Blurring realms

Michael Heller's New World

Above: Map of the world by Heinrich Bünting, 1581, woodcut, via Wikimedia Commons.

There is a 1581 map, a woodcut by Heinrich Bünting, in which the world takes the form of a three-leaf clover. A minute drawing of Jerusalem is at the center; three almond-shaped continents extend outward. Bünting’s perfect trefoil of a world is explicit in Michael Heller’s most recent book. It covers the collection of poems, literally: ASIA, speckled with place names (Persia, Mesopotamia, Siria, Arabia, Armenia), blossoms to the upper right; AFRICA (Egypten, Libia, Morenland) unfolds down the book’s spine; and EVROPA (Ungern, Roma) stretches across its back. Creeping up the bottom left edge of the back is an asymmetrical mass. We can see only the characters “MERICA” and “Die Neue”: America, the New World. Die Neue runs through Dianoia (2016), resulting in confrontations that define Heller’s recent work.

Heller gravitates toward the patina of age and tradition — to the map of the cover, to the Tang dynasty, to ascetic regions of ocean and heron, and to resonant, gorgeous symbols. One poem in this new book begins by saluting “the overwritten city” of Venice, with its “gold-lit domes.”[1] But aware that such glimpses are nostalgic for other worlds, he acknowledges, in each poem, the world he is actually in. David Herd has noted that Eschaton, Heller’s 2009 volume, breaks new ground in that it is “not … ­constituted by the backward look”; it departs from his prior books of poems by “fix[ing] its gaze resolutely on the present.” For Herd, Eschaton “represents a sustained attempt to find a language through which poetry might address an historical moment shaped by new and emergent imperatives and pressures.”[2] Dianoia continues and extends that project: its gaze is resolutely on the present, while encompassing Heller’s consternation and uncertainty in all their immediacy.

“I have tried to be a narrator,”[3] Heller states near the opening of the new book, his first since his Collected appeared in 2012. Capacious and ranging, balancing between the utterances of a subjective lyric “I” and a restless yet wary experimentalism, Heller narrates both the events of the century that confront him, and his reactions to them. Documenting the uncertainties of a wide-ranging and interrogative mind, he draws out an enduring view of the world, while reporting on the confusions of our particular one. Although he “feel[s] compelled to emulate Bashō” (a seventeenth-century model, he implies, of equilibrium), “what is seen is not venerable, not tranquil.”[4]


“Internet Enabled,” one of the latest book’s most direct poems, bears out how the book takes up the bafflingly, overwhelmingly modern. Heller begins nonchalantly; he has been browsing the internet, and mentions what seem to be a few incidental facts just learned:

Turns out, Tirso de Molina, 16th century Spanish monk,
born of conversos, dreamed up top trickster Don Juan.

150 years later, Emmanuele Conegliano, converted Jew,
a.k.a. Lorenzo da Ponte, penned the libretto for Don Giovanni.

Online journal Tablet Magazine claims these origins, despite
the Catholic faith of all characters and composer as well,

make this, perhaps Mozart’s greatest work, “a Jewish opera.”

The style here is pointedly not vatic: there is the jaunty “Turns out,” the “a.k.a.,” the cartoonish alliteration of “top trickster,” the use of numerals, the reference to an actual 2011 article. But within a few lines nonchalance becomes menacing:

Turns out, according to the internet, Don Giovanni’s ethos runs

an electronic river through paranoid URL after URL:
no one truly good can do much to save anyone from evil,

not even a loving Christ, whose open arms and forgiveness
are as naught to a sociopath like Don Giovanni, so best to kill,

and if needed get what you need to get according to the internet
with its hate sites, ads for AK-47s, designs for IEDs, for gas attacks.

But let’s surf back to Mozart.

The breeziness here is marked: “let’s surf back” to classical music, just after mention of assault rifles and improvised explosive devices — as easily as one might close a browser’s window. Heller’s faintly jocular repetitions in “if needed get what you need to get” and their rhyme to internet also play up this stagily casual style. The last two lines, however, shift to a weightier register:

If the Abrahamic god exists, he’s hidden, never graven, his voice
profound in the Commendatore’s implacable, graveled m’invitasti.[5]

In Mozart’s opera,the murdered Commendatore — who appears in Act II as a talking statue, hence Heller’s wonderful “graveled” — declares: “Don Giovanni a cenar teco / m’invitasti e son venuto.” That m’invitasti, “you have invited me,” presages Don Giovanni’s doom. In Heller, it does seem to have the air of impending judgment, a sense of having called up something one is not fully equipped to understand or handle. (Questions of belief — of millennia-old traditions and modernist uncertainty — also come up again and again in the book; the “If” that begins Heller’s last sentence here is characteristic of his ingrained skepticism.)

For the kind of fate Heller foresees, circle back to the title’s pun. As printed in Dianoia, without its usual hyphen, “Internet Enabled” works as subject and verb. The internet has enabled Heller to read online journals and reflect on Mozart; it has enabled the topics of the poem and its style, one that reflects proliferating tabs opened to a multitude of subjects; and it has enabled anyone harboring hate to obtain “designs for IEDs.”


Yet Heller’s work has been coming to terms with modern terror for decades. One of his earliest poems to take up the subject is “In Paris,” from Wordflow (1997). “In Paris” anticipates the ethical concerns of the latest volume. It takes up the dissonance between one’s own experience and the suffering one witnesses. It begins with a scene of refined pleasure at “The Place de la République’s outdoor cafe,” where Heller is drinking “white wine / in a glass so thin it blurs realms with the greenery.”[6] This situation is reminiscent of Stevens’s “Esthétique du Mal,” where a man sits writing — and “reading paragraphs / On the sublime” — in a café near a “groan[ing]” volcano, an emblem for World War II. In Stevens,

It was almost time for lunch. Pain is human.
There were roses in the cool café.[7]

In Heller, similarly, the Parisian café is set alongside evil. After the wine, we learn that

the student lesson for today was the bomb at Boulevard
St. Michel, and the tourist’s heightened sense increased

in the evening’s Semtex blast near Le Drugstore at L’Étoile.[8]

While the poem commemorates these attacks, and recalls the “carnage and death” of Nazi-era France as well as bloodshed in Paris since the war, it eventually returns to the white wine “pucker[ing] the lips.” Another’s catastrophe is noted, one’s own luck and luxury is tasted. Weaving between a single moment of comfortable leisure and a spate of blasts, Heller seems to convey a sense that poetry is helpless in the face of such violence. A bomb is figured as a “student lesson for today,”[9] promising that there will be another lesson tomorrow (some people will be killed by it, the others will try to learn something from it).

And yet the poem dodges this simple contrast between personal experience and the surrounding collective pain. It ends by comparing “the buds of flavor burst coming through” to “a life // passed from one into another’s care, in the City of Light / where hope was stifled once between le mot juste and le mot juif.”[10] This last clause, which underscores the fact that one of the attacks targeted a Jewish restaurant, reiterates the perception that this violence is in fact intensely close to the writer, closer than he explicitly states.


Bünting’s clover leaves seem all the tidier and more symmetrical today, when many of the regions on its trinity of continents have been either bombed or ignored by the US. (Jerusalem, the city etched at the map’s core, returned to the news as a site of bitter conflict, as this essay was being drafted.) This map is an expressive image for a book that reacts to global chaos.

Heller’s work is emblematic of much recent poetry, which has had to address seemingly yet-more-unpredictable violence — violence that technology has not only enabled but documented and disseminated. Of course, terrorism has been a subject of other poets for decades. Think of Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” from North (1975), and his other haunting poems about Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the title of Heaney’s “Anything Can Happen,” composed in response to the 9/11 attacks and published in the conflict-saturated District and Circle (2006), suggests a change of scale to the global. Anything can happen: enormous towers can be felled, almost instantly. Heller himself returns again and again to the same attack in his recent collections.

In his latest book, contemporary political violence is nearly constant — most prominently that of Islamist terrorism, but also of military actions. There is a chilling poem that concludes from the perspective of a person who is targeted by a drone strike. Heller sets up this theme — of danger that seems even more omnipresent and sudden than ever — in his opening poem, “Mappah,” which swerves from a meditation on faith to a consideration of how violence changes one’s language, makes one grasp at basic nouns:

During periods of calm, an adequate vocabulary was found among cynics.

But introduce a little danger or show people running for their lives, and how quickly attention focused on words like bread or child.[11]

Here the nature of “a little danger” is left unspecified and eternal, but as the book progresses, Heller asks relentlessly: how can one write about new — or what seem to be new — kinds of violence? And every bit as often: how can lyric render one’s reaction to the suffering one sees? Second-guessing, undercutting, and backtracking course through his later work. He has stated in Uncertain Poetries, his most recent volume of criticism, that “the tenor of contemporary civilization is marked by its uncertainty,”[12] and that uncertainty grows all the more palpable here. As “Mappah” suggests, language has entered a period where calm might be shattered at any moment.


While Eschaton announced a trajectory toward one apocalyptic event, by the time of Dianoia Heller’s work is characterized bymotion — oscillation, in fact. Heller explains in a note that the word dianoia is built from diá, “thoroughly, side-to-side,” as an intensifier of noiéo, “to use the mind.” Taken together, these terms refer to “dialectical thinking,” defined by Strong’s Concordance (which Heller quotes) as a “movement from one side (of an issue) to the other to reach balanced conclusions … thinking that literally reaches ‘across to the other side’ (of a matter).”[13] A readiness to engage with the most profound challenges of dianoia is apparent in how Heller chooses to take up such fraught issues, especially political violence.

Dianoia’s most sustained consideration of terrorism and the individual’s response to it is found in the book’s penultimate work, “Lecture,” which combines prose, verse, photography, and one sketch. “In Paris,” from two decades earlier, saw an attack as a “lesson.” In “Lecture,” too, a “lesson” is made prominent. The poem begins in the company of two artists central to Heller’s artistic and intellectual universe: Max Beckmann, whose oil paintings and prints cram grotesque bodies into nightmarish low-ceilinged rooms, using a warped sense of perspective, and W. B. Yeats, who in 1921 confessed that “One thing I did not foresee, not having the courage of my own thought: the growing murderousness of the world.”[14] (Heller provides the full quote in a note, but the body of “Lecture” focuses on that word “murderousness.”)

Yeats — whom Heller calls a Virgil-like guide in “Lecture” — also once wrote that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[15] “Lecture” stems from such internal perturbation. The incident that has sparked Heller’s writing — what has “got [him] going,”[16] as he puts it — is his remembrance of a visit to London that coincided with the July 2005 attacks there. Here and elsewhere Heller draws out the uneasy ways one tries to comprehend such near-encounters, in one’s private thoughts and in one’s art. Take, for example, the solitary line, included just below an actual picture reprinted from the Evening Standard: “This blown-up bus is now weighing on my mind.”[17] That sentence brings together the concrete reality of the attack, and the abstract force that bears on the writer’s consciousness.

The remarkable extent to which “Lecture” exposes the self should be seen in the context of Heller’s half century of dialogue with philosophers, as well as with poets and artists. He draws on a wide array of minds. One poem remembers Allen Grossman; another, a few pages later, is  in honor of Vasily Grossman. Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem are implicit intellectual forebears, as well. But above all there is George Oppen (a poet drawn to philosophy), who is repeatedly quoted and explicitly debated throughout Heller’s oeuvre.[18] “I perhaps cannot write poetry in war time,” Oppen maintained in the 1960s, recalling his decision to give up poetry in the face of fascism: “I couldn’t before, and perhaps cannot now. I become ashamed, I become sick with shame.”[19] After that period of aghast silence, though, Oppen wrote poems that engaged explicitly with war. In “Blood from the Stone,” he notes that “To a body anything can happen, / Like a brick.”[20] This chillingly understated remark, an image generative of “all horror,” is followed by an unexpected moment of exhilaration: “The smell of wood-smoke from the kitchen; / An overwhelming sense of joy!” An enormous shift of mood — and of mind — is here created by a familiar scent. But from this sudden change of mood, Oppen’s gaze turns again: “In boots. Steel helmet. Monstrous.”[21] Oppen addresses the bewildering way in which the same mind must register wood smoke and the apparition of Nazism.

Heller, who published the first monograph on the Objectivists (Conviction’s Net of Branches, 1985), grounds the disparate work of Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi in how they “shared an abiding concern with the ethical aspects of poetic imagination.”[22] Even so, as Jon Curley has observed, “Heller became more a benefactor of [the Objectivist school’s] generalized precept of radical honesty than a direct descendent of their poetic enterprise.”[23] While Heller continues the sincerity (to use Zukofsky’s term), spareness, and rigor common to Objectivism, he does not eschew a post-Romantic, deeply personal, subjective speaker. He admits that he is “falling in / with the spirit of the ‘I,’ the ‘I’ that lost credibility.”[24]

The honesty of Heller’s most recent workexposes and incriminates the self, admits the colossal disproportion of one’s own perspective. Hence that sentence in “Lecture,” where the physicality of the twelve-ton wreck is pressed next to a cliché. Hence the way that “Lecture” pushes other boundaries of prose, trying out multiple styles. At one point the writing is nearly cartoonish: “Then BOOM!”[25] on a line by itself. At another it is self-consciously florid: the wreck of a bus looks “as though a mad hand had gone crazy drawing and retracing the odd distortions and truncations of the blown-out vehicles.” But above all Heller enacts a particularly strained, unsettled, unresolved version of dianoia. Here are the final lines of “Lecture”:

Question: do I need to say to the relatives and friends of the dead on the Number 30 bus, I am very sorry for your loss?

Do I need to say something about beheadings?

I was so close to taking the Number 30 bus. When I am in London, I take the Number 30 bus.[26]

It is striking to see the words “do I need to say” at this late point, where they introduce one of the most ineffective yet necessary formulations in English. I am very sorry for your loss — as if one cannot imagine how to close a poem when one considers that a person related to a victim might read it. (And the second “Do I need to say,” a strange abortive gesture at militant groups and their grisly videos.) Just as the work seems to be disintegrating into questions, it ends there, repeating Heller’s own proximity to the explosion.

In both “In Paris” and “Lecture,” Heller encounters violence as a tourist. (See also his poem “Visit,” where the ancient landscapes of Jordan and Israel are set with tour bus and souvenirs.) Heller’s repeated positioning of himself as a tourist, that often denigrated figure, is not merely incidental. Tourism allows him to underline the near impossibility of being able to say something substantial. “Hath not a tourist ears? Hath not a tourist eyes?” asks another poem, filtering Shylock’s outcry through a supposedly naïve visitor.[27]

It is also worth noting that the tourist — someone temporary, passing through — also lets Heller reiterate his own sense of impermanence. Mortality grows palpable. The first section of Dianoia ends with an image of being “borne by a watery light / that flows us toward the now / only to disappear among the eons.”[28] Here two of Heller’s idées fixes come together: that one is — without power or volition — confronted by the “now” of the present; and that one is, almost as instantaneously, to disappear and disperse. Heller ponders how to look at “the days ahead,” with their portion of “terror and // dread.” He knows catastrophe is both inevitable and arbitrary, asking “Whose turn” it is “to gather up Antigone as she gathered her brother’s remains.”[29]


“Let me try to be precise,”[30] Heller writes near the beginning of “Lecture.” “Let this be put another way,”[31] he asks repeatedly in “Mappah,” the book’s first poem. Linguistic and poetic ambivalence permeates this work. In the same poem that imagines each day’s doomed Antigone, Heller foregrounds a skepticism of the views of the “published counselors” who advise one to simply enjoy being alive — and yet, while words may “be trite or stained / by commerce,” they may also be “consoling,” as if there is potentially some truth in the “papered slogans” initially dismissed.[32]

In “Dianoia” the process of dialectical thinking embodies a punishing struggle with language and thought:

Years are given to the poem’s cut,
you say language, you say hardest

of earths, each word a narrowing,
less light, lightless,a blind pursuit.
Objects and flesh make one feel better.
Pain, bother — mind as sharp testimony,

but it feels like a plow in stony ground,
rutting in a self, shattering your last words,

breaking apart clods of what was named.[33]  

Here the side-to-side motion of dianoia might suggest boustrophedon, the early writing system in which words shuttle back and forth across the page, altering direction with each line, as a plow would wind through a field. The act is not necessarily creative destruction, however: the plow could simply be repeating the self’s ruts, merely continuing to tread the same ground.

Dianoia was published almost exactly fifty years after Heller’s first meeting with Oppen and after the younger poet’s chapbook poems of the 1960s. That initial line, then — “Years are given to the poem’s cut”— calls our attention to what has consumed these decades. The open-ended word “cut” might encompass the sense of shape, style, form, but above all it stresses the writing process as one of reducing, slicing, separating, even wounding. Writing, in turn, is joined to “sharp testimony,” echoing the ideas of laceration and incision. In an interview with Curley and Burt Kimmelman, Heller refers to his fascination with Buddhist deities and their “sharp sword-of-mind precision, cutting through mental crapola.”[34] Again, the mind as sharp; again, that word “cut.”It appears frequently,even in the landscape, where a “centerless sheen rays off the frozen lake, / cuts sharp into thoughts of self.”[35]

Heller speaks to poetry as something carved and carving, painful and clarifying, radical but limited. The second section of “My Grand Canal” addresses Ezra Pound:

you can be redeemed,
but outside of time
when the verse will be read as cut
beyond the right and wrong of it.[36]

This address both echoes and corrects the first version of W. H. Auden’s elegy for Yeats, where “Time […] will pardon” another fascist poet “for writing well.” Heller sees that Pound “can” find redemption, but only “outside of time,” a possibility restricted to a more theoretical realm, not in the actual world of historical existence.

In the attempt to reconcile some admiration for Pound’s poetics with knowledge of his anti-Semitism and fascism, Heller joins a number of his closer influences and peers. Charles Olson wrote explicitly of “[t]he contradiction I am in here” — and, as if having to explain his remark, got to the heart of the matter: “Whenever Pound remained on the level of intellect and the creative he was dead right. … But wrong with the stink of death on all to do with politics and society.”[37] Mary Oppen recalls how the Oppens encountered Pound at Rapallo in 1933, where their “respect for [Pound] as a poet forbade our telling him that we lacked respect for his politics and that he should go home.”[38] Peter Nicholls reports how Oppen eventually counters Pound’s authoritativeness and “solipsism” through poetry that

allows us not to grasp ‘truth’ as concept, but, quite the opposite, to accept limits to our cognitive ambitions by creating a language which recognizes what is now firmly established as the ‘impenetrability’ of the world.[39]

Heller describes his own project in similar terms. In his essay “The Uncertainty of the Poet” he sets out the forces at work in his life’s vocation: “Against the quest for certainties, for locking up reality in one particular world view, the poet is caught in the secret knowledge of language, that it speaks not certainties but explores uncertainty, that it is endless and so foreswears the gestures of premature closure or easy elegance.”[40] And the “unresolved, lacunary quality”[41] that Nicholls hears in Oppen’s syntax can also be detected in the often-difficult grammar, perhaps especially in Heller’s later work, where parallels tend to be interrupted or disguised and where relative clauses tend to be obstructed by parenthetical phrases. Heller’s sentences refrain from straightforward closure even on language’s most local levels.


In Lyric Shame, Gillian White argues that modern poets bear a sense of shame about writing lyric, about their genre’s pretensions, apparent naïveté, self-absorption, and potential political affiliations. This shame, White finds, is heightened by avant-garde movements — which tend, whether in 1910 or 2010, to remind lyric of its complacencies and sentimentalities. Heller partakes of both relatively mainstream and experimental currents: his latest book begins with several poems that look like lyrics, and ends with an ambitious multigenre work engaging with nonrepresentational art. In part because of this very range, it deals with the self from a number of angles.

In “There” he perceives that “the ‘I’” — the first-person pronoun or the elusive self itself — “makes one otherworldly to the world, un autre”[42]; in the next poem, he admits

the drama 
            of the isolato,
the urge to be a Bartleby[43]

He is aware of the urge to retreat from the actual world, to say one would prefer not to deal with it. As one poem puts it, “In the dining room, / the new arrivals come and go / talking of the ego, always of the ego.”[44] It is a comic line, one that draws out Eliot’s eight syllables to twelve, preserving his faux accidental rhyme, tilting the humor from dry to exhaustedly brassy.

But Heller is not content simply to be wry, or to talk “always of the ego.” Rather, he dramatizes an attempt to range beyond the subjective, beyond the “I.” After the personal lyrics in prose and verse of the first section of Dianoia, he stages a retreat from the contemporary and historical, towards cryptic Freudian imagery. For example: there is a map, this one of Europe, but it has been scrubbed of politics and turned into a projective test, where one must “say a word” as one points to each site. “At every capital, mouth / says ‘shit,’ at every village ‘merde.’”[45] Geography now becomes a way to revert back to one’s earliest stages of development. At the same time, however, lines like these might also acknowledge Europe’s disastrous recent history. The third section of Dianoia, in turn, faces Buddhist deities that abolish selfhood. As Heller’s note explains, these pieces are inspired by images of Mahākāla, the deity that tends to be shown brandishing dismembered human bodies. It is believed to be visualized in order “to cut quickly and forcefully through” the human inclination “to cling to the ego and to false notions of selfhood.”[46] Here the poems are allowed the mountain heights, archaic images, and lofty language that were consistently thwarted in the opening section.

In the final quarter of this book, Heller presents a mirror to White’s notion that contemporary writers of lyric incorporate a skepticism of lyric; his avant-gardism is shot through with a similar lyric questioning. Perhaps Heller’s most intriguing escape from solitary subjectivity occurs in a concluding piece he titles “Dda”: twenty pages of prose and verse interspersed with images by Renée Alpert and Douglas Kahn. The watercolors of the cover have given way to overexposed photos or photographic negatives, spliced with magenta, navy blue, lime green solids. Looking at these images, the reader strains to figure out space and substance, looking for shadows and identifiable textures. Is that streak a grain of wood? Has the opaque swath in front of it been applied by a computer program? One loses oneself not only in the images’ two- and three-dimensional conflations, but in the interspersed poetry and prose, which swirl together quotations from a range of people — Picasso, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Alpert and Kahn themselves. Sometimes these quotes are demarcated, quite often not.

Collaboration allows Heller to break from the first-person singular to the first-person plural. A “we” winds through these poems, and it is not clear, from moment to moment, precisely who the “we” involves: The “we” of Heller and the two visual artists? The two artists alone? A body of artists in some much broader sense? One pronoun gives way to another, and yet another, encouraging a sense of profound multiplicity:

Exposures of light filaments —
to these we added the element of movement

for a moment, the decipherable made indecipherable,
not to muddle, but to create something new and readable.[47]  

Although it might seem that the experiment of “Dda” — iterative, fragmentary, abstract, intertextual, like the unspecifiable “we” itself — has little in common with the “I”-grounded voice heard in earlier poems, this piece in fact shares the book’s concern for how the “I” interacts with the world through art. Its last lines end on that very note:

I and the other,
I and the artwork,
I and the Thou

of it.[48]

“If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things,”[49] Martin Buber writes in a passage Heller recalls when meditating on communication in his memoir Living Root (2000). There Heller suggests that the “hope of unity, or meaning for each other as well as for ourselves, would be the haunting that all speaking and writing enacts, the ‘hidden language’ that is summonable in each linguistic act.”[50] Here, at the conclusion of Dianoia, he has yoked his “I” to several other paralleled nouns, thus achieving a momentary unity by yoking all three of his “other[s]” under the sign of Buber’s “it.” This “it” opens outward, evading the confines of the solipsistic “I” by making Heller one “thing among things.” But one might also take the “it” of his “I and the Thou // of it” as a pronoun incorporating the entire world — a world of selves Heller has incorporated throughout.


Increasingly, then, Heller has explored how one particular self, with its blinkers and proclivities, strives to render the nearly incomprehensible world around it. Much of his later books’ distinctiveness stems from a willingness to attempt the vatic, to speak of the universal or transcendent, even in the knowledge that such attempts may seem risible. That knowledge is articulated in the two-line poem “In the Hallway”:

Sign on classroom door:
“The Mystical Experience In Literature has been cancelled.”[51]  

Here Heller has some amount of fun with the meaning-saturated and the drained of meaning, setting his own desire for writing that achieves a mystical experience against the mundanity of featuring “The Mystical Experience” in a college classroom. A similar contrast appears in “Notes Found Under a Buddhist Meditation Cushion in a Hotel in the Canadian Rockies After a Religious Retreat.” Admitting that he is a “Mallarmean-Tibetophile,”[52] the poet depicts himself delighting in the name given him at a Buddhist initiation ceremony:

I hear the steampipe clunk
my name. I hear snow crunch
shout Jigme!


O Jigme, every word
still a fart from your ass.
And you hope it has
the faint aroma of driven snow.[53]

This slightly dismissive address is one of the relatively few moments of levity in Heller’s work, more often dominated by elegy, valediction, and dialectical thought. It is made more comic for its precedents — think of Kobayashi Issa’s “All the time I pray to Buddha / I keep on / killing mosquitoes.”[54] These jokes about the prosaic have precedents in Heller, too. A half century ago, he made a similar joke about the self that aspires to sublimity in “To My Auto Horn,” from A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off (2006): “Be beep // preserve / my / radiance.”[55] The word as broken wind, the word as the noise of a horn; the self, in both cases, as faintly comic and rueful in its desire for words to do more.

1. Michael Heller, Dianoia (New York: Nightboat Books, 2016), 37.

2. David Herd, “‘Poetry on Abandoned Ground’: Michael Heller’s Eschaton,” in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory,ed. Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015), 132.

3. Heller, Dianoia, 8.

4. Heller, Dianoia, 74.

5. Heller, Dianoia, 13.

6. Michael Heller, This Constellation is a Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 (New York: Nightboat Books, 2012), 351.

7. Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 314.

8. Heller, Constellation, 351.

9. Heller, Constellation, 351.

10. Heller, Constellation, 351.

11. Heller, Dianoia, 4.

12. Michael Heller, Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2012), 9.

13. James Strong, qtd. in Heller, Constellation, 102.

14. W. B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil (London: T. Werner Laurie, Ltd., 1922), 78, qtd. in Heller, Dianoia, 76.

15. W. B. Yeats, The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 411.

16. Heller, Dianoia, 68.

17. Heller, Dianoia, 69.

18. See, for instance, Heller’s Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Norfolk, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008).

19. George Oppen, letter of January 1966, Oppen papers, University of California San Diego, qtd. in Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 85. 

20. George Oppen, New Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2002), 53.

21. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 53.

22. Michael Heller, “Diasporic Poetics,” in Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, ed. Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 216.

23. Curley, introduction to Nomad Memory, 3.

24. Heller, Dianoia, 8.

25. Heller, Dianoia, 68.

26. Heller, Dianoia, 26.

27. Heller, Dianoia, 37.

28. Heller, Dianoia, 38.

29. Heller, Dianoia, 8.

30. Heller, Dianoia, 67.

31. Heller, Dianoia, 4.

32. Heller, Dianoia, 8–9.

33. Heller, Dianoia, 7.

34. Michael Heller, interview with Burt Kimmelman and Jon Curley, in Nomad Memory, 158.

35. Heller, Dianoia, 33.

36. Heller, Dianoia, 37.

37. Charles Olson, Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeth’s, qtd. in Christopher Beach, ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 91.

38. Mary Oppen, Meaning a Life: An Autobiography (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978; repr. 1990), 132.

39. Nicholls, 117.

40. Heller, Uncertain Poetries, 25.

41. Nicholls, 117.

42. Heller, Dianoia, 10.

43. Heller, Dianoia, 11.

44. Heller, Dianoia, 30.

45. Heller, Dianoia, 47.

46. Heller, Dianoia, 103.

47. Heller, Dianoia, 93.

48. Heller, Dianoia, 98.

49. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1937), 8. 

50. Michael Heller, Living Root: A Memoir (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 81.

51. Heller, Dianoia, 16.

52. Heller, Dianoia, 30.

53. Heller, Dianoia, 30–31.

54. Robert Hass, ed., The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (New York: Ecco Press, 1994), 165.

55. Heller, Constellation, 5.