenance, person, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.” Commenting on these lines, Heller writes, “If today, that ‘soul’ all too easily translates into the Self, imperial or otherwise, but mainly secular, the ‘See’ of the poem, if we read Whitman right, has about it moral and philosophical pressure. This pressure, mostly underplayed in Whitman criticism, would define him less the poet of an untrammeled self and more the poet caught up in what I think is a modern recognition.” Was somebody asking to see the soul? That’s the question that catches up the recognition, modern or ancient (I would argue), that draws Heller’s attention to the iridescent sheens of the water and the gods staging returns in their reflection.
In “Cyclical,” one of the four new poems in Exigent Futures, Heller returns to New York City in a series of lyrical prose meditations in which Objectivist poetry is re-envisioned as noir philosophy. Here is the fourth section of the poem:
These dream-states implied auroras of flooding radiance, offset the textures of the brickwork, traduced them into penetrant nostalgias of barred and indexed windows, dark homiletics of streets, the coarsened kelps of entanglement.
In spite of an overriding sense of packed and sectored proximities, emotion broke from one’s fears, likewise the reverse, etc., occurring as though in the trued rooms of an abiding, momentous dwelling.
Or as fantasy suggested: a child walked down leafy lanes, embracing a storybook dappling, only to turn a corner, to emerge from the glade and come upon the concrete Behemoth itself.
Therefore that other fealty to the premonition that each word was not the dawn but the nailing sun at noon?
No shadow of ambiguity on the paving stones.
Prose ruminations as well as experiments with prose have appeared with increasing frequency as Heller’s work has developed. You can see this in some of the poems in Eschaton and the Beckmann Variations and Other Poems from 2010, as well as in the new poems in This Constellation Is a Name, and among the poems in Dianoia, published in 2016 by Nightboat Books. These prose pieces allow Heller to entertain his lyric muse while also flirting with some of his more philosophical tendencies, as in “Dead-ness” from Beckmann Variations and Other Poems, in which he writes,
The coiled serpent, time unto eternity, makes ready to strike. The monkey-angel, trumpet and penis erect, mocks from the ceiling over the coffined body whose last breath enunciated a history that gave terror and dread their public edge.
Have you found the secret mental limb of art, the appendage that like a phantom arm or leg outlined in thick, black strokes, drags us uselessly as we move through the world?
Who will write the elegy to human powerlessness in an archaic tongue?
Between self and death, we are torn by obligations and desires to which we owe the moral duty of our fears.
For Heller, ekphrasis has moral urgency.
In both the section of new poems in This Constellation is a Name and in Dianoia, Heller returns to an abiding interest in Tibetan Buddhism (he practiced for many years) through the Tibetan odes of Victor Segalen, the polymathic and obscure French physician-ethnographer-poet-linguist, whose travels in China, among other places, informed his mysterious work. Heller dilates that mystery in his own poems, in two long sequences of associative, impressionistic verses that mix Segalen’s language with his own, composed in lines longer than you find anywhere else in Heller’s body of work. “Fatigue God” presents a vision of a frightful deity:
Daughter of force, daughter of arduous mountains, mistress to this exhausted corpse
who journeys into fatigue — here, at last, this intoxicated hour
when the Hindu chanter and the night distill a pungent herb.
Fluid song, burning, cunning —
yet highest of offerings: god-poison in the bejeweled begging bowls.
I drink the fatigue, my idol, my daemon.
I am shaken by the preparatory rhythms. I incant the music, mortar and pestle
pulverizing instruments of a drunken sacrifice —
the self in its weighted march to quotidian supplications.
Feet to this rock-bound earth, imagined talons
that grip down and crush, and draw upon the earth’s sapience that invigorates.
Extract of the human mandrake —
press, grind and gather this gift up into the arms of the royal king.
We are cattle, felled before this sovereignty.
Tremors of the limbs shaken by insatiable devotion.
The emptiness exquisitely deflates itself.
I consecrate my weariness, my words as slogan, as trophy, a sole wish,
this gift of being, this undiscoverable realm, this muteness that wants to speak.
The long lines of the poem are served by the claims of the first person who speaks them: pungent, intoxicated, bejeweled. The poem is daemonic, a magical summons of the deity invoked by the poem. Muteness that wants to speak: That might summarize in a phrase Heller’s work better than any commentary I might provide.
3. Commentary as a concept of order
Regarding commentary, Heller has written:
Commentary, therefore, is first eyes before words, a searchlight of eyes on texts which invoke disturbances and consonances in the reader. Commentary, too, is never synonymous with the text; it always remains apart … The commentary adheres to the text, and — whatever its virtues as a text in its own right — never enters into mystical union (one in the other) with it.
A characteristic deflection: commentary is an exciting creative gesture because it resists being absorbed into the object of its speculation. One of Heller’s finest poems, “Commentary is the Concept of Order for the Spiritual World,” from Eschaton, begins:
If these streets, this world, are the arena,
Then each person passed, each bidding building
unentered, leaves room for ruminations
illumined by an edge, a back-lit otherness
positing a liberty to think or not think
an idea, to fly up outrageously
or swoop earthward, toward a grand passion
with a hawk’s fierceness, talons extended,
and yet, for a second, to hesitate —
The title comes from a diary entry of Gershom Scholem’s from 1917, in which he writes, “I’ve been giving a lot of thought to commentary as the conception of order in the Jewish world of spirit. It follows logically that if commentary is truly the ultimate task, as Benjamin says quite correctly, then the world is made up of script and language, which would be a fundamental insight. Important in this regard is a treatment of the spiritual essence of commentary in Judaism.” The spiritual essence of commentary — a lucid phrase, sharp with paradox because the essence of commentary is its unbinding of boundedness. Commentary as a concept for order is similarly paradoxical: commentary undoes order.
Heller’s poem continues:
If we are always outside the precincts of power,
even our own, and so imagine
(for instance) the possibility of a tyrant,
helpless for a moment before sunlight’s brilliance
on rolling grass, if we no longer
keep to our assigned faith a Job’s messengers,
each escaped alone to tell thee,
then the deep flaws, the salvaging uncertainties
in the world’s overriding syntax —
love of self, for instance, migrating to love of another —
or those records of an observing eye
noting the lichen’s patch on the rock face,
the waters slow eroding of the boulder,
(such witness an ongoing work
of resistance), wouldn’t this proclaim
that he is most apt who brings with himself
the maximum of what is alien —
a sense of world-depths that no longer crowd the mind,
thus a rich compost of the literal
of what is said.
“He is most apt who brings with himself the maximum of what is alien”: that’s Franz Rosenzweig in an essay “Upon Opening the Jüdische Lehrhaus.” “The salvaging uncertainties in the world’s overriding syntax”: that’s Heller glossing language. Salvaging uncertainties are language’s redemptive properties in an imagination fully engaged. Eric Santner, in On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, his treatment of idiomatic, somatic, and linguistic surplus in the works of Rosenzweig and Freud, proposes: “If fantasy is the means by which we in some sense place ourselves ‘out of the world,’ at the ‘end of the world,’ it is also a means for securing our adaptation to it.” Fantasy is the realm of commentary, where its orders of the spiritual world are forged. I mean here not fantasy in the sense of indulgence; instead, fantasy in the sense of the active imagination. “What is at stake,” claims Santner, “… is the possibility of recovering, of ‘unbinding,’ the disruptive core of fantasy and converting it into ‘more life,’ the hope and possibility of new possibilities.” A sense of world-depths that no longer crowd the mind. Rich compost. The hope and possibility of new possibilities. Heller’s poem concludes with these three lines:
And then might not our words loom
as hope against fear for near ones,
for their gesturing towards a future?
The unbinding properties of commentary make way for possessions of the future, wherein new world depths are opened, and new words and an overriding syntax are called out to understand them.