- Tone-Perfect Poems
304 pages; Print, $18.00
It’s an expensive little book, not a delectable tiny chapbook printed in letterpress with woodcut illustrations, but 291 pages of Michael Heller’s poems written throughout his long and professorial career. They are “selected” from a lifetime’s total (“more than 25 volumes of poetry, essays and memoir,” says the NYRB press release).
The poet George Oppen is quoted on the rear flap of the book, writing “Tone perfect poems — the tone, the scale, note by note, interval by interval — attack on the ‘gods of ennui and loneliness.” This is good enough to be an epitaph on a tombstone, almost as good as Keats’s “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.”
But can we consider for a moment the very idea of “Selected Poems?” The best poems of each separate volume are chosen to reside next to each other, not by the poet’s design or careful through-composing from “cantabile” and “andante” to “allegretto,” but to create a sort of “best of” book for the ages.
This procedure may not lead to a cumulative sense of pleasure and enlightenment. I found myself isolating individual poems for their gravity (“Canonical”) or their spot-on ekphrastic notations on, say, Leon Kossoff’s paintings (“Mother Asleep”), or their lyric sexuality (“Buriana Beach”) though this last poem puzzlingly ends “or what?”
I found a cluster of powerful poems from Knowledge (1979) pages 44-57 — not the Bialystock poems, which are indeed grimly powerful, but the poems about the poet’s mother (“Speculum Mortis”) and son (“At Albert’s Landing”), including “Above Westcliffe,” “Stanzas on Mount Elbert,” and “Mourning by the Sea.”
In “At Albert’s Landing : with my Son,” the poet describes a hike in the woods:
The path winds. You are around a bendUnseen. But your voiceCrackles in the walkie-talkieYou made me bring. “Here’s a leaf, [End Page 23] A tree.” The detail,Not the design, excites you.I don’t know what to say.After months in the city,I’m feeling strange in the woods
As Heller meditates on dead things, on clouds shapes, on his poetry as “a poetry of clouds,” Heller and his son find two white egrets in a pond. His son or he scares the birds, who fly away: “Strange sadness / Grips me. The after-image / Of their shapes still burns.” (Is this, by the way, a reference at all to Eudora Welty’s short story about Audubon shooting such a bird?) The poet’s mood has altered, and he becomes so observant, he can note “And the squirrel, when he eats / Looks like a little man.” The last stanza is philosophical. Heller finds “Different as the woods are / This is not paradise to enter or leave. / Just the real.” It ends with his wish for his son: “Let me know a little of you.”
In “Mourning by the Sea”, there is something new and unusual — the use of rhymes. When these rhymes are aligned with clarity of vision, we find such powerful stanzas as:
The place,The boundary edge —
Where picked from off its ledgeThe polyp dissolvesAt the gull’s stomach wall.
This is not spring; this is not fall—The brush tips all …
It is curious that Heller takes the poetic total of Montale’s work with its evocations of childhood in the Cinque Terre and its love of liminal spaces, and writes about a termite:
Nothing which seems particularly large.The poet catches the mere termiteBusy at its burrowing. Then that fellowDisappears, and only the holeIs left.
All this took was time.And we wonder what it is
That time itself creates or excretesOr simply disappears into. What holeIt leaves.
Another evocatively simple and straightforward poem is “Speculum Mortis,” in which the poet compares his face to his mother’s face in the mirror:
Angled toward you in the glass,Mind wanting easeI think, Mother, we scarcely look alike.
And yet, the “doctor...