New poems by Michael Heller
— regard appearance as your teacher — Saraha
“World, World,” you wrote,
as though martyred to the visible,
the words one chose
would have to say it.
If the famous rosy-fingered dawn
existed, it existed to be proclaimed,
as did the catalog of phrases to be embraced,
sheer gorgeousness and vibratory
power of words
to upend those imprisoning
geometries of the conventional.
To articulate mind’s paean
imagining the silken net of her,
the sheathed stone of towers
we walked around —
word, words to world, world —
reluctantly including the age’s
horrors we read about.
Love and desire as possibilities,
as possible suppressions
in a world visibly raped by its ideologies.
Did relief come as compensation
in the words?
What to say for the rock’s display of striations
emblazoned above a flowing creek,
the deliberation describing the insect crawl,
its “chitinous wings,” that reminded you
of Pound’s wasp, and in that moment, you forgave him
his politics (thus sharpening some issues at hand).
Best, you said, to be “unteachable.”
Yet so many lived blindsided by the digital algorithms
of their tribes, arrogant in their insistence and consensus,
the bard’s finikins strewn across a wasteland,
or as Thucydides reminded us, “in evil times, words
changed their common meanings, to take those now given them.”
And you said, the problem was failure, no prominence,
only the ditch from which all was seen. “World, World,”
I believe you meant something like the cosmos.
“There is something to stand on.”
That was as close as one should come to belief.
And I remember the teacher’s sadhana proclaiming:
This world, the trees, the greenery, the Great Wrathful One,
you incite, you are the irritant from which
love and hate spring. And I remember
the nights I broke free — eye at the reticle
open to dark skies, charts laid on the table,
dome under dome: “say I looked at the stars / say
there was love in the sky / but it wasn’t enough.”
Youth’s dream: to be of that chorus. There it was
and this in which, however entrapped,
I gazed at an open starlit field, pristine immensities,
thoughts pliable as the wind swirling around objects
— a little pain, a little bother — one’s mind fumbling,
finding only its anguish real. Redemption: an image
on a reflecting mirror …
The world is the case (and it is beautiful), thanks LW.
The world is the case, surely the praise poet has a case to make.
The world is the case encased.
Seen from outer space.
— descend so that you may ascend — Augustine
Trees darkening the ground. Constellations overhead.
Midway, you’d want to go into the subject — then I’d go.
We’d call it prayer if you like.
We’d both desire to walk on, to be happy.
Not much talk but for an occasional comment
on “the compost of history.”
And I did make something of a prayer for myself,
I called out: Dante, help me with a fourfold allegory,
one that begins with a beast, a griffon or Sphinx
and works its way to joyful singing, as in Purgatorio,
“in exitu Isräel de Aegypto,” that “anagogically”
speaks of souls who from the Shoah did not escape
but rose in ashes to somewhere else, sanctified
from corruption by our inability to forget, and I meant,
my dear guide, let’s go no further, but turn at this point
and backtrack along the bolgias, for to “go up” is to be perfected,
even if to walk past the condemned as they suffer reminds them
of their shame. It was by this way, past the limbo of ancient poets,
beyond their need to traverse desire, that we would return
to the dark wood from which youth makes its descent,
this time into age. Here, where leaves lay crushed underfoot
and autumn awaited winter, we would emerge into a dark expanse,
and name the liminal objects outlined by the stars’ dim light
as though they were signs of the visionary.
from Tibet: A Sequence *
after Odes suivies de Thibet by Victor Segalen
It is not only the horror and vertigo of power
which holds this strange land,
Nor is it this austere and superb affront, this roar
Butting its head, its elephantine disregard
for the rebellious country.
Its lawlessness that echoes in the small valleys.
It is the unattended flat lands
Surrounded by forests, the foliage strangely familiar.
The disturbing power that makes
one crazy, wanting to chant to the flowers.
I knew these valleys
before the madness, its denizens living as though with the slow will
of lichens, almost sealed
to the bedrock as though by gods
who want to protect us from the irrational.
High valleys, where sanity and calm reigned, sweetness
as though from the heights, yet something of their nature
reached down out of high dream, out of the fantasies that besmirched their hearts
and made of them reliquaries
twisted from the blackest of branches until they shone in the light.
They reconcile themselves … they approach … they bring themselves to it,
walkers well-stocked with words.
This herd makes for a well-traveled route, these hagglers with neither fear nor laziness,
as they find entrances into their deepest selves on their way
to the trading posts.
They make the clocks sound Time, their silly ticking mechanisms.
They arrive: they dissolve. Even the shade of the camel palms celebrates their coming with rustling noise.
This is all, this is also following also.
I’m here too, at the edge of space, reclusive and silent,
the beggar of the infinite,
neither restless nor shy while all are imploring, chanting a hymn about the restlessness of their travels.
La La, their singing in their tents echoes off the walls:
“I am not the author of myself, but I am in my domain, my emptiness.”
So passes this grand caravan!
Nothing to mount, nothing to descend to, just one age passing into another.
There lies the glacier, the ice-steps mounting above the trade routes, but they fear. This
is their sovereignty.
They slide and hurtle past the moraine. Du temps.
There the same height, here too this level, I search frantically for the Other, (I repeat myself),
je cherche l’Autre!
The queen of this kingdom of somewhere else awaits while I run disheveled towards a
paradise with no apostle.
The Other imagines itself, immense, blocking the way to desire.
Diverted, the game of love made a mockery. And you ask whose being is here for you, what
weathers of the mind, what phantoms?
Love bites with its beautiful mouth.
And you hear the sounds of the high spirits reigning,
and you are reduced to silence as you approach
and inhale the scent of love, sweet on the skin. Beware the Other, the sickly blanched
equivocator, the decoy that the mind constructs.
In these high realms the air is thin, philosophy is the moving skein
of cloud-work. Be wary.
This is the festival. Silence and joy.
These poems are loosely based on the writings of Victor Segalen, whose work has spoken deeply to me for years. In his short life (1878–1919), Segalen, a medical doctor for the French navy, traveled extensively in Polynesia and the Far East. Like Gauguin, with whom he is often linked, Segalen was one of the great travelers of indwelling, of otherness. In his little-known “Essay on Exoticism,” he explores “the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self. … Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.” In his Odes suivies de Thibet, he takes up his interests in Buddhist and Taoist thought, attempting at times to mimic the language of the Sages whose genius, compassion, and knowledge of the illusory self he venerated. My own poems are written in the spirit of Segalen’s phrase “to conceive otherwise”; which I believe to be the poet’s essential task. In following Segalen’s habits of mimicry, my work involves an opportunistic, even perhaps exploitive mingling of Segalen’s thought and language with my own. Playing with his words and with mine, I have called these poems “transpositions” and not “translations.” All along, my aim has been to conjure through language an imagined, timeless “Tibet,” a place not only of great and rugged beauty but of spiritual instruction and ethical hope.
Other sections of this sequence have appeared in my recent books, This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 (2012) and Dianoia (2016).