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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

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