Eschaton by Michael Heller
(Talisman House, Jersey City, N.J., 2009)
“I think the world is very big, and a piece of canvas is very small.” – George Oppen
Michael Heller’s newest collection, Eschaton, is, for the uninitiated, an excellent introduction to the work of this singular poet. For those already familiar with Heller’s poetry, a body of work spanning six collections, Eschaton is a culmination of decades of increased sophistication, maturation and sublimity in poetic form. Heller is that rarest of poets: a unique visionary whose work stands among the finest lyric poetry being written today.
I should begin by saying that Heller is an often outspoken critic of certain kinds of new formalisms in recent experimental writing. His work derives from his deep involvement with “Objectivist” poetics, especially as exemplified in the work of Oppen whom he has written about extensively. This is a tradition warily opposed, he argues in one of his many penetrating essays, to those forms of poem making that are primarily “concerned with certain procedures and creating certain forms before actually writing.” The Objectivists’ work derived in part from Pound’s argument with the formalism of his day, and so, too, does Heller argue with the academicism that engulfed poetry in the 1970s and which now seems finally entrenched both on and off campus. Heller’s critical work, like Pound’s, functions for the reader as way of approaching his poetry (though an appreciation and understanding of the poems in no way requires a familiarity with his criticism). Both the essays and poems are largely attempts to revitalize poetic language in a medium crowded out by theory, polemics and jargon, to establish what he calls, in his interview with Thomas Gardiner in Contemporary Literature, “counter-continuities” that “bring a meaning to a poem that could directly war with other meanings, not [seek for] procedures that out-foxed meanings.” Heller’s desire, as he puts it in the interview, is to imagine a poetics that would “bring a whole world to kind of lean or press against poetic language,” and in so doing open it up to what he calls “the vast socio-political, philosophical dimensions of its own language and terminology.”
Heller’s poetry is rife with temporal shifts, quizzical ponderings, jarring transitions and philosophical struggle, animated by Heller’s incisive wit and the rhythm of his often spare language. The poems’ temporal awareness is often juxtaposed with the burden of history. Their visual equivalent might be described as a tapestry or a mural. For what is most apparent in all of Heller’s work, these most recent poems especially, is a sense of the historicalness of being--of being in this place, in this time.
In more recent work, his poems have been concerned specifically with the historical burden of Jewishness. Heller has come into his own as a Jewish poet. Barely a noticeable concern in his earliest work, it has gradually become almost a major obsession. In fact, one could say that one of the central themes of Eschaton is that of Jewish identity, specifically, the Jew as post-Diaspora preserver of culture, of the Jew of the Midrash, as interpreter/explicator.
The collection’s opening poem, “Looking at Some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House,” questions the concept of language reduced to some idea of its own materiality, that is, as anything more than “just stuff and the proof of stuff.” The petroglyphs, as human record and of a desire to communicate, are “just there, exposing all this / and we are deluded for thinking else wise.” And it is only love of the world, of others that “is at the end of it.” “On a Phrase of Milosz’s,” (the phrase being “He is not disinherited, / for he has not found a home”), Heller remarks how “History has mucked up” language’s ability to “resolve” experience: “the words / on the way to language dangling possibility,” he writes. (I note the quite intentional reference to Heidegger’s book On the Way To Language, a study of the metaphysical properties of language). Words are at best potentialities; they can only “dangle possibility.” We cannot resolve it, Heller contends, because “Being is / incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward.” We cannot be disinherited, Heller implies, because we never had a home to begin with. Instead, we have always been stranded among the ruins of a discourse that cannot possibly bridge the gap between word and world. Yet what the words do afford us, Heller maintains, is a “desperate situation . . . clarified.” “The worst thing is to feel only irony can save,” Heller concludes, and one cannot help but feel the statement is directed at much of modern discourse, poetry included. “The worst thing,” Heller warns, “is to feel only irony.”
If words are inadequate, they still deserve our respect, Heller argues, just as the world is made inadequate to language for refusing to fit its neat, abstract concepts. In “About the Capitol,” Heller writes of “the city” that “drains language into rubble, into erotics / and wrath.” Other poems in this collection contrast the problem of world and word with Jewish identity, specifically the struggle of a modern urban Jew (i.e. Heller) reconciling his historical vantage with that of the Torah. One of the first of a series of poems dealing explicitly with Jewish identity and the problem of language is “The Heresy” which refers to the passage in Exodus 20.25 that states “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it,” a passage that relates to the Old Testament God’s ambivalence toward art and graven images The poem’s narrator has, “lost that god,” lost “divinities” and now must take “silence into time, marking their absence/in our late vocabularies in their conspirings,/these new mythologies as they fell from on high.” “Diasporic Conundrums” takes its inspiration from a passage from Ruth: “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara.” The poem is a meditation on the power of a name (“he who was given a name / has lost the right to silence”) and the responsibility of that name. A name, then, is another word. “Who will raise up / a name like Ruth, / put a name, / like a child, onto the air?” To say one’s name is to inscribe it onto the air. This saying / naming / writing interplay (for to name is to write and to write is to name) reaches, at poem’s end, a chilling conclusion: “The dead are dead. / This is certain. / This is what was written, / Why it was written. / This need not be said.”
In his essay, “Diasporic Poetics,” included in his excellent, career-spanning collection Uncertain Poetries, Heller, trying to give some account of the poems above, observes: “a number of things were on my mind, all of which in one way or another entail diasporas: the story of Ruth in the Bible, that very postmodern idea that the world is displaced from the object it refers to, that the word is exilic, and . . . that whatever my religious inclinations, the world has labeled me a Jew.” The epigraph from Ruth, Heller tells us, “was the seed-phrase of the poem.” This phrase, he explains, “is here terrifying, heart-wrenchingly, to the perceiving function of the name.” Naming, as Heller points out, is a “primordial form of perception.” Naomi’s demand for another name (Ruth, meaning “bitterness”) enacts a “transformation of physicality into language.” Heller’s poem, he argues, “seeks to address the conundrums of inherited names as fixities and the relation of these fixities to the self.” Words, Heller explains, “have a two-fold power, first to draw one’s attention . . . and second, to be a naming - in this latter case, the ghostly powers of words resided, incarnating themselves in one until they were no longer capable of being recognized as mere objects of attention. Via the poem, words were physically incantatory, orders of possession, dilations of consciousness and its apprehensions.” The poet, Heller maintains, “is caught between a philosophical sense of his or her craft and a religious sense of the mysteries of the world.” Thus, in “Bandelette de Torah,” Heller sees Jewish identity as necessarily written. He refers to davar, a Hebrew word for both “word” and “thing,” which Heller finds symbolic of a peculiarly Jewish desire to conjure the physical thing through the act of naming: “The gold Yod, fist-shaped / with extended finger, marks where the letter / is made free, davar twining aleph into its thing.” The Yod, Heller tells us in his helpful but not ostentatious notes, is an instrument used by a Rabbi to point to words read from the Torah, while aleph is “the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, believed by the Kabbalists to be the primary instance of language, revelatory of all words and hence all of creation.”
There is in Heller’s work a constant interrogation of language and the poetic process. In the “Chronicle Poet” writing becomes a “mere scratching . . . a shameful noise.” The poem seems to indicate the inability of the poet to chronicle his or her times. While the desire to chronicle is not in and of itself ironic (especially given Heller’s ambivalence about irony, his desire to be above all sincere, particularly in the poem), if the age in which one lives is in and of itself ironic, the poet suggests, how could not the poem be part of the irony?
While the themes of Jewishness and language and the relationship between the two are among the book’s primary concerns, Heller includes some fine lyric poems. “East Hampton Meditations” and “Creeks in Berkeley” stand out – demonstrating that Heller is not only one of our finest poets of the intellect, but also one of our finest poets of eye and ear:
Wasn’t this how the past
was to come back,
haunting in its dense compactions?
Life as pointillist,
a comic wink of love missed,
of words unsaid,
and only the writing
had been this fog
(“East Hampton Meditations”)
You led yourself or were you led by her who once
lived on Cragmont and whose voice has its own sweet
rill running uphill with a freedom teasing you
from any turn or enjambment until sound disappears
into the air, into a wordless breathing of light
the late sun strikes from the bridges and windows.
(“Creeks in Berkeley”)
But it is the final two sections of the book where the truly magisterial and mysterious alchemy of sight, sound and intellection occurs: having set forth his arguments and themes in the first two sections of the book, Heller accomplishes the truly rare feat of producing poems of stunningly original lyrical and imagistic exactitude, all the while possessed of an intense intellectual rigor. “Stanzas Without Ozymandias,” possibly the finest poem in the book, is inspired in part by the Shelleyan image of the broken statue of Ozymandias in the Egyptian desert and the desertscapes of southern Colorado where Heller spends his summers. Here, Heller utilizes the image of sand as representative of text: "grain fixed to speech," "the geometer / who mourned the mirror's lack" . . . "only the colorless semblances of their desires." The word is a pale shadow of an already muted recollection of experience. Of this poem, Heller remarks: “The unwarrantable sermons are what that kind of natural world tells us--remembering that what we derive from that world is already our projection on to it.” The poem is ambiguous without losing any of its clarity. It rewards repeated readings.
So, too, does my other favorite poem from this collection, “Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin.” Benjamin, as most readers of Heller’s work know, is as much an influence on Heller as is Oppen. (In fact, Heller knew of Benjamin’s work prior to knowing Oppen’s). This poem derives from and distils a much longer work, Heller’s libretto for the opera Benjamin, itself derived from Benjamin’s letters, all of it reworked by Heller into the poem's language. The italicized dream portion of the poem (“He climbed a labyrinth, / a labyrinth of stairs, / past other stairways / descending) is almost verbatim from one of Benjamin’s recording of this dream. (In the libretto, it is the very last thing said/sung.) The poem appears to be an extended meditation on the Fall which is also a fall of language, the separation of language from object, as in "unknowable names" that should have been knowable, that might have kept us in an Eden of logos. Yet by that weird alchemy of the lyric, Benjamin’s proclamations and confessions become Heller’s. Benjamin’s lamentations concerning politics and politicians, though they derive from circumstances quite dissimilar from our own, take on an eerie familiarity to our difficult times:
They too have created infinities, blind alleys, endless monuments to
iniquities, a multitude of pains for others to bear.
They will outlive their brief immortality and leave a grubby ration of
(“Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin”).
The same could be said for our last administration, or to the terrorists that startled and excused them into waging two major wars.
In the last poem of the collection, the stark, grief-stricken prose-poem “Mourning Field, Note Card,” Heller (who, when he’s not in Colorado makes his home in New York City) addresses the tragedy of those events on that September day in 2001, a poem which defies clichés or unearned sentimentality. It was rightfully included in the major anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and to this day stands out as a heartbreaking meditation on that day’s implications, not just for the city or the nation, but for humanity itself. For we are all, regardless of our separate identities, contained in this world and subject to history’s machinations, even in the smallest, most imperceptible ways. Walking past the iron railings bordering the walkways plastered with photos of lost family members, Heller observes:
...the faces of lost ones gazed out of photos. Grim details surrounded these: the company worked for, a floor in one of the World Trade Center towers, and saddest of all, identifying body marks, scars and moles. With words, the dead were being washed as in a funeral home, swathed in language, touched in secret places by words that only lovers or family members usually know. The disaster had traduced all intimacy. Similar photos and details papered the city. They covered phone booths and kiosks and were taped to the plate glass windows of storefronts and banks.
Like many faces on the notices, most of those in the park were young. They stood and milled around as young people do. And they spoke, and their writings on the long rolls of paper spoke, with that intensity only the young seem able to summon at such times as these. A few guitars were being strummed, playing old folk plaints of solidarity, weariness and misery. Overheard, the thick canopy of leaves, black against the night, absorbed these sounds, compounded and cupped them in the sickly-sweet smell of incense and burning wax. The crowds had driven off the pigeons, but in Union Square, the notices of the dead flapping in the breeze formed a new immense flock of anguish and grief roosting together.
Heller considers it his obligation as poet is to register these small, nearly imperceptible encounters. He does so with exceptional acuity. His poetry is rare, striking and subtle. Eschaton registers the increasing refinement of this contemporary master.
Eric Hoffman is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which was The Life of An Unfortunate Artist (Rag and Bone Books, 2009). Last year, his George Oppen festschrift All This Strangeness was published in Big Bridge. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.