This week we’re featuring a poem from our brand new issue by Thomas Heise. Heise is the author of two books, Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande, 2006) and Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2010). He was awarded the Robert Frost Fellowship in Poetry for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2006, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is an Associate Professor of English at McGill University in Montreal, where he teaches contemporary urban literature, writing, and critical theory.
The two excerpts here are from my manuscript Moth; or how I came to be with you again, a book about the nervous sleep in the great expanse of time. Lyn Hejinian has discussed in “Writing Is an Aid to Memory” how she wanted “to release the flow of accumulated time in syntax and thereby make time happen.” The poems in Moth are also about building time and building the sensation of it passing. But time does not move in a progressive fashion steadily into the future, but is always filled impasses, repetitions, involuntary recalls, and equally involuntary erasures that occur at the shadowy place where the past meets the present and the two become indistinguishable. What I am particularly interested in exploring is the border zone between consciousness and unconsciousness, between then and now, between self and other and self as other. The border is itself not a fixed site, but a moveable one where exchanges occur, where encounters happen (between people, between imagination and language), where some material doesn’t get through and what does flows out in the odd dream logic of condensation and ongoing deferral.
from Moth; or how I came to be with you again
When I was living a short flight from the nearest city in a Mansard house in a state of advanced disrepair but with high attic windows that opened west over a fjord where oyster boats plied the waters at sunrise and sunset, I entered a period of nearly complete isolation in which my withdrawal was such that an entire day would pass without uttering a word. To forestall the dangers of loneliness, I took to long walks downhill to the coastal tidewaters to inspect the channels cut by glaciers in the last Ice Age and then would follow the crags for the afternoon, on occasion encountering a nodding fisher or a woman on a cantilevered patio beating a rug with a broom handle, and as I sat on the dock I would recall reading about the wretched conditions under which the port was constructed and wondered how many of the workers who tumbled into the depths where the temperature hovered just above freezing were preserved at the threshold of metabolism within a few metres of each other. The villages in the immediate area were picturesque without exception, but almost uniformly composed around small harbours of simple red barns and unadorned white clapboard houses whose shutters, come the first of October, were drawn one after another on cue. The region bespoke of a welcomed insularity and few pleasures during the dark winter months, as if life were a matter to be endured, a long sentence one accepted for in such isolated climes—reachable by boat or seaplane—any other world existed in a realm of fancy where only children and strangers resided. The whole landscape seemed to me then sheltered from time, not unlike the exquisitely-detailed glass snow globes that lined my bookshelf, one every Easter wordlessly arriving in the mail in a wooden crate packed with straw and centred like an egg. They were sent from a great uncle I never met but whose whereabouts for several years of my boyhood I could track at some delay on his travels across Europe and to America by marking with a thumbtack on the large map taped to the ceiling over my bed the city or shrine he visited, and though unable as a child to deduce the true purpose for his journeys, I would imagine as I peered into each diorama beneath a ponderous glass one associates with clairvoyants and a base of handcrafted filigreed pewter and silver, which must have doubled the cost, each pilgrimage was for no other reason than to acquire the small treasures he would box and mail without a letter. A train tunnelling through a Christmas storm into the Bavarian Alps. The Black Virgin of Montserrat submerged in an underwater grotto. And two figure skaters beneath the trusses of the Eiffel Tower passing each other on the ribbons of an infinity symbol while a tinny piano solo played if the butterfly key was wound. Etched into its lapidary surface was simply the word Paris. My great uncle’s travels apparently came to a conclusion on a beach in Los Angeles where starfish falling from the sky in a shakeable universe were larger than the young family walking in profile with their terrier. I learned to look upon the world from an insurmountable distance, as if orbiting above or under it as the case may be, attached by a slight tether, which were it to tear would set me adrift backward in space. Writing is a form of travel by which we never arrive. It would take me years to understand that lesson, my cities—London, Istanbul, Reykjavik—were memories to which I could no longer return, for they belonged to someone else in a grey twill suit worn without a tie and a certain elegant blank stare that betrayed none of the circumstances of its origin. Like a planarian cut in half, I would every few years regenerate into a new version, without wounds, without scars, without history marked on my skin, my heart rebuilding its tissue suture by suture. With the relocation to another city, another apartment in an endless series of spaces temporarily inhabited, a few dress shirts wrapped in the drycleaner’s plastic, a few small paintings arranged on the wall in a makeshift life, the soul moving into a new story. That summer I walked the fjord the atmosphere smelt of minerals and ever a threat of snow in the uninhabited upper reaches where the carpet of green was uninterrupted by trees. In the middle of the day I once found myself idle under the awning of a silk flower merchant from Iran, running my fingers over the petals and stems of the magnolias, giant calla lilies, anthuriums, philodendren, so stunned by the quality of their imitation my confused mind worried for a moment they were a patent infringement. On the few occasions when I have been presented with flowers, I have immediately placed them in the light of a window, and proceeded about the daily rituals of boiling water for tea and answering neglected letters, but I always wait in anticipation for the sepals to curl and wilt, to smell their exhaled perfume, and the fallen pollen to dust the sill, noting the day on the calendar, even the hour, at which their vibrancy had begun to putrefy, for it is the peak of their beauty. What a foolish thought. But such was my thinking, as I considered the subtle insult to life of the merchant’s flowers, when I startled on the underside of a leaf a dragonfly which flew up into the sun, and my eyes following after for a split second saw through the stained glass of its wings. Once a woman in Berlin in the midst of a blackout ran her fingers across the indented pages of the journal into which I pressed myself and said they felt like Braille. That summer I lay in bed with my eyes rolled back as if to steal a glimpse of my own thoughts as the curtains in my white room blew over me. For months, I could not think. To think would have been to imagine a future. But my future, I was beginning to understand, lay in the past waiting for me to return by railroad, one word at a time. The early painted stars forming a parabola in the sunset’s stretched latitude that somewhere looped back into a circuit. I recall how years ago one evening when I was sojourning in Rome, I had crossed a courtyard warm with tomato vines and terracotta and a nurse, just released from work, sat on a bench with The Sorrows of Young Werther held high as if advertising the book murmured a few words to herself as I passed through a beaded curtain into the melody of voices where couples had gathered for a drink, while part of me remained behind, perched over her shoulder like a quotation mark, the two of us, and all the others who were uninvited made their appearance and left by a side exit, defined the common space of our listening, the stones settling in the rebuilt campanile, moonlight filtering down like a sonogram over the small enclosed world a dark flowering.