October 8, 2011

Michael Heller (USA) 1937

Michael Heller (USA)

Michael Heller was born in Brooklyn, NY on May 11, 1937.  His father, the son and grandson of rabbis in Bialystok, Poland, and New York, led a colorful if not very successful life.  He ran away from home at fifteen, became a cook’s mate on a freighter, then soldier, reporter, film producer, lawyer, political adviser and finally public relations counselor.  As Heller describes it in Living Root, his memoir cum ars poetica, his father’s life, with its entwined ambiguous mix of Jewish tradition, romantic love, boyish rebellion and escapism, has been an unlikely but exemplary resource for his poetry. 

            Heller’s mother, the daughter of a successful Romanian businesswoman, taught in the New York City public schools, but in 1942, after her heart trouble worsened, the family began a piecemeal move to Miami Beach, Florida. The city’s garish pre-postmodern art-deco architecture and the daily sight of the Atlantic would provide an imagistic backdrop to elements of Heller’s work.
            As a nine-year old elementary school student in Miami Beach, Heller made his first public “literary” experience on a weekly radio show, “Unfinshed Fables, ” as one of four child-panelists who were required to complete a half-written story impromptu over the air waves.  With the help of his school friends, he published, on a hectograph, a bi-weekly journal of news, poems and cartoons.  In high school, his interests were art and science-related, and at sixteen, he was the youngest member of the American Rocket Society (later Astronautics Society), and hoped for a career in science or engineering.  After high school, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Upon graduation in 1959, he moved to New York City to take a technical writing job.  Since then, Manhattan has been his primary residence, except for summers spent in the Sangré de Cristo mountains of southern Colorado and frequent periods of foreign travel.  
            In Living Root, Heller describes “blundering” into poetry in the mid-1960s while working as a tech writer at Sperry Gyroscope, when on the job, he accidentally met a number of former students of Louis Zukofsky who introduced him to Zukofsky’s work, and to the Objectivists and Black Mountain poets, whom he started to read and study intensively.  He began trying to write both poetry and fiction.  The only poetry writing workshop he ever took was with Kenneth Koch at The New School where he won the Coffey Poetry Prize in 1964. 
            Impelled by that miniscule award, Heller went abroad to try to become a poet, at first traveling through the major cities of Europe, then settling for over a year in the small town of Nerja on Spain’s Andalucian coast.  While there, he published his first poems in The Paris Review.  In Nerja, he also met other writers, among them the Irish novelist Aidan Higgins, who introduced him to the writings of major European literary figures such as Walter Benjamin, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch and Samuel Beckett.  In Nerja, he also became acquainted with the Spanish poet, Jorge Guillén and the family of Garcia Lorca who, as Franco’s power was waning, had started to live in Nerja in the summers.
            Heller returned to New York in late 1966, freelanced as a tech writer and joined Angry Arts, the anti-Vietnam War group.  He began to meet the Objectivist poets he had read, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Zukofsky, whose writing and thinking  influenced his work.  In 1967, Heller was hired by New York University where for over thirty years he taught composition, creative writing and lectured on contemporary poetry. 
           His first full-length collection, Accidental Center was published in1972 by Dan Gerber’s and Jim Harrison’s Sumac Press, along with books by Robert Duncan, George Oppen and Carl Thayer.  Since then his poetry, reviews, essays and fiction have been widely published and anthologized. 
      In 1990, while at Yaddo, he met the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson with whom he has collaborated on numerous projects involving text, video, music theater and opera, including the multi-media work, This Art Burning.  His many editorial and advisory positions include associations with such magazines as Origin, Montemora and Pequod, and he has been a consultant for state and university poetry organizations, Poets in the Schools, the National Endowment for the Arts and Poets House.  He has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the Di Castagnola Prize of the Poetry Society of America, an National Endowment for the Humanities Poet/Scholar Grant, and grants from the New York Foundation of the Arts and The Fund for Poetry.  Since 1999, he has been an independent writer and critic.  He has been married to the poet and scholar Jane Augustine since 1979, and has one son, Nicholas, from a previous marriage.


Two Poems (Mount Horeb, Wisconsin: Perishable Press Ltd., 1970); Accidental Center (Minneapolis: Sumac, 1972); Figures of Speaking ( Mount Horeb, Wisconsin: Perishable Press Ltd. 1977)  Knowledge  (New York: SUN, 1980); Marginalia in a Desperate Hand  (England: Pig Press, 1986); In The Builded Place ( Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1990); Wordflow: New and Selected Poems (Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House Publishers, 1997); Exigent Futures: New and Selected Poems (London: Salt Publishing, 2003); A Look At The Door With The Hinges Off  (Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres, 2006); Eschaton (Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House Publishers, 2009); Beckmann Variations & Other Poems (Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2010); This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Swathmore, Pennsylvania: Nightboat Books, 2012); Telescope: Selected Poems (New York: New York Review Books, 2019)


It was on that day when the Names were not,
Nor any sign of existence endowed with name.
            Divani Shamsi Tabriz


I was remembering how the city took shape by the offices of light.  How our words were lovely evensong, trilling above the muted rumble of buses, delicate, yielding, a kind of looseness twanging off the metallic forest of rooftops.

We had wormed ourselves down into darkness, descending, self-blinded air-moles, and then sun and memory rose, and our plangent mindfulness was godlike, a backing and filling which laid out the boulevards and crushed the sparrow.

At midday, a precision of shadows illumined the telltale refuse in the streets. 

Love hectored: were we to exist, our being a kind of coruscation across the sallow air?

(So many machines, so much impelled movement.  It was left to verbal mechanisms to draw down the power, to blow fuses, to irrigate the grid with nonsense syllables.)


It hurt to be invaded by our surpluses, to wander in that crowded yet lonely Gehenna, to ask who chose these spendthrifts of architecture, these markings and commerce, the ornate cornices, spandrels, coffee machines and bottled water?

Amidst findings of anguish and lust, there was an immense betokening of intimacies threaded to the wrong objects. 

The flux baffled, engarbled speech.

Yet still, a few stood proudly cut from the mechanics of illumination, their faces written upon by hopes and pains, singular and yet embossed by unplanned beginnings and ends.

They exhibited an uprightness, not of freedom, but rather as though a tree had resisted back against the brutal informing weathers of history, those mournful plenitudes, cares, bents, desires and redeemings.

The objects were now more ghostly, more unaccountable, and thus no longer those things about which banished rhapsodes were entitled to sing.

Meanwhile, the verse’s flatness hinted at a tutelary linguistics, at an awareness of thought's barely inflected swiftness, of substance that left one both free and bereft.


Philosophers proclaimed the mental light as holding this lumina, luxe.  But grime smudged against vision, smeared the sense of beauty with the prolix essences of markers. 

The light, imageless, bathed real objects, fell across her brow and face, onto contours of small breasts, dark furtive sexual hairs...  

Less personal, the light also slatted up the city into longish beam-work, Brownian fonts of godheads, their secondary power a kind of utterance.


These dream-states implied auroras of flooding radiance, offset the textures of the brickwork, traduced them into penetrant nostalgias of barred and indexed windows, dark homiletics of streets, the coarsened kelps of entanglement.

In spite of an overriding sense of packed and sectored proximities, emotion broke from one’s fears, likewise the reverse, etc., occurring as though in the trued rooms of an abiding, momentous dwelling.

Or as fantasy suggested: a child walked down leafy lanes, embracing a storybook dappling, only to turn a corner, to emerge from the glade and come upon the concrete Behemoth itself.

Therefore that other fealty to the premonition that each word was not the dawn but a nailing sun at noon?

No shadow of ambiguity on the paving stones. 


The calculus on the page, the numbers and symbols, the operands and constants, transparencies and theories.  Only these thwart an interminable bruising against reason.

Morning's light had never been particularly confirmatory.


Sun’s faint warmth as yet not fully given over to the day's shape, still enmeshed in night. 

Its light arrived and with it the wheeled traffic in the street. 

Time, the indulgent parent... 

As though the mind were primitive, a forest of deep recurrence in matted leaves and balsams of pine.  Memory futile, grasping at technique again.


And what was writing?  A snail's slime down the walkway!  Nothing more natural to the creature, he wrote bitterly.

O and by the way, little soul, how is a cognizable world possible? 

Is it infarct or comestible? 

Only yesterday, the old Printing House Square, buildings torn down, resembled the site of a molar's extraction. 

And this month, litter thickens to a matted surface catching about the feet, to ankle-turning slipperiness of compacted color supplements, the musical crackling of styrofoam cups. 

But you, you are positively beautiful, done in, or, as the French say, en dishabille. 

Not a word for thought in this enjambed paradise of desires.


Evil more clear than good, wound more certain than caress--the unloved always recognizable when posed against the loved one who remains unknowable. 

Face secreted in mystery, city’s mystery. 

What about one who lies athwart a darkness, stamped by incised verities?

Be wary of judgment, best to withhold closure on another.

Attention and skilled action, even these must suffer hesitancy. 

It was the only way we could talk about streets and neighborhoods, thinking where they blend or die off or transmute to something else. 

 The most opaque thing is the body which you peer down at as from a crown.

 Thought's pinnacle? 

 Easy, however, to float off with the wave of a hand, a dream of oneness--her skin and freshets of eye contact, mouth or curves, the secret places. 

 Thus the ruminations and the trust, estranged valuations, the city coalescing as fragile web, the familiar trickling like an open tap into homelessness.


He is not disinherited,

for he has not found a home

He has found vertiginous life again, the words

on the way to language dangling possibility,

but also, like the sound of a riff on a riff, 

it cannot be resolved.  History has mucked this up.

He has no textbook, and must overcompensate,

digging into the memory bank if not for the tune

then for something vibratory on the lower end of the harmonics.

He's bound to be off by at least a half-note--here comes jargon

baby--something like a diss or hiss.  Being is

incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward.

Yet, once the desperate situation is clarified, he feels

a kind of happiness.   


Later, the words were displaced and caught fire, burning syllables

to enunciate the dead mother's name.

(Martha sounding then like "mother")

Wasn't it such echoes that built the city in which he lives,

the cage he paces now like Rilke's panther?

He was not disinherited. 

He was not displaced

He is sentimental, hence he can say a phrase like his heart burst

The worst thing is to feel only irony can save

The worst thing is to feel only irony.


                                                            words for the etchings of Jane Joseph

1.  Doesn’t the picture say

no room in this world for anything more? 

If you desire to add something,

you must begin again

and make your own world,

including what has been missing

from the very beginning

of the world. 

You must make an enormous effort

to leave this world for that one,

something like dying, if not quite. 

Each world is so complete,

terror and emptiness

accompany every effort to leave it.

2.  Black parts of things

keep the eye centered on the dark. 

At least one can see

a bit of upstanding twig

leads to the branch,

leads along the branch

until the branch

foregrounded before flowing water

invites a sojourn past woods and house

along its banks. 

Clouds are always on the move,

and suggest the weather’s alterations. 

Darks do no more than keep the eye

centered on the dark.

3.  When the things of the world

are so carefully depicted

—when we see such things—

surely we surrender a little, giving

ourselves over to the thing seen. 

I have heard others speaking

of the tree's treeness

or an object's being. 

I have looked,

and each time I experience something

--my own disappearance,

my own failed going-out

to meet the tree,

to meet the object. 

Nothing coming back.

4.  I can love a picture

but only if it doesn't love me. 

I insist on boundaries. 

I can hate a picture

without it hating me. 

I don't insist on boundaries.

5.  The branch of the sycamore

forks two ways,

one limb sort of down

and flat across the paper,

the other making an upthrust

so powerful it begins

to curve back on itself

as though the light was the light

of a nourishing self-regard

and the wide-spaced faint scribble

marks that go near the vertical

were the accidental pleas of space itself

warning against hubris.

6.  So many bridges, foot, railway, auto,

each obscured by the surrounding designs,

are mythologies of difficult contact. 

Or child’s stories where ogres

are secreted in dark patches under pathways

by which we connect.

7.  The daffodil hangs its heavy blossomed head. 

Wordsworth has shamed you. 

And Eliot made the hyacinth

the flower of rebirth

into death’s blossoming 

You are lone upon the heath.

You are between realms,

between cliché and astonishment.

8.  And let the picture transform you.

Let this thistle put on its fiery fall color,

and let its bunched tufts

resemble a wrathful deity,

and let the corolla be a necklace

of enlaced skulls, and let homage be paid

by the ground underfoot,

its otherness crushing

ego’s unreasonable hectorings,

and let the mind never rest

in the false nirvana of vegetative happiness,

and let the bumble alight,

thick-dusted with the pollen of awareness.


Weren’t you given a text?  To honor the congregation, the organ dulcet,

the cantor’s hum, hymnal of Europe’s East, steps of sound made fugal

but laden with a weariness (joy for another day), history transmogrified

into plaint upon plaint, to be ushered into manhood, to be brought other’s pain.


Early on, the Shekinah gone into exile. Most of that century you saw

not love but power, cruelty, the face which laughs against the sun.

What could you do if you were not steeped in things like the others

but merely walked to buy milk or bread,  heaven above, earth below,

to visit the old streets, the elm’s grainy seeds lying across paving stones,

tourists milling and the Atlantic past the bridge brilliant as a sword cut.

Saline, solute, salve, this art burning to base metal.  What carries one

who would sing a hymn but eddies of language--never the pure thing--

maelstroms and tidal pools, word-forms, the will hemmed in like an ocean

to its basin,  rhymed to the rack of its tides.  The word’s ring deflected

in the baffles of the city into space, echo bounced from storefront to tower,

fading toward soundlessness--ear cupped to catch emptiness, translation

to Paradise from which speech fled.  Put down this cloth, said the rabbi.

Cover the text and emplace the cap.  Live neither in blacks nor whites. 

Avert from the scroll  rising above the earth, gaze upon limitless blue,

the inventive weaving of clouds.  Live straight ahead.  Appearance

will be your pain and mentor.  Be at the threshold, not at the Ark.

And later,  to go back to plucking a word from the weave,

lamé, silver, deep magenta, designs mazed over the fold, lines and margins,

and underneath, as though one sensed through flesh, the delicate structure

of beths and vavs on parchment, the inner and outer of secrets.

Copyright ©2011 by Michael Heller.

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