- In Pursuit of It
Jon Curley & Burt Kimmelman, eds.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
190 Pages; Print, $70.00
“Truth Also Is the Pursuit of It”—George Oppen
The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory, edited by Burt Kimmelman and Jon Curley, is a collection of eight essays with an Introduction and Afterword followed by an interview with the poet. It proposes to show that Michael Heller is an important poet, one whose journey is a model for those unable to embrace modernist or deconstructivist esthetics. It is a secular tale best told in the language of faith to describe a poet’s dark night of the soul. Heller’s was not the Christian union with transcendence, but devekuth, a confrontation with it. The result is a perspective referred to here as “nomadic memory,” rooted in the freedom to interrogate its own experience. In the face of a bankrupt aesthetic often indistinguishable from pop/commercial product, Heller advocates a poetics that prioritizes clarity, relevance and authenticity. Every essay examines a different aspect of his journey. The cumulative impact is Rashomonic.
Jon Curley’s “Introduction” charts Heller’s life and work over a fifty year span starting with A Look At the Door with the Hinges Off (2006), and better known collections such as Accidental Center (1972) and more recently Eschaton (2009) and This Constellation Is a Name, Collected Poems 1965-2010 (2012), but also important lesser known Beckman Variations and Other Poems (2010), In the Builded Place (1989), and the seminal, Earth and Cave (2006): Poems from 1966 set in Nerja, on the Spanish coast near Malaga.
Heller was born in 1937, of Jewish parents with roots in Bialystok, who immigrated to New York City, and then to Miami where he was raised. He graduated in 1959 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in engineering. While working as a technical writer, he met a former student of Louis Zukofsky, which led to a workshop taught by Kenneth Koch at the New School in 1964. The following year he and his first wife pulled up roots and settled in Nerja, Spain. In “Earth and Cave,” Heller finds himself a stranger. His most intense moments are those alone in the campo: “…no one is here, the rocks dance in the heat. For whom?” The nomad mind harbors such questions. Heller’s time in Nerja can be viewed as prodromal.
Returning from Spain by sea in 1966, Heller experienced his dark night of the soul. Assumptions he’d made as a poet that moved him to leave New York no longer felt real. He was enveloped by uncertainty. Henry Weinfield writes about this moment, starting with Heller’s own account. Rolling with the waves, listening to the wind, Heller picks up a book and reads a line from Oppen’s poem “Leviathan,”
Truth also is the pursuit of it.” I read the line over and over, like a chant, feeling a raw ache in my chest. What did the words mean to me? I had only the vaguest idea, but also a sense of wanting to weep. I calmed myself down and began to decipher my response. I took the ‘it’ of the line as art, hunger, the clarification of the very confusions I was experiencing.
Back in New York, he continued to distance himself from his earlier work, and stopped writing altogether for a year, until he met and became friends with George Oppen, foremost of that group known as The Objectivists. Romana Huk in “Writing in the Danger Zone,” cites Heller’s essay “Oppen’s Thematics [what are poets for?],” where he responds to Oppen’s injunction, “We must talk now.”
…we must be in conversation, ‘talk’…‘Fear/ Is fear,’ Oppen writes, ‘But we abandon one another.’ Without the ‘talk’, without poetry, we have no way to place ourselves outside of that fear… [End Page 21]
Weinfield suggests that both men knew the “urgencies of speech [should be] tempered or mitigated by awareness of the inadequacies of language.” Perhaps this awareness drew Heller to...