Thursday, September 26, 2013

Michael Heller, Introduction to his Poetry

Gloucester Writers Center, Sept. 25, 2013
MICHAEL HELLER is a poet, essayist, and critic. He is often associated with objectivist poets, such as Carl Rakosi and George Oppen, whose work he has explicated and continues to emulate. His book of essays, Convictions Net of Branches, now holds a classic status in the history of American objectivism. But such labelling sells his poetic genius short and misses its perceptive and magical charm. His first published poems were composed after a short visit to Nerja on the coast of Spain in 1966, an area that I know well. He and I share many common reference points, both as persons and poets: conversations in multiple venues over the last 30 years or so, poetry readings in and around NYC, and importantly in Orono, Maine, years ago, we shared fascinating conversations with Armand Schwerner, author of The Tablets, a foundational text of contemporary gnostic poetry. We have crossed paths so often because of the influences we share and the commitments that underlie our writing. I especially remember a brief essay of his where a sympathy for Louis Zukofsky’s moral ethos is the dominant theme. You may know that when I edited the O.ARS anthologies that beautiful conundrum that weds ethics and the measures in which poetics delight was foremost among the concepts that then intrigued me. This has been true also of Michael Heller in his highly distinguished career, now culminating with This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010, Nightboat, 2012 (CP below).

In his Zukofsky essay, Heller warns us to be cautious about “the aleatory free-wheeling” that seems all too common in today’s poetry. At the same time, his poetry is not by any means a constructed thing in the formalist sense associated with some language-centered poets or the new conceptualist poets; instead his work is open to processes of perception following upon perception and is rooted in largely quotidian realities. Perhaps the possibility of form as immanent within true perception identifies a faith to which Heller and I both adhere. What you must do, if you are so inclined, is to listen to the world that impinges upon the senses. Sometimes abruptly:

“The language falls, / a chunk of disembodied sound through space.” ( CP 235, from In the Builded Place 1989).
Often more subtly:

“One heard the sound, in my case, muffled piano chords which
set up a slight saw-edged vibration as though beneath the skin”
There is a hint of violence, a startle effect in both of these responses to the phenomenal world. At the edge of perception, the identity of objects and their forms is at stake,

“and suddenly an identity was losing base, as if a yearning

not to be form barely shimmered through those veiled processions

of chords” (CP 438, from Eschaton 2009)

Heller’s poems are obsessive about the form of words and have titles like “At Word Brink” (CP 411). For me one the most brilliant poems in Eschaton, the volume from which I have been quoting most often, is “The Chronicle Poet.” A chronicle, as you may remember, is a registration of events, very linear in form, hewing to the order of perception. In this poem he writes, “One tries pulling syllables clean, like freeing / old nails from plaster.” (CP 401). 

A search for language that is freeing but rooted, or “embedded” in a friable substance like plaster as those nails are, together with an attentive and caring response to the mundane or ordinary, for me, that is Michael practice at its best and I think it is also true of Michael Heller’s sense of himself, even from the first unwinding of words and syllables in infancy.

Listening only prompts continued efforts at listening and can lead to an existential despair:
“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.”

This is Michael Heller at his most mystical, a response to Jewish liturgy that concludes “and underneath, as though one sensed through flesh, the delicate structure // of beths and vavs on parchment, the inner and outer of secrets. (CP 374, from Exigent Futures, 2003). The cited structure is a matter of subtle differences in the sound stream, nothing more. Materialism subverts gnosticsm and we have that quality that above I identified as “a perceptive and magical charm.”

Welcome Michael to the Gloucester Writers Center

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review of the Empire of Neomemory [Re-posted]

In 2010, I published my response to The Empire of Neomemory, in the Worcester Review. My thoughts were first delivered during the Olson Centennial in Worcester. With the English-language release of this important work, I'd like to repost that response now.

Review: Heriberto Yépez, El imperio de la neomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007)

Donald Wellman, May 17, 2010

In his recent study of Charles Olson’s poetics, El imperio de la neomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007), HeribertoYépez finds Olson’s personality and his work to be symbolic of North American imperialism. Yépez’s insights deserve a degree of credence, although much of what he says may initially seem over the top, thin with respect to textual support for his arguments and replete with inscrutable neologism and unfounded claims. But there is passion in the exposition, a charged sincerity; and, after all, Yépez is writing as a Mexican on Olson’s appropriation of Mexican material, among other subjects. Troublesome for some readers will be those claims that link an unresolved Oedipal complex with the motive force of American imperial expansion, making Olson the emblematic American monster who seeks to devour a mother who is identified with Mexico, with the land and its indigenous people. Others, including myself, have commented on Olson’s subjectivity. The linkage between Oedipus and post-World War Two imperialism is also worth pursuing, as, notably, Deleuze and Guattari have done.


Another argument made by Yépez qualifies Olson’s postmodern desire to turn time into space, as emblematic of fascism in its reordering of history for self-serving and autocratic purposes (such reordering is the meaning of neomemoria in Yépez’s title). In this reading, all of Maximus becomes, kitsch and simulacrum, a manufactured reality that replaces the historical world with a spatial plenum of fragments, arranged in paratactic fusillades that are overwhelming in their onslaught, replacing lived experience with artificially constructed experience, turning night into day, as often Olson, in fact, did. For Yépez, a return to Sumer under the sign of the postmodern does not obviate the social responsibilities generated by modern history: genocide and nuclear holocaust. Of course this is my summary, but I think a fair representations of the assertions that will be too quickly dismissed by readers who see Olson differently.


It strikes me as necessary to learn to see ourselves from the point of view of the other, especially scholars and poets in other cultures who have chosen to study what America now offers her neighbors. And I will accept the claim made by Yépez that Olson was unable to see himself in other than solipsistic terms. This is likely a failure of perception or observation on the part of millions of Americans who have visited Mexico. Olson may in fact have a different ethos of observation than these many tourists. He famously expresses his admiration for how the Mayans carry themselves with no false modesty and a level of openness to contact with others, and yet this same Olson does not consider how others may see him or feel about his behavior or claims. This blindness, this one-sided openness, motivates many of the arguments advanced by Yépez. El imperio de la neomemoria may, if you have patience with the exposition, offer a corrective to Olson’s partial vision of Mexico, but this correction is also animated by a justified animosity for American imperialism; it was perhaps too convenient to fuse Olson’s self-centeredness with the American monomania to consume and shape the newly emerging world of global capitalism, founded as it is on consumption, the genocide of indigenous and African peoples, slavery, and environmental degradation. Again this is not an original argument. José Martí made a similar point about North American imperialism in 1891. The degree to which Olson’s poetics is emblematic of such imperialism is the disturbing question that Yépez places before the reader.


The passage below captures some of the strength that is at the heart of Yépez’s argument:

Olson confluía con el otro. Fundía el saber del otro en le suyo. De Dahlberg, Pound y Cagli pasaría, poco después, a Frances Boldereff y Robert Creeley. Si la obra de Olson se refiere, centralmente, a la expansión hacia lo otro, hacia la fusión y apropiación de ello, esta incorporación también opera en los limites de su propia existencia personal. Olson devora al otro, lo traga por su propia vida y, al mismo tiempo, es devorado por su presa. Ballena que devora Jobs. Olson es, fundamentalmente, un antropófago. Y es también lo canibalizado. (73)


[Olson mixes himself with the other. He bases his knowledge of the other in his own self-knowledge. From Dahlberg, Pound and Cagli, he went on, shortly after to, Frances Boldereff and Robert Creeley. If the work of Olson refers centrally to expansion in the direction of the other, toward the fusion and appropriation of it, this incorporation also works at the limits of his own personal existence. Olson devours the other, he consumes it to support his own life and, at the same time, he is devoured by his catch. The whale who devours Job. Olson is fundamentally, a cannibal. And he is also the cannibalized.]

In this instance, Yépez offers a recognizable version of Olson’s self-projection. In the next passage that I cite, the theme is the Americanization of the world; Yépez responds to a passage in Call me Ishmael that reads, “For the American has the Roman feeling about the world. It is his, to dispose of. He strides it, with possession of it. His property. Has he not conquered it with his machines? He bends its resources to his will. The pax of legions? the Americanization of the world. Who else is lord? (Collected Prose 66). Yépez responds:

Olson, como puede verse, no es critica de esta “Americanización del mundo.” Fanático del New Deal, triunfalista Democrática, Olson se volvió un vocero, muchas veces implícito; otras, demasiado abierto, del imperialismo. A la vez, Olson es consciente de que tal “señorío,” el del Capitán Ahab, el de América, conduce al naufragio, como Melville lo supo también. “El colapso de un héroe a través del solipsismo que echa un mundo abajo” (CP 66). El solipsismo—todo solipsismo es pantópico—es lo que derriba al mundo, al imperio y, a asimismo, es su primer motor.  Olson, sin embargo, es conquistado por la belleza del solipsismo. Le parece sublime el intento. Le parece trágicamente bello, bellamente trágico, la muerte por hipertrofia, la fragmentación sobreviviente. Sus restos en el fondo del mar.” (83)


[Olson as can be seen is no critic of this “Americanization of the world.” A New Deal fanatic, Democratic Party braggart, Olson became a spokesperson for imperialism, often implicit; other times, excessively open. At the same time, Olson is conscious that such sovereign arrogance as that of Ahab, that of America, lead to shipwreck, as Melville also recognized. “A collapse of a hero through solipsism which brings down a world” (CP 66). Solipsism—all solipsism is pantopico—is that which brings down the world, the imperium and, at the same time, it is its prime mover. Olson, without doubt, is conquered by the beauty of solipsism. To him its purpose is sublime. It is tragically beautiful to him, beautifully tragic, death by hypertrophy, the surviving fragmentation. Its remains on the bottom of the sea.]

Talk about melancholy, a theme that sometimes haunts Olson’s poetry.


Olson sought, from his post in Lerma, to map the proportions of the human universe. He blends two facets of the same reality, that of the ego or self awareness and that of the cosmos. For him, the Mayan glyph captures this two fold sense of reality; it is an equal to the projective.


Olson’s experiences in Mexico do not figure as largely into Yépez’s account as one might expect. The “Human Universe” and “The Mayan Letters” are presented as evidence of solipsism, not as documents of intrinsic historical or literary interest. In citations to this material, or to correspondence with Creeley, he sometimes plays fast and loose in his juxtaposition of references, for instance quoting from a letter to Creeley from April 16th that contains a derogatory reference to Mayan culture as embodying his feelings just prior to his departure in July and therefore as representing his attitude in general toward the Mayan people (172). Nonetheless, there are useful presentations of the Mayan calendrical system, on the sense of time in Native American grammars, and on the multivalent identity of Quetzalcoatl.


Let me indicate the proportions of the Olson that I love and Yépez excoriates: Olson’s take on language, which is what excited him about the glyphs that he encountered, derives as much from Emerson as it does from Pound. For Olson, the image is not only glyph but also physical fragment of a constructed reality. This view is similar to that of both Miguel Covarrubias and Diego Rivera. The idea is that expression can be built from repeated blocks with a certain formulaic set of properties running through those blocks as design. Importantly, in this regard, we are not talking about the construction of an abstraction free floating from the hard reality of sweat and unremitting sun. We are talking about physical encounters with the stone. Envision here, Olson laboring on a small hill overlooking the sea salvaging talismanic fragments found in an unregistered site from the machines that were grinding the limestone into cement products. True Olson tends toward abstraction and his imagination works often at a theoretical distance from the subject. Aren’t texts objects too? Olson work is clearly instrumental in the postmodern treatment of language as a factual and core level of experience. Discovering the drawings of Hipólito Sánchez served to charge Olson’s level of theoretical excitement and in that sense helped him to read what he could of the Mayan record. I underscore that much of what Olson encountered in Mexico generated both a physical response and an act of the active intelligence. Olson suffered multiple insecurities but he expresses his bodily and psychic reality in a holistic way, one penetrating the other, not as detached layers floating free of one another. Inside and outside merge continually for Olson, frequently in The Mayan Letters and consistently from early poems like “The Moebius Strip” to the Maximus text that begins “Outer Darkness – Inner Schoodic” (589), among others that I might cite.