Heller's 'Dianoia'

A briefing

“The sequence shows glimpses of the scoured alpine landscape outside the hotel’s windows: “the distant plume / of a snowslide / on glacial slopes,” but the would-be Tibetan mountainscapes are only backdrop to the poet’s back-and-forth on ego and emptiness.” Above: Photo of the Canadian Rockies by David Whelan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sam Johnson’s line on the Metaphysicals — that in their work “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”[1] — is one example among many in Anglo-American letters of how a term of reproach, given some time, becomes a term of praise. Since Eliot in 1921 pardoned the Metaphysicals for all that violent yoking, applauded them for their immunity to the dissociated sensibility of his contemporaries, readers of poetry in English have been taught to admire poets who “ransack,” as Johnson said, art and nature for conceits that are misaligned or unevenly yoked.

There is a good deal of this sort of thing in Michael Heller’s 2016 collection of prose and verse, Dianoia. The long prose poem “Canonical,” early in this delightful and sometimes aggravating mixed-bag volume, yokes a recording of prisoners just released from Bergen-Belsen, and singing Hatikvah, to the canonical hours of the church. Another lovely, jarring coming together of disparate worlds is in “My Grand Canal,” another of Heller’s many poems of European travel (this time to Venice) where the speaker asks, slyly, “Hath not a tourist ears? Hath not a tourist eyes?”[2] Or consider this short and potent little poem, obscurely titled “The Neighborhood”:

Then the hand holds an empty drinking glass
so there’s refraction, wild curve of flesh —
in such a way the thumb looks like a penis,
as though reborn a sign within the glass. (45)

These ideas and images yoked by violence together are, if not the definition, then a symptom of what Heller means by dianoia.

Dianoia includes three pages of explanatory notes where we learn, in language adapted from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible, that the term combines the Greek “dia, ‘thoroughly, from side-to-side,’ which intensifies … noieo, ‘to use the mind’ … properly, to move from one side (of an issue) to the other, to reach balanced conclusions; full-orbed reasoning (= critical thinking), i.e. dialectical thinking that literally reaches ‘across to the other side’ (of a matter)” (102).

I assert nothing startling about the poems in this volume by saying they are enactments of the sort of critical thinking Heller calls dianoia. Most modern poems perform the “thinking across” that Heller models in this collection. Think of Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways” and its many imitators. Think of modernism and its after-parties. All very dianoiac. And Michael Heller has been thinking across for years — happily for us. Experienced Heller readers will recognize in Dianoia lots of the poet’s old obsessions. Here we find Heller on the self and the language in which it is constituted, Heller sifting through the debris of late-late Jewishness (Yiddishkeit). The poet makes another engaging Buddhist turn in these poems. He continues a dialogue with old mentors — Oppen, Basho, Max Beckmann, and Yeats, the last two of whom, strangely, he calls the “Virgils and Dantes of my psyche — my psyche — not my thought” (67). Dianoia also continues Heller’s deep engagement with the visual arts, his elaborations of the ut pictura poesis trope.

In “Dda,” the long work that gives the volume much of its gravity, Heller’s dialogue with the visual arts is explicitly dialogic in the poem’s (the volume’s too, somewhat) obsession with two-ness: dyads and duets, pairs in dialogue with other pairs. Consider the Noachian conceit which concludes “Dda”:

Art equals ark,
two by two
I and the other,
I and the artwork,
I and the Thou

of it. (98)

“Dda” is a dialogue about a dialogue. Here Heller interrogates Renee Alpert and Douglas Kahn’s collaborative series on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). (Many of the photographs are reproduced in Dianoia, most of them in regrettably small black and white versions.) Heller has gone on record that “Dda” is about artistic transmission, and it is also a work that is very much concerned with looking and seeing: Heller looking at alpert+kahn looking at Picasso. But there are other pairs of gazes at work here too. Beckmann is placed in dialogue with Picasso:

Max insisted his grandmother
was one of the whores in the painting.

Pablo maintained the brothel of the Demoiselles
was not on the Barcelona street of his youth, Calle d’Avinyo. (86)

There is a comparable moment in the short prose “Lecture” preceding “Dda” where Heller remembers a 2004 exhibit at the Feigen Gallery “in which Picasso and Beckmann circled each other, shapes flew back and forth across the gallery, ovoids, faces, bodies … that echoed and re-echoed through their work” (67). Dianoia, these works demonstrate, is always dialogic in its operation, as Heller’s tagging Buber makes clear.

The many poems in Dianoia where Heller reconnoiters the dynamics of the self are another zone where doubleness is in play. “Notes on Notes” is a meditation, enacted in long ruminative tercets, on the ego and the seductions of egolessness under the pressures of an impending mortality. The poem conjures wrathful Buddhist deities with “clawed feet standing on the ego’s neck” (8), and with some ado rises to a half-hearted rejection of these demons enforcing egolessness, a half-hearted acceptance, that is, of ego as ill-fitting garment or discredited companion: 

… Some days I cannot use the third person “he,” can
barely indulge the “you” of the wish-fulfilling witness. I’ve fallen in
with the spirit of the “I,” the “I” that lost credibility, that indeterminate “I”

soon to become a “who” as in “who died?” I have tried to be a narrator.
Ok, I’m also the mysterious traveler walking beside a mountain or sitting
by a river, back to a city, fed by busyness and fear, not feeling like myself. (8) 

This is a grudging acceptance of self as the best that can be hoped for by humans who don’t expect to achieve Total Buddha Consciousness this fiscal year, even as it is an acknowledgment of the self’s plasticity: the ordinary uncomfortable “I” is also, if we squint another way at it, Basho on his travels through a stylized pen-and-ink landscape. But there is more here, too. 

… I’ve been promised, on the edge of the indefinable 

an apparitional beauty, an erscheinung, to surround me like amber
around a fly. O this aura, O companion to the days ahead, days filled with
Biblical sweetness, a rebuke to those who hoped for an alternative.
             Paradise. (9) 

This isn’t Heller’s version of “Earth’s the right place for love”; it’s more like Earth’s the right place to have an ego — despite the Buddhist seductions of selflessness, or no-mind. Erscheinung means “phenomenon” or “appearance” and often bears a connotation of the numinous or uncanny like the English “apparition” or “epiphany.” But since this is a Michael Heller poem the “aura” has more to do with Walter Benjamin than with anything the Judeo-Christian perspective would call holy. Heller always steps delicately here; I will have more to say presently about Heller and, you know, God.

In the absorbing sequence “Notes Found Under a Buddhist Meditation Cushion in a Hotel in the Canadian Rockies After a Religious Retreat,” Heller offers a half-revealed narrative of an up-market Buddhist retreat where “the new arrivals come and go / talking of the ego, always of the ego.” Here teacher presides over Heller’s thoughts on self and sign, self and name, self (unless I miss my guess) in the dynamics of both dharma and sangha. The sequence shows glimpses of the scoured alpine landscape outside the hotel’s windows: “the distant plume / of a snowslide / on glacial slopes” (31), but the would-be Tibetan mountainscapes are only the backdrop to the poet’s back-and-forth on ego and emptiness.

A certain niche-market orientalism occurs in “Notes” when Heller presents in the Canadian Rockies as a “Mallarmean Tibetophile” (30), and is on view in the other poems that comprise Dianoia’s Buddhist turn, especially in “Deities,” a suite of poems following Victor Segalen’s Odes suivies de Thibet. Heller explains his purpose in the note to “Deities”: “In the spirit of Segalen’s mimicry and invention … my aim has been to explore the armature of such concepts of the mind as identity and being” (103). In “High Basin,” the final poem in “Deities,” the alpine views harbor a wonderful conceit about the self: 

Useless to name, useless except to surrender and admit

the shame of wanting the unknowable, incessantly casting and retrieving
              the bait

of the ego, as though before a watershed teeming with life. (63) 

Who’s doing the casting, the poem wonders, if the ego is the thing cast? If the self is “armature,” what’s inside the shell? And what fish are we swimming with in here?

Not God, that’s for sure. Heller’s imaginary is relentlessly secular. The dianoia, the thinking across in these poems, only goes so far across. This is not a case of Pascal’s deus absconditus who absconded, in the untheological phrase of Annie Dillard, “like a wolf who disappears around the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey.”[3] Dillard’s absconding God is cartoonish, Pascal’s may have been rather grand, but Heller’s isn’t even a term in the discourse, even when Heller is writing about Jewish history, culture, or persons, as he does often in this volume.

Michael Heller is very much his own thing and I don’t diminish anything that’s singular about him by noting some sources and analogues in Jewish culture for his recusant position. Heller is a distant descendant of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, antagonist to Hasidism at many sites and passages, then and now. He’s a paid-up member of the post-Holocaust Jewish Poets League, heir to all their reticences. There’s a family resemblance to Reconstruction Judaism in its first iteration when Judaism as civilization was cherished as the survivor of a faith tradition gone extinct. Heller would be right at home among those arid reaches of American Conservative and Reform Judaism where atheists of Jewish ancestry pore lovingly over Jewish texts, traditions, and objets. This has always felt backward to me, like putting the tail before the kite. To this Jew, Michael Heller — such a magnificent artist, so fascinated with Judaism, so frugal in his belief — sometimes seems to be beating his wings in the void.

Heller signposts the absent God everywhere in these poems. In a very short Imagistic take called “In the Hallway,” a sign on the classroom door reads “The Mystical Experience in Literature has been cancelled.” Full stop. “Abide with Me a Moment” is a poem on Heller’s friend Allen Grossman and on language’s fatal capacity both to name and to estrange. “Abide” is one of the most melodious poems in the collection and utters itself in Heller’s masterful unrhymed couplets. It also includes a very bad moment. Heller’s credo appears early on in the poem:

… And I guess if one can call it
a belief, then mine was, if nothing else,
the Holy One had gone missing, and I was left

to raise other thrones from the now abandoned
languages of observation and objection. 

The poem has introduced thrones earlier in a little riff on Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne room  by way of Gershom Scholem, scholar of Jewish mysticism. Here Heller commits the egregiously unpoetical line:

Scholem — this is a “Jewish” poem alright. (5)

That, as the neologists say, is cringe-worthy.

But one of the finest poems in Dianoia comes out of Heller’s wrestle with Jewishness. This is “Mappah,” a poem about the case or sheath, usually elaborately decorated, in which the Torah is wrapped between readings. In the Ashkenazic tradition the mappah is an object of powerful metaphorical capacity. Often made from the swaddling garment in which an infant boy is brought to the ritual circumcision, the mappah connects the covenant of Abraham with the law of Moses in the life of an individual Jew, who is often named on the fabric of the case.

Heller’s “Mappah” is an investigation of the sacred and the profane within and beyond the Jewish tradition; it ponders the renewal of those categories after the disappearance of God. Like much Jewish text and practice, it is attentive to the edges or boundaries of things, the places where contamination and category error occur. The poem is at times obscure but even when it goes way out to the orphic end of the spectrum it does so in lines of great power:

Let this be put another way; the cloth that shielded the Torah from light shielded
from the Torah. (4)

“Mappah” is also the site of a delightfully involved, high-octane, multilingual pun:

Yet everything that is the case continues, and I am left with a suspicious sorrow
              that we
              grieve neither for truth nor falsity. (3)

Heller has placed “Mappah” as the first poem in Dianoia for good reason. It is a tour de force.

A word in closing about Dianoia’s range of reference across contemporary visual arts. Heller makes tribute to Paula Rego in “Off Camden Road,” where the painter has wrought:

                            … shapes
aligned along a magic, a geometry,
are made one with mystery and narrative. (14)

There are two poems after paintings by Charles Burchfield (1893–1967), mystic, watercolorist, and friend of Edward Hopper, whose compositions may have drawn Heller with their illusion of a transparent egolessness. There is a challenging longish poem, evidently based on a conversation with the artist John Pitman Weber, called “I’ve Always Been Suspicious of Perspective.” Chicagoans recognize Weber as one of the founders of the Chicago Public Art Group; Heller followers will remember Weber as a participant like (but not with) Heller in the 2009 Poetic Dialogue project. Heller’s Weber poem, a piece on violence inside and outside the artist’s composing frame, surveys “vanishing points with perspectives that vanished as all hope of vanishing perspectives vanished” (26).

Dianoia, as I said at the beginning of this, models with skill and teacherly self-confidence what many great modern poems do: critically thinking across ideas and occasions of consequence. Because this is Michael Heller doing the thinking across, the poems in this volume have both mastery and charm. 

1. Samuel Johnson, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 348.

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

3. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 1998), 9.