Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review of Eschaton

Here is a review by Jason Rotstein of Michael Heller's Eschaton, which originally appeared in the Jewish Quarterly 214 (Winter 2009)


Michael Heller

Talisman House, 2009

Jason Rotstein

The appropriateness of Messianic hopes in an era pronounced as violent and bleak can seen to touch the nadir of madness or near the course to insanity. Nevertheless, it is precisely at these times that the appeal to the Messianic seems more intense, real and credible.

Michael Heller in his new collection of poetry, Eschaton, writes: ‘Impossible for me to write of other topics, mathematics and language or / mathematics and Zion’ (Letter and Dream of Walter Benjamin). He takes heart in a new hope of ‘after-selves’ or the co-ordinate—‘reliev[ing,] the self-awareness of non-self’—which he alludes to in A Terror of Tonality.

Throughout a collection which immerses itself in the devastation of September 11th and in the ruined landscapes of Sarajevo and Somalia—to name just a few of the massacre sites included—the word that occasions mentions most frequently is ‘surcease’, a word that suggests overarching disaster but that also foreshadows some relief.

The Age of the Poet considers both the decline of the poet but also of the age in which he breeds. There sounds one possible note of relief: ‘but for surcease, for stillness / for not thinking.’ ‘Not thinking,’ can mean two things in Heller’s symbology: the relief from ‘garrulousness’ (Finding the Mode), and the reliable possibility of metaphysical end-points—‘Wasn’t this how looking out was to become looking in, one’s ghosts no / longer blocking reflection?’ (In the Studio).

What bespeaks the heartfelt nature of this collection is only apparent in its deliberate organisation. By placing the most epiphanic material in the first two sections of the book, the effect is one of high to low tension rather than ascending arc. The descent into the nether-reaches of the sepulchral thanatos and eschaton are tinged still in this framework with embraces and remembrances of those ‘small ceremonies of life,’ left behind; ultimately I think affirming life and the will to live, while facing harbingers of death. In the midst of devastation, Heller exhorts an unorthodox vision; of life the way it would be after the facts of history, of a rejoining spirit of play after death and catastrophes:

Often, I am swamped with incredible pleasure

by the wild connection a thing makes between

my thumb and finger, as though desperately alive

in some galvanic dance. (A Dialogue of Some Importance)

The image has the function of ‘primitive’ importance, of man grasping at the very marrow of life in the wild leap that the creation of tools or craft specialisation meant in the history of humankind. It is this kind of hope and faith in a better future in life or in death that Heller leaves us with. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, human progress is still alive.

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