Heller, Michael (D.)
HELLER, Michael (D.)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 11 May 1937. Education: Miami Beach Senior High School, graduated 1955; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York (managing editor, Rensselaer Engineer, and editor, Bachelor magazine), B.S. in management engineering 1959; City College, New York 1961–63; New School for Social Research, New York (Coffey prize, 1964), 1963–64; New York University, 1970–71, M.A. in English 1986. Family: Married1) Doris C. Whytal in 1962 (divorced 1978), one son; 2) the writer Jane Augustine in 1979. Career: Chief technical writer, Norelco Corporation, New York, 1963–65; part-time teacher of English in Spain, 1965–66; freelance industrial and advertising writer, 1966–67. Since 1967 member of the faculty, now master teacher and academic coordinator, American Language Institute, New York University. Since 1970 teacher and member of advisory panel, New York State Poetry in the Schools program. Poet-in-residence, Keystone College, Pennsylvania, 1979. Contributing editor, Montemora magazine and staff member, Montemora Foundation, New York. U.S. editor, Origin magazine; member of advisory board, Pequod magazine. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1975; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1979, 1986; Poetry Society of America Alice Fay di Castagnola award, 1980; Yaddo Colony fellowship, 1989; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1989. Address: P.O. Box 1289, New York, 10009, U.S.A.
Two Poems. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1970.
Accidental Center. Fremont, Michigan, Sumac Press, 1972.
Figures of Speaking. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1977.
Knowledge. New York, Sun Press, 1979.
In the Builded Place. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1990.
Six Poems. New York, Hot Bird MFG, II (15), 1993.
Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Living Root: A Memoir. Albany, State University of New York Press, 2000.
Editor, Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Orono, Maine, National Poetry Foundation, 1993.
Critical Studies: "Moving Heaven and Earth" by James Guimond, in Parnassus (New York), Winter 1972; "At, Borders, Think" by Alan Williamson, in Parnassus (New York), 1982; "Of Music and Rites" by Lucien Stryk, in American Book Review (New York), 4 (2), 1982; "A Review of Knowledge" by Laszlo K. Gefin, in Sagetrieb (Orono, Maine), Spring 1984; Michael Heller issue of Talisman (Hoboken, New Jersey), Fall 1993; by Norman Finkelstein, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 33 (4), Winter 1998.* * *
The publication in 1972 of Accidental Center announced an authentic, hard-edged, meditative poet of truly contemporary sensibility who worked in the objectivist manner, a poet who exemplified Oppen's "sense of the poet's self among things" and Reznikoff's detailed, literal, compassionate witnessing of the modern city dweller, a poet who knew that
rare and expensive dust
in the amalgam.
For Michael Heller the words represent a process of distillation; they are hard-won, to be treasured and used sparingly. At the same time there is a willingness to follow where the words lead, into darkness, mystery. This is a fundamental recognition, based on his awareness of physical principles, of "how each /word is a shift of matter."
Accidental Center was remarkable in that, unlike most first books, there was a complete absence of that overwriting that masks lack of assurance and control. The poems result from an intense concentration, a focusing on the objective, in Zukofsky's early formulation of objectivist poetry. In fact, the photo image is prevalent in the book—"the moment in the sense" caught and held—almost as if objectivist principles were being given a technical underpinning. Accidental Center is a serious book that takes language seriously. The method of many of the poems is to proceed by means of simple, declarative constructs to form an image as proposition, a logic based on the "thingness of things," on exact observation. The poems are often based on the paradoxical image, provoking us to respond to the artifact as material for a contemporary mythology. Numerous references employing the terms of astrophysics, chemistry, and biology function almost as a traditional mythic or religious gloss, amplifying and expanding the particular emotive context. This can be seen, for example, in "Operation Cicero":
writing of the great light of cities…
these are entropic times
and those bright clusters
in our lives,
in their rot,
are black bodies
and absorb it all
like a woman
on one's bed
who cannot bear the light
The paradoxical quality results also from the contrast between the precision of the scientific terms, economy of language, short lines, and spare style, on the one hand, and the genuine acceptance of a sort of negative capability, on the other. Things, ideas, and emotions—oneself in the world—are not rendered simplistically but exactly as a measure of their subtle relativity and mystery; what we know is a function of how we know.
Heller expresses throughout the poems of Accidental Center an explicit or implicit ontological concern, not in the form of an abstract disquisition but as speculation on the objects that relate to and define the self. The finest example of a poem given over wholly to this concern is the impressive "Meditation on the Coral," in which our existence as city dwellers is explored in terms of the coral, symbolizing in its cellular structure our dependent and communal way of life but also, in its origins in the sea, our atavistic urges "and the warm saline / —as of the birth sac /still a dream."
In addition to the speculative poetry that characterized the earlier book, Heller's second major collection, Knowledge, contains poems that are more discursive, leisurely, and descriptive, though no less formal in intent. Having settled into a style, he is now able to accommodate more immediate and personal concerns without, however, sacrificing intensity. Thus, events that mark the perception of both continuity and change in family relationships—with father, mother, wife, son—become occasions for poems in which the occasion makes its own space and pace. Literalness coexists with irony in a number of these poems, producing a gentle humor. "Bialystok Stanzas" recalls the incisiveness, objectivity, and compassion of Reznikoff's depictions of traditional Jewish life and the Holocaust. But in even as occasional a poem as "On the Beach" Heller never relaxes his gaze. Although the occasion may seem commonplace—"watching square yards of such flesh /Baste itself with oil"—nevertheless, "Even here, amid these minor increments /of peril, one is consoled. In this /Careless resort of life of beaches /Deceptions themselves are a kind of truth."
The energy that informs Heller's poems—and the reason he is so rewarding as a poet—derives from "the world already existing /without a name," in which the impulse is to question, to take nothing for granted, while perceiving what is there, in a very real sense, for all to know. The concluding section of "At Albert's Landing (with my son)" specifies the process of that special knowledge:
Different as the woods are
This is no paradise to enter or leave.
Just the real, and a wild nesting
Of hope in the real
Which does not know of hope.
Things lean and lean, and sometimes
Words find common centers in us
Resonating and filling speech.
Let me know a little of you.
In the Builded Place—referring to a place of structure, the form and formlessness of self—Heller has arrived at a way of playing off several traditions against one another to achieve an impressive poetic structure. The book represents the poet at the height of his powers in his willingness to take risks and therefore to say more than he otherwise might have. The sense of urban angst is tempered and expanded by the Chinese and Japanese poetic, by Zen teachings and attitudes, by the tradition of Jewish humanism and the Jewish experience in America, by Rilke, by the classical tradition, and by the French:
As another legatee of Mallarmé,
I have strained against the tongue
Until the word displaced
The world's foreign body.
Heller alternates the plainsong of the literal, declarative image with an allusive, denser metaphysic, so as
yet to make of this
A blended music.
The poems locate the self with almost scientific precision, but this rigorous exactitude is simultaneously resonant with the possibilities and ambiguities of one man's existence at a given time. This is what gives the poems their peculiar tension, muscular and relaxed by turn, opening up the take of the poems beyond the literal ground.
Though many of these poems are of the city—and a number of others are built upon the technological image—they are of the heart and mind and gut; as buildings seem at first to be constructed of angles and planes, there is yet a life inside them that does not conform to such a fabricated aesthetic. In his meditative vision Heller helps us to discover the self in the effort to see himself clearly.
—Robert Vas Dias