presented by Raluca Tanasescu
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MICHAEL HELLER (b. 1937) is an American objectivist poet, of Jewish and Romanian origins, who has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays and memoirs. His newest book is This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010. Other recent works include: Eschaton (2009), a book of poems, and Beckmann Variations & Other Poems, a work in prose and poetry (2010). His collection of essays on George Oppen, Speaking the Estranged, was published in 2008. An expanded edition was published in 2012. His many awards and honors include prizes from The New School for Social Research, Poetry in Public Places, the New York State CAPS Fellowship in Poetry, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize of the Poetry Society of America, a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fund for Poetry. For many years, he was on the faculty of New York University and has taught at The Naropa University, The New School, San Francisco State, Notre Dame and other universities. His papers are collected in the Stanford University Libraries.
Weren’t you given a text? To honor the congregation, the organ dulcet,
the cantor’s hum, hymnal of Europe’s East, steps of sound made fugal
but laden with a weariness (joy for another day), history transmogrified
into plaint upon plaint, to be ushered into manhood, to be brought other’s pain.
Early on, the Shekinah gone into exile. Most of that century you saw
not love but power, cruelty, the face which laughs against the sun.
What could you do if you were not steeped in things like the others
but merely walked to buy milk or bread, heaven above, earth below,
to visit the old streets, the elm’s grainy seeds lying across paving stones,
tourists milling and the Atlantic past the bridge brilliant as a sword cut.
Saline, solute, salve, this art burning to base metal. What carries one
who would sing a hymn but eddies of language–never the pure thing–
maelstroms and tidal pools, word-forms, the will hemmed in like an ocean
to its basin, rhymed to the rack of its tides. 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. Put down this cloth, said the rabbi.
Cover the text and emplace the cap. Live neither in blacks nor whites.
Avert from the scroll rising above the earth, gaze upon limitless blue,
the inventive weaving of clouds. Live straight ahead. Appearance
will be your pain and mentor. Be at the threshold, not at the Ark.
And later, to go back to plucking a word from the weave,
lamé, silver, deep magenta, designs mazed over the fold, lines and margins,
and underneath, as though one sensed through flesh, the delicate structure
of beths and vavs on parchment, the inner and outer of secrets.
On A Phrase of Milosz’s
He is not disinherited,
for he has not found a home
He has found vertiginous life again, the words
on the way to language dangling possibility,
but also, like the sound of a riff on a riff,
it cannot be resolved. History has mucked this up.
He has no textbook, and must overcompensate,
digging into the memory bank if not for the tune
then for something vibratory on the lower end of the harmonics.
He’s bound to be off by at least a half-note–here comes jargon
baby–something like a diss or hiss. Being is
incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward.
Yet, once the desperate situation is clarified, he feels
a kind of happiness.
Later, the words were displaced and caught fire, burning syllables
to enunciate the dead mother’s name.
(Martha sounding then like “mother”)
Wasn’t it such echoes that built the city in which he lives,
the cage he paces now like Rilke’s panther?
He was not disinherited.
He was not displaced
He is sentimental, hence he can say a phrase like his heart burst
The worst thing is to feel only irony can save
The worst thing is to feel only irony.
Lecture with Celan
How many know
the number of creatures is endless?
So many know,
only a gasp in their questions is possible.
All that fullness–
of wounds that won’t scar over,
persisting in the memory.
What sets one free
within the sign and blesses the wordflow
Not literature, which is only for those
at home in the world
while air is trapped in the sealed vessel,
contained in our
containment, our relation to earth.
syntax of the real, riddling over matter,
more difficult to ken
than the talmudic angelus. Thus what black
butterflies of grief
at this leaf, at this flower? Already you
have moved over ground
beyond past and future, into a strange voicelessness
close to speech,
both dreadful and prophetic–all else utility
and failure. And now,
the work builds to a word’s confines,
to a resemblance of lives
touching the history of a rhyme between earth and dying.
A Dialogue of Some Importance
One’s hand. Its whole existence.
Miniscule things it seeks to grasp.
the hand that moves to touch,
lost by the mind before it moves,
so who propels it thus?
Her nipple. A crumb. The furled edge of a tissue.
Surely there is some charm to rolling bread
into small resilient balls, casting them off
the fingertips to squawking ducks.
is it only an emissary,
a move of a heart in flight,
to mark where, in outward scenery,
it seeks to lodge itself?
Often, I am swamped by incredible pleasure,
by the wild connection a thing makes between
my thumb and finger, as though desperately alive
in some galvanic dance. Ouroboros tastes his own tail,
self love? love’s self?
who guides a hand knows
the horror of attached.
but I have made deities
out of the lint of carpets,
metallic granules and snotballs,
especially out of lost eyeglass screws.