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Michael Heller Three Poems


The labels.  Proust says they’re price tags,
what they cost the poet who wants his Xs
and has to screw his Ys.  Imagine some
astronomer blotting out stars on the map
of a constellation, galaxies off in infinity
obscured by erasures.  Imagine
it’s a matter of taste, the urgent choice
of bon mot or objet d’art for art’s sake
fleeting and fleeing the corseted gap
between navel and pelvis, between the warp
of this or that, today or tomorrow, just another
tomorrow creeping in, time’s backhanded wave
settling into eddy.  Why did Benjamin’s angel
look homeward to catastrophes, and armless
Niké in the vestibule seem to flutter wings
as though to soar upward beyond
the Louvre’s sandy stonework.


Our grim cruel machines.  Read Milton on Euripides
—the tragedian’s verse in Elektra charmed Sparta
to spare Athens, but then there’s Milton, his
On the Late Massacre . . . asking God to avenge
“Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold”
whom the Piemontese “roll’d Mother
with Infant down the Rocks.”  This grimy machine
of poetry, portioning off the logos proclaimed divine.
When did poets not live in destitute times,
nourished, nuanced on decades of bloody
adventures?  Pull down thy vanity.  IT COHERES,
the works of man in the work of lyric salve, solvent,
no key to unlock hidden bliss or faintest hope.
No exemption for that poet who wrote
of the Messiah arriving on a tank, nor for that other
who began each pitch into the doom machine
with a pastoral, urban in its love of sunsets
through bridgeworks, music of jazz, blues,
city scene spiraling from streetscape
to the planes that blew out skylines and littered
plazas with those who jumped from heights
—medieval, a few speared on metal palings
or the trees’ forked branches.  New strange fruit.
Yet no logic nor words could divide us, plein air,
nor would Cartesian symmetry balance the sharp passions
of our bodies.  We sang, we sang our masking music
flowing cleanly through the self; we counter-sang abide
with me, kol nidre, Om chant, Blake’s psalm, all Kiddush, kid-ish.


Where to put the whole life?
Can one put it anywhere?

On the page, it can’t be looked at,

because there was a war,
and the father already wore khakis,

and there were frigid winters
and mother’s hair black as the Hudson.

Then her heart knocked badly.
Could you see the life, the whole life?


Interregnums of night and absence.

One’s companions: the radio’s green eye,
the animals hidden in sofa cushions’ shapes.

The steam pipes knocked in the house;
in the school, the steam fogged glass.


Then came the warm south.

The whole light of Florida, pink buildings,
sun, green, water. Salt cakes the inner life.

Your hopes bleed into adolescence.
Every day, every day.  The library,

the young body you dream about.

Everything waits, as if a god
puts off convincing reason and passion.


The return is to a different cold, to the word as connection.
Star utter, quantum utter.  Laughter and humiliation.

You are at last home, re-branded, re-buried in the libraries,
in bituminous air.  Now the years seem folios of paper,

thicker than reams pierced by memory’s spike.
Parents dead, the work re-orphans you,

each word displaces toward dark and light.
About love, you’ve hardly said anything.

This is an exercise, an exorcism.
You can’t look—what is there to see?

You loved the ghosts of pasts not one’s own,
the romance with honorable images,

the correct, the courageous, the words
that leak sepia into the present.

Michael Heller has published over twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction. Telescope: Selected Poems is forthcoming from New York Review Books. His most recent publications are Constellations of Waking (2019), a libretto-poem based on the life of Walter Benjamin. Dianoia (2016), This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (2012), Beckmann Variations & other poems (2010) and Eschaton (2009). A Selected Poems in French translation, Dans le signe, appeared in 2016. His collection of essays on George Oppen, Speaking the Estranged (2008), was republished in 2012 in an expanded edition. Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics, was reissued in 2012. A critical study of his work, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory appeared in 2015 from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
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