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These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

In the Editorial to the current issue (71) of Tears in the Fence I have quoted from Michael Heller’s autobiographical account of his early years, Living Root, A Memoir (S.U.N.Y. 2000) and as I look at the elegiac exactness of Peter Huchel’s poems as translated by Martyn Crucefix I am struck again by what I had read from the American poet’s concern for the “ritual forms and objects” associated with his Jewishness:

“As a child in the early nineteen forties, six or seven years old in Miami Beach, even as I sat, sunk deep in the velvet plush seats of Temple Emmanuel on Washington Avenue, feeling the rapture of the ritual occasions, I sensed I was climbing a cliff face, the very physiognomy of otherness, the pathways of memory by which I skirted the fragile edging of the present.”

Remembering his grandfather, a rabbi and teacher, he recalled how “all ceremonies were woven into one continuous chant, a swift, impelled, if muffled, music”. Heller then went on to recall his father’s more secular concern for the seriousness of each word as though he “tried to feel its exactness, like a solid object held in his mouth”.
The reason for my recalling the focus upon that exactness of particular observation was Karen Leeder’s introduction to these fine and moving new translations of Huchel’s poetry in which she refers to the German poet as being committed to the “particularity of things”:

“…he is a poet for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence.”

Huchel’s poetry has resonances of “voices, / sent on ahead through sun and wind” and in the title poem ‘These Numbered Days’, a title taken from the Book of Isaiah, he offers us a sense of measured loss:

“and the rattling wake of leaves,
before the river
stows fog among the reeds.”

Peter Huchel is a poet “for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence” (Leeder) and among the numbered days of an irretrievable past we are urged to put aside the very particularity which the poet’s lyric skill can magically create:

“So forget the town,
where under hibiscus trees
the mule is saddled in the morning,
its girth tightened, saddlebags full,
women gathering round the kitchen stove,
where wells slumber still in rain.
Forget the path,
stunned by the odour of philadelphus,
the narrow doorway,
where the key lies under a mat.”

Commenting upon the poem ‘The Dipper’, that water-bird which seeks its food below the surface of the pond, Karen Leeder draws our attention to the poet’s reaching down to the roots that connect the natural world with a “darker realm, of earth, death, and memory”. She salutes the translator’s powerful ability to communicate to us the fetching back of something “that will counter the misery of the moment.”
This retrieval of particularity from beneath the surface, the seeking of what is below the water, is haunted throughout these poems by the image of drowning. It is no mere chance that a poem ‘On the Death of V.W.’ (Virginia Woolf) should appear so close to one which is titled ‘Ophelia’ and that the deeply moving elegy addressed to ‘M.V.’ (the poet’s father) should open with a vanishing beneath the waves:

“He vanished—
the room is empty,
the oven cold,
the bottles crane their necks.
He left nothing behind
as if a footprint in sand,
a spill of ice in winter.”

In the introduction we are alerted to some biographical details of Peter Huchel’s life and the way in which he fell victim to the division of Germany after 1945:

“As a consequence, his writing life was pitched against the twin threats of silence and political dogma, notably during the years he spent in the former GDR, or East Germany.”

It might also be pertinent here to recall that other great writer from East Germany, Christa Wolf, whose Model Childhood brings to the surface the alarming thought that “an unused memory gets lost, ceases to exist, dissolves into nothing”. And as if to echo these words we have what Leeder heralds as one of the significant qualities of Martyn Crucefix’s abilities as a translator:

“The exquisite sound echoes in Martyn Crucefix’s translation (dipper, flowing, pick, fish, relinquish) seem to ripple through the poem like the dipper through water. Then there is the sleek reaching down through darkness, undergrowth, roots, water, stones, to the core of things to fetch up something perfect, a word.”

Ian Brinton, 16th March 2020

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton proposed the term dianoiology for that portion of logic which deals with dianoetic processes of the mind: the thinking through of ideas. For a writer this may well involve what Michael Heller refers to as the ‘breaking apart’ of ‘clods of what was named’ because after all language is the ‘hardest / of earths, each word narrowing…’. So many of these poems in Dianoia deal with stasis and movement and they are deeply moving testimony to an artist who has spent a lifetime trying to let stillness convey fluidity.
In ‘Visiting Brigflatts with Ric’, written in memory of Ric Caddel, the opening lines plunge the reader into a memory:

‘Your car chugging up the pass
into snow’s unseasonal bursts,
all the while sun shining overhead,
then a plunge down to Bunting’s grave,
stone of Quaker plainness…’

The movement of that opening line followed by the unusual nature of the weather hardens out into ‘stone’ which in turn will become ‘austerity of row upon row.’ The picture we are given of Ric Caddel is of ‘an elm’s rooted trunk / or northern stone pillar’ but the metamorphosis of this poem’s language, the stasis of what is memorialised, is given fresh movement in the last line with ‘currents animating earth’. And there we have it! The poet at work!
In ‘Lecture’, we move between an account of the German artist Max Beckmann’s painting ‘Tot’ and the Number 30 London bus being blown up in July 2005. We move between the Japanese poet Bashō who ‘travels along paths and byways’ producing ‘spontaneous evocations in poetic form, haiku, linked haiku’ and the American poet George Oppen who writes of a highway accident with ‘The wheels of the overturned wreck / Still spinning – ’. As Heller looks closely at the photographs of both the London bombing and of a bus blown up is Israel he notes

‘No need here to go into “visual” languages, semiotics, etc. We’re talking about what gets communicated across the special loneliness between you and me and I and it.’

Referring again to Bashō and his journal writings in Narrow Road to the North Heller gives us one aspect of the artist caught in a moment: ‘that impression of spontaneity is part of the art of it’. He quotes the short piece of Bashō which evokes the memory of the heroic death of Lord Sanemori, an ageing warrior who dyed his hair to disguise his age, and whose helmet was carried to the shrine that the Japanese poet has just passed:

‘I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’

The living quality of stillness is central to Michael Heller’s art and in the opening page of ‘Lecture’ he focuses upon his own walking in which he is accompanied by all that makes him who he is. He walks with Bashō, ‘stopping at a shrine, experiencing awe and reverence, the surround of mountain peak and foliage, the pines he likened to solitary figures’. The image from the Japanese is part of who he is as he moves through a living world of gone things. Focusing on the July bombings in London he writes of the world of the here-and-now and how it impinges upon who we are:

The self. That’s what got me going here, the self alone against murderousness, the sudden “nearness” (I don’t know how else to put it) to random murder perpetrated by others against innocents.’

The Number 30 is the bus that often carried the poet from Islington to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum. ‘Had we arrived a day earlier…’. The sense of how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us is central to the vision:

‘…My sense that A can morph into B,
tenuous nets of companionship, that we ride
like they ride who elsewhere are killed.’

Heller writes that ‘We are exposed / to the possibility of unplanned ruin’ and he seems partly to echo Paul Auster’s comment at the opening of In the Country of Last Things:

‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.’

The bitterness of the narrator in this apocalyptic novel from 1987 is, however, far different from Michael Heller’s determination to make the moment live, to give stasis currency and it seems appropriate to conclude not only with that image of ‘currents animating earth’ but also with the short poem Ric Caddel wrote for John Riley, the Leeds poet who was murdered in 1978:

‘What in the world we see
is what’s important. There
the days seemed shorter and our hearts
spun with the compass under

trees, magnificent pointers
out of galaxies. Continental drift,
an appointment we were late for,
an old friend missed.’

My review of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Curley & Kimmelman, has just appeared in the current issue of PN Review.

Ian Brinton 7th May

George Oppen

George Oppen

Eric Hoffman’s new book, George Oppen: A Narrative is one of those compelling books that simply takes one over. Hoffman’s introduction celebrates the connected nature of art and biography as he asserts, boldly and with no apology to the contemporary world of criticism ‘To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand the life from which it came.’ In dealing with the importance of the years of political focus which occupied the lives of both George and Mary Oppen we are presented with the fundamental importance of the world of poetry as the 1950s encouraged the same convictions that had resulted previously in a creative silence. Almost as if in response to Heidegger’s 1946 essay ‘Why Poets?’ for George Oppen ‘Poetry provided a way out.’

 

This book not only tells the story of George Oppen but also provides us with some convincing close readings of the texts and this concentrated engagement with the words of the poems themselves brings to our attention one of the phrases Hoffman uses early on: ‘Such a refreshingly measured, carefully weighed and painstakingly crafted verse is especially welcome in an era of countless ephemeral information.’ Poetry is a way of thinking and we are given a compelling sense of how the defining poem of the 1960s, an equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s seminal 1920s modernist poem ‘The Waste Land’, may well be ‘Of Being Numerous’.

 

It is most appropriate that the Preface to this new Shearsman publication should have been written by Michael Heller whose own poetry and prose featured a year ago in Tears 56: ‘For the reader of  the poetry, Hoffman’s narrative carries a kind of electrical charge as event after event becomes both potential and flashpoint for a poem or induces a meditation on the act of writing and remembering.’

 

This November publication from Shearsman is £14.95 and can be obtained via the website www.shearsman.com

 

Ian Brinton December 27th 2013

Michael Heller’s Collected Poems 1965-2010

Michael Heller’s Collected Poems 1965-2010

Collected Poems: Michael Heller Nighboat Books; Distributed by UPNE (www.upne.com)

From his early spare poems written in Spain to the recent ruminative work exploring language, tradition (often Jewish and diasporic) and the self, this book collects four decades of Michael Heller’s “tone perfect poems” as George Oppen described them. Enriched with the detailed landscapes of the phenomenal world and mind, This Constellation Is A Name confirms Michael Heller’s place at the forefront of contemporary American poetry.

An article on Michael Heller’s work including his seminal book on the Objectivists, Conviction’s Net of Branches, his essays in Uncertain Poetries and his edition of Carl Rakosi, Man and Poet will appear in Tears in the Fence 56.

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