Thursday, May 26, 2005

Michael Heller

The mail this week brings me a lovely, welcome volume: Exigent Futures, a New and Selected Poems by Michael Heller, just out from Salt publishers in England. Salt has also published a new collection of Heller's essays, Uncertain Poetries; between these two, and Heller's memoir Living Root, we now have access to a full body of work by one of the most reflective and quietly compelling of Jewish American poets.

Heller's first book of prose, Conviction's Net of Branches, was the first, pioneering study of the 'Objectivist' poets: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Niedecker. (Four of the five were Jews, although Jews of widely disparate backgrounds and Judaic knowledge.) "The Jewish Objectivists," Heller mused in the essay "Disaporic Poetics" (in my anthology, and now in Uncertain Poetries) "struck me as being married to their aloneness, as to a bride. Little noticed by the public or the academy, they wore the public neglect of their work as prideful badges. These were the poets whose books I carried on my own hegira, my wanderings, as I tried to find the forms my words and acts must take and be taken for." Later in the essay, he adds this tribute--and, in the process, a sketch of his own poetics:
What I felt from these poets who taught me so much was the power of perception, the happenstance of authorship, the impingement and penetration by the world into our would‑be discursiveness, our self‑involved chatter. The gloss of 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... A collection of languages, written and rewritten. From so much utilitarian secularity, one might derive a non‑theological theology of language, as if to say: thank Whomever (ironically of course) or whatever has designed this world. For I find new languages daily; I find that not all is written out, and that therefore I too am allowed to speak and write. Further, there are, in the life of the writer, those moments of being sickened with one's own work, one's very words. At such times, I have risen from my desk and hurled myself out into the city, evicted myself from the precincts of my own logorrhea, partly as break or diversion, but also to be in touch with the languages of others. Thus, to gloss, to go over, as an eye savoring the textures of the world is also to be compelled into utterance, and so to provide interlinears and commentaries.
My favorite Heller poem these days is the love poem "She," which comes late in Exigent Futures, but as a poem about going out into the city, hurling oneself into it, "as if to say: thank Whomever" and in order to be in touch with the languages of others, it's hard to beat this one, which was featured by Rodger Kamenetz in his "Psalm 151" column for the Forward on the first anniversary of 9/11:


The question is always nearness. Is it
in history or in the code of constellated night?

Is it to be approached by the soul's seven
invisible rungs that lead to the library, or do I go

by the route of the young bearded chasid who,
on the street, tears in his eyes, presses into my hand
a printed note: GET READY FOR MOSIACH.

His rabbi is dying on the 11th floor. Sun shining,
I squint as I look up. There's abundant light.
I'm getting there by looking at abundant light.

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