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Patrick Pritchett reviews

Exigent Futures: New and Selected Poems, by Michael Heller

Salt Press, 2003; $16.95; 180 pp.; ISBN: 187685751X
This piece is 1,400 words or about four printed pages long.

From the outset Michael Heller has taken up the task of poetry with a power of brevity and an acuteness that are themselves the very markers for the immensity of the burden of language, the address to language, in language, that is the poem. He has, after Oppen, ‘chosen the meaning of being numerous.’ But he has done so with a resolute trimness, a disciplined avowal to say the poem only as it says itself, and no more.

In the difficulties of the rough seas
of the passage — for that
is what is was — a thing to be endured

In the blindered shuttered salon
as the heart jumped
when the rose
and its fluted vase
fell to the deck

against which, a wild sea
& wild dolphins ...
and miscalculation.

The crisp diction and sharply calibrated cadences of ‘The Difficulties’ offer the kind of pleasure we might expect from a poet steeped in Objectivism. Indeed, they are hallmarks of Heller’s keenly intelligent style. But the final two lines deliver a mot juste that is as richly compelling as it is disturbing. The suggestion that relationality itself may be predicated on a miscognizance — that all our forms of relating are a kind a mis-seeing — is pivotal to Heller’s piquant sense of an overarching order of loss in which we move and breathe.

Across the years, this unflinching commitment to seeing into the heart of things has made him one of our most eloquent poets — a scrupulous craftsman capable of endowing the poem with a resonant melancholy for the daily departures that haunt us all. The appearance of his selected poems, Exigent Futures, is a signal event, gathering the work of four previous volumes, and adding a handful of new work, some of his most exquisite to date. As the collection’s title implies, the poem itself comes forward in response to our pressing need for a future that must remain open to the redemptive possibilities that language carries.

The note Heller sounds throughout Exigent Futures is of the ache inside the word, the aloneness of logos in the lateness of the hour. Concerned with recuperating what’s been lost, these poems articulate with remarkable sensitivity the manifold pressures of a presence — what is here, then gone — that bathes us in its aura even as it cancels itself out. Grace, a force generated by the poem’s willingness to interrogate and recover absence, however fitfully, is as good a word as any for what makes this continual diminishment bearable. As he asserts in ‘Aphasia,’ the final section of ‘At The Muse’s Tomb,’ truth itself no universal category, but a momentary perception that floods us like a brief flare.

Bleached one, O muse, I think of you, your silences where the throat catches on emptiness, that free flight into the wordless.

O teacher, the sky’s light is fading, and I have sought that one place, speechless to the moon, an omen blossoming at its own edge, a bizarre portraiture in the rush of things portentous.

Bleached one, what was strategy?

What was truth?

The plangent lucidity, the glass through which the light flowed.

Or perhaps grace is only another name for aphasia. Perhaps it bleeds off from that affliction, that is the poem’s true inner condition, an engendering pathology that structures all utterance so that whatever is most beautiful will always carry the imprint of its own maimed confusion, revealing in its ungovernable play the blurring of signifiers and signifieds the way glass admits and filters light.

Heller realizes that among the many registers for our sense of solitude amidst the numerous perhaps the most poignant is that of being alone in language, a flaneur of its endless twilight boulevards. This feeling of isolation is the exact opposite of a collapse into narcissism. On the contrary, it comes about as a response to the pressures of history and the burdens of transmission, a burden which Jewish poets of the past one hundred years have registered keenly in a variety of ways. In ‘Incontinence’ he writes:

and thought itself
catches on the nothingness

      the broken open-
      ness of space

      that finds us
      most ourselves

Inside the caesura of such a brokenness Heller has built a home for human longing, its finitudes and its hunger for the beyond that both encloses and exposes it. By entering this nothingness, which is the constitutive risk of already dwelling on the earth — call it the burden of consciousness or the task of history — we take up the needfulness of futurity itself. Poetry arises from this emptiness, pressing on us the with the weight of a response we are continually learning to form.

There is a simplicity and a humility that scores Heller’s work deeply; the grain of words themselves etched with the patience of the person who lives in the shadow of language’s unfathomable mercy. To measure the pulse of that mercy, its quietudes and its seizures, is to utter a kind of heartbreak of redemption. Heller achieves such power with extraordinary economy, as at the end of ‘A Night for Chinese Poets:’

Messenger of the conjure-god, my bed’s sweet
Ghost. I want to cry like one possessed
That this emptiness bears a shred-end of you
Into the room, that the heart is no less
For the page alone.

Or again, at the close of the haunting ‘Water, Heads, Hamptons,’ the note of mercy is heightened to a spare, yet radiant, sense of abundance, a gratitude, almost, for what we are given to hold and to say.

                              Objects, you
no longer offer up yourselves for ceaseless dictation,
no language anyway, our mouths are on each other.
Some lord of silence rises with stars and planets ...

The end of speaking is never the same as its absence. Even the absence of language signifies to a mute presence. Silence arises as the necessary condition for utterance, but all the utterance in the world can never efface the silence. And utterance, even when ceased, goes on affirming the grace of silence to say us at our most intimate, in the erotic colloquy of two faces proffering to one another a regime of tenderness, as Levinas would call it, performing the a profane radiance.

Our aloneness in language and the redemptive resonances it puts into play is reiterated in Heller’s moving elegy for the late Armand Schwerner, ‘Winter Notes, East End.’

a dog howls, and self-knowledge is suddenly
the heat of an immense banked fire. Gone now,

names sequent to things unnamed. The blank page

no mystery. Composition is, composition is ...

What we go to the poem for, Heller suggests, is not only the music of the words and the freight they carry, but the pauses in the poem’s breathing that mean a continuing, ‘the relieving aura,’ as he puts it, that lifts the voice in love past concept and into — what? The field of the open, of its radical disclosures, its apertures enunciating the work of composition as a mode, not of writing, but of being? The place where we find ‘the nothing full,’ where pleroma and void conjoin in a chiasmus that crosses grief and elegy with love and a voice reciting in the night.

The beautifully calm and pitch-perfect lines of Exigent Futures describe the arc of a transfiguring melancholy, a sadness of the sinking west and its great cities where ruin, as Benjamin said, may be experienced as pleasure. But the pleasure of these poems is not the quick gratification of some passing sensation. At once grave and uplifting, these poems are serene meditations on time, decay, and loss that recover from the ruin a repletion that is also a recognition of our necessary incompleteness before the world and language. Out of the slippery weave of words and the multiple registers of eros they seek to secure some sense of stability against the perpetual undertow of events, of the listing body and the slow fade of memory. They suggest, in the most elegant way, that form is perhaps nothing more than the continual enactment of our anxiety about time and an ongoing redemption of the silence that enfolds us even as we lie to within it.

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