from LIVING ROOT: A MEMOIR
by Michael Heller
And yet poems remind me of the tribe of the gentle Tasaday
who some regard merely as members of another tribe taught
to fool anthropologists with false primitiveness and naivete,
to be blunt in their manners and infernally innocent. No one is sure, as with poems, whether they are real or
a hoax, whether the dictator, in his munificence, created a forest preserve to shelter them as he might set
aside an apartment for a poet in the palace. Forests and palaces, such utopias are mostly exclusionary, like
hotels for the rich, and needn't concern us. It is rainy for a rain forest to house our myths, to shelter our lost
tribes, who, one by one, gather in a clearing. I sometimes think about my lost tribe of jews, American jews,
also part hoax and part invention, whose preserve is sheltered under brick where limousines hum and one
hears the faint, familiar babble of the homeless. As it happens, the Tasaday are being declared
"non-existent" by government scientists so their hardwood
forests can be transformed into chests of drawers. Strange, then, the anthropology of the poet who must
build his poems out of the myths he intends to falsify, who says, look my friend, you are laying away your
laundered shirts in a rain forest.
Note to Some Anthropology:
Cf. The New York Times, January 30, 1988, Letters to the Editor, "What's Behind Strange Tasaday
Hoax Charges:" "As for the T'boli [another tribe of the Phillipines] who say they were paid to be Tasaday,
remember the poverty. Give me a ticket to Mindanao and a couple of hundred bucks and I will produce 500
T'boli who say they are the Congress of the United States."--Kaa Byington .
I consider myself a reasonably robust person, enjoying food, wine, sex, music, the pleasures of hiking in
the mountains or of following aimless wanderjahrs in the large cities of the world. All my
subliminal terrors are associated with my father who died in the babblement of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's
disease--we in the family were never sure which took over in the end. For this reason, I am alarmed when I
discover that I too much resemble him. My unconscious mimicry of his gestures, the way he thought, with
his hand on his chin or plucked at his ear as he spoke, inspire me with fear. What physical rules govern the
poetics of remembrance? Is there, in something beyond fear or understanding, a reverse physics of
onomastics? Can a Michael revert to a Peter, a process of un-naming?
Memory with its strange frightening tricks: I often imagine I'm merely labelling my
own ways and doings as "like" his, a way of preparing for one's own aging and death, of inventing a
rationale for what can't be comprehended. Documents would help, photographs--but who would
photograph his father in his moments of weakness and vulnerability?
And suddenly, I am remembering one of the most ambivalent objects I have made, a
watercolor of my father in his decline, which now hangs on the wall in the room where I am writing this. I
painted it only a few months before he actually entered a nursing home, and here, amid the lightly washed-
in backgrounds of furnishings and walls, my father naps in his easy chair, his feet on a hassock, his hands
over his thighs, hanging limply as I often find my own hands when I am rest. In my fitful unease, I can
imagine a transfer, a kind of bodily receptivity that suggests that the things we make with our hands, our
eyes and heart can also become part of our bodily makeup. "Signs," Julia Kristeva writes, "are what
produce a body... symbolic production's power [is] to constitute soma." With every stroke of the
brush, with every lingering, in poem or text, upon the being of my father, I have haunted his existence into
So when I sit at the desk and write or think, when I imagine a dialogue undertaken, a
letter to be written, a communication with someone else, when I visualize these things, I see also my father
at his desk. I sit his way, I bend over the surface of the desktop, I look down at the paper or the typewriter
as he did. I feel, in the composite set of my muscles, in the position of my bones, the ready, wistful irony of
his own communciations, as though I were living in a curiously vibrating world, me...him, me...him,
me...him. This vibrational space is larger than our individual existences, larger than the psychologist's
view of parental influence, larger than the genotyping of generation upon generation. It seems to me that
at any moment all of what exists can be put into question, that an identity crisis is continually at the mind's
border, particularly concerning the meanings of reality, but that in this questioning one passes, not over, but
through all of one's personal and collective histories rather like a needle piercing many layers of paper. It is
not blank, open space that one moves into, but a space populated by all one knows, knowledge, event.
Memory, as Umberto Eco writes, becomes "the shadow of order," and order is the syntax of the universe.
This is how I live in my father's shadow, not in fear of him, but that I am him.
The word of God and the human word. In this, I suffer with an irony. All naming
and renaming, in our spiritual progressions, lead onward to one name which, strictly speaking, is
unnameable. A curious circle: the arc of a life begins in the imperfect babble of the child. Later, we learn
to speak, to shape predicates of being. In that speaking inhers the possibility of human and psychic growth
which leads again to speechlessness--not that of death which is the end of growth but to an awe and strict
reverence. We perhaps, unwarrantably, elevate the laconic person. His or her silence before adversity
displays not lack but a surfeit of knowledge. Loquaciousness marks the fool or the anxious person, not
someone to lead you out of Hell. But the wise ones, in their silence, counsel plenitude.
One formula: poetry is condensation. The words and images of a poem are laconic
figures in just the way of the wise. Dense poetic compactions, as in Emily Dickinson or in Sappho or in the
struggles not to speak of Paul Celan's minute German syllabaries (where every bit of language
recalls to him that the Shoah is constructed of German): these are great magnets or black holes of
human possibility. They don't make a world; they gather it and, for a moment, in their immense
specific gravity, hold all its articulations.
So too, our histories and memories come in such potent fragmentary instances, in
weighted and isolate images and pictures, each one capable of surmounting all of a world like a crown set
on a mountain peak. We are not merely remembering, but like blind persons and their braille, we feel the
raised surfaces of a glyph.
What, I ask myself, constitutes my un-belief? As I put what I deem my aspirations, what
I would rise to, under scrutiny, I maintain that certain lineaments of my life--of any life are, if not
theological, at least somewhat religious. One is surrounded by the heaven and hell of the modern city, by
the intense glamour and seductiveness of its people and its shops, even by the foetus-like curls of street
people asleep in doorways, by the bent and unhappy riders of subways. These things are, for good or ill, an
incitement to wakefulness, even if it be repellance of the foul bum or lust for the city's sexual beings or
exotic foods. What is religious, after all, are the very things which question the boundaries of our being,
which enable a traverse of psychic chasms, of difference and otherness. Thus, I find in this "awake"
quality the meaning of Jacob Neunser's remark that "Judaism rejoices at the invitation of the secular city."
The modern city is a concentrate of what Eastern religious thought calls "attachment." And without this
world, without its samsaric barb (to continue with non-Western terminologies) there is no nirvana,
no wisdom without confusion. So, too with language. Without silence there is no language, but also,
without babble (Babel), we have no movement from the confused and unintelligible toward legibility and
Did the secular as a category even exist for my grandfather? Asleep, in a sense, in his
assured and monotonous recitation of the Haggadah, my grandfather seemed to efface not only the exact
sense of ritualistic Word but the counterpointing silence by which the ritual meaning becomes articulate.
Belief, for him, was an attained realm, a certainty of being in consonance with some divine principle rather
than a matter of faith to be moment by moment realized.
My mother who did not believe in God, who told me this fact when I was only nine as
we lolled in the shallow waves off the beach at Lummis Park, who said "I am an atheist" under the clearest
of blue skies, when not the merest wisp of haze or cumulus lay in the way between heaven and earth:
My mother, who suffered numerous illnesses, a series of different cancers, a bad heart,
and finally a death dealing stroke, my mother, who yet outlived three of her doctors and led an active and
social life, who had closets of dresses, who walked with dignity up steps taking ten seconds to rest at each
landing, this mother was immensely proud of her teeth. In the morning and in the evening, she spent
many minutes in the bathroom flossing and brushing; at night, while we children lay in bed, we could hear
her gargling. My mother pestered the butcher for soup bones which she would boil up, not for soup, but to
chew on. My mother, who was very conscious of her appearance and so dressed smartly and even
elegantly on most occasions, would sit by herself at the diningroom table in the late afternoons with a
large billowing napkin tucked into the neck of her housedress and gnaw like a dog on those cooked bones.
When out having lunch with a friend or with us, she always excused herself at the end of a meal and
retired to the ladies' room to brush her teeth. How astonishing her pride in those teeth while the rest of her
body was failing her.
On the Day of Atonement, when the litany of Jewish suffering is recited in the
synagogue and as a young child, just after the Second World War aware of the Holocaust, and feeling the
entire world massed against Jews, feeling my own vulnerability, when the rest of the family engaged in the
ritual fasting, in bringing neither liquid nor food to one's lips and mouth, my mother, because of her
health, was required to eat, and so, required herself to brush her teeth. In the temple, surrounded by all the
fasting relatives and family friends, in a cloud of bad breath, only my mother's mouth as she kissed me had
Snow glides down in the west Forties.
Like a child, I could lick the snowflakes
from my wrists. In storms,
bums will nibble at the wood of tenement doorways.
The weather precipates dreams, fantasies, I too
have my dreams of the snow's purity,
of its perfecting worlds, so little like my own.
Could I be a gentleman of this snow, my calling card
one evanescent flake to place upon a blemish?
Frankly, I'm delighted with a new scientific proof:
at any moment at least two places on the globe
must experience similar weather. Hence my
Palestine and hence my joy. Baudelaire
watched the Negress in the street stomp her feet
and imagine date palms. I don't want the territory,
just the intensity of a visit. Sh'ma Yisrael, only
the symbol world holds you and me or I and Thou.
Sh'ma Palestine, aren't you always where snow falls.
My Palestine, which means I love one woman,
so why not two? Which means I love that distant sky
and the lovely irritants of my inner eye. My tears
for what in life is missed. The Red Sea of my philosophy
will irrigate with salt these barren lands.
Does snow fall there too?
Always somewhere else, and always held by someone else...
Sweet figs, sweet thighs to Suez or Port Said.
But when snow falls one's place is yet another place.
In that salty biblical sweetness, why avenge?
Grief is vectored north, east, west, the Wailing Wall.
Why avenge? Terror has cast its rigid mask,
and with fraternal semblance, transformed all
into sisters and brothers. Why avenge?
Only the dead wear human faces.
Yea, though I am not lifted out of sorrow,
yea, though the opus of self-regard endoweth me
for nearly nothing, I have not forgotten snow. I
have no more forgotten snow than other poets forget
time or blackbirds. I have, with love, put the snow aside,
I have let the snow melt so that I may envision Judea
as a stately gentile lady, a crusader, a crusade.
I am so far away,
yet for Americans
distances are musical.
So I am near. I am with snow
which softens the city in which I live.
I am in the Forties and the snow glides down
and fills all the niches that lie between
the living and the dead.
Note to Palestine:
Vid. "Accidental Meeting With an Israeli Poet" and the note for that poem.
Also, to the onomastics of renamed nations, to combined and divided loyalties by which the poet
becomes historical witness. Jew/American. Israel/Palestine. The world does not correspond to, even
escapes, from one's attempts to pin it down to language. Man the language user is man the inevitable
creature of dualisms.
As a 'political' poem strives to rise above its occasion sub specie eternitatis, it must speak
in the language of historical particulars, it must redeem each day, as Benjamin put it, as though it were the
Day of Judgment. The truth of our judgment days, the end of our days on earth, brings with its biblical
message, the actuality of our human temporality, the finality and even frustration of having thought we
owned something, most of all a land. And yet, if my "Palestine" is full of dualities of place, of names and
of intentions, yet, as with the weather theory which I found discussed in the NY Times, there must be
places far apart which are joined by similar psychic "weathers," mentalities and sympathies--poetry would
seem to be based upon them--which would then open channels for mutual understanding and cessation of
violent struggle. Possession need not go much further. Against that view is the spectre of a final struggle
in which death joins all humanity in a night of silence.
"Section VI": Isaac Rosenfeld, American music critic, remarked that Americans
loved the themes of exile and alienation because for them "all distances are musical."
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Light and Dust
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Heller
Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry