Friday, January 12, 2007

More on Michael Heller

Norman's post (below) reminds me that last month I finally finished a review of Michael Heller's most recent collection of essays, Uncertain Poetries, for Shofar, the well-known journal of Jewish Studies. I have no idea when the piece will run, and it was so overdue that I'm in no position to pester them for news (not that they return my emails, sniff!), but you all might take an interest.

Here are a couple of paragraphs to hold you, then:
When poet and critic Michael Heller wrote his first book of prose, Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Southern Illinois UP, 1985), the Objectivists were the neglected stepchildren of American modernism, overshadowed by the far more famous poets who influenced them (Pound, Williams) and by the bravura public careers of the poets that followed (Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, and the New American Poets of the 1950s and 60s). Twenty years later, the core group of Objectivists are routinely anthologized, with Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Neidecker—all but the last of them Jewish—seen as major figures in their own right and in the history of American verse. Heller, too, has finally begun to receive the attention he deserves, not least as the lead-off figure in the “Objectivist Continuities” chapter of Norman Finkelstein’s Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity. Uncertain Poetries, a selection of Heller’s essays, talks, and reviews from the past twenty years, shows how far the range of this poet’s interests have carried him beyond the Objectivist tradition—and how thinking deeply within this tradition, as well as outside it, has carried him into a distinctive, appealing account of the relationship between poetry and “tradition” more generally.

Heller strikes a keynote for the collection in the opening sentence of “The Uncertainty of the Poet,” a meditation on the painting of that name by the Italian modernist Georgio de Chirico. “I am here,” he declares, “investigating the floating filigree of doubt and fear, that feeling of being on the edge, which often accompanies poetic composition” (p. 3). With phenomenological precision, Heller’s essays pursue the “edgy” encounters incumbent upon writing poetry: encounters with oneself, one’s culture, one’s imagined future readers, and most profoundly with what Gershom Scholem described, in a passage Heller cites, as “the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born” (230). This sounds daunting, even angst-ridden, in the abstract. But as Heller brings the process to life in meditations on paintings and on modern poets (Federico Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens, and Stephane Mallarme, among others) and postmodern figures (among them William Bronk and Armand Schwerner), poesis looks less fraught, and more inviting. Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from “The True Epithalamium,” his essay on the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Robert Duncan, poetry begins to resemble a marriage between the “interrogative cliché-destroying precision” of well-crafted verse and the “lightening up about our purported certainties,” which leads, after doubt and darkness, to the birth of a daughter named Pleasure (231).

The rest should appear in Shofar--speedily, in our day!



The Lettershaper said...

I very much enjoyed my time here; as a poet and an avid reader, I found it both enlightening and entertaining. Thank you...

Mark Scroggins said...

I am abashed -- I reviewed the volume for Talisman some months ago, & I gotta admit my piece was a heckuva lot less penetrating & thoughtful than this. I gotta stop setting myself up ag'in Reb Selinger!