The lexicon of music, wedded to ritual and occasion, cannot always accurately describe the effect of poetry, which finds its origins therein. Too bad, because what I really want to do is describe Horror Vacui as a monotonous dirge, which I cannot say without making it sound like a failure, when in fact the book is anything but. A musical monotone cannot be replicated in poetry, since the note is not fully analogous to the temper or mood poetic tone implies. Poetic monotony isn’t about one sound; it’s about either a single subject or a single attitude, achieving the apotheosis of the form when the former and the latter become indistinguishable. Horror Vacui is indeed monotonous in this way, because it is obsessed with death, and these poems are not death-haunted or dusted with a sugary coating of death. Elegies, epitaphs and practice obituaries: death is the text, no sub about it.
This strikes me as thrillingly unfashionable. The book is Heise’s first; I’m used to seeing first books that spin but slightly the postures of the day, and I cannot really imagine anything less respectful of current fashions for an inventive and imaginative poet in his thirties to pursue than a set of poems that contend exclusively with the effect of his father’s death. I hope this proves inspirational in that it demonstrates that one of the ways to arrive at the “new” is simply to commit to whatever compels you. But regardless of its happy deviation from a set of norms of which I’ve grown heartily sick, Horror Vacu offers an often vertiginous account of how death imposes irresistible fact on minds bent on both accommodating and resisting this one inevitable yet impossible truth. The poems often create the same unease they describe, often by the careful, progressive outlay of symbol-rich ‘fact events’ that do not, in the aggregate, achieve an intelligible story. Rather than introduce a symbol to return to it later to reach clarity, Heise just keeps piling them on, one sentence very much like the next, each establishing an action or scene and then abandoning it. It doesn’t take too long for the reader to feel as if they are in dialogue with someone who has just emerged from trauma so severe it’s taken an immediate existential toll. Consider the title poem, which progresses from
These charred acres you have
created: your hermitage I will
inherit in the pages of my most
secret book. A train writes its way
like a dotted line through the white
valley. There is ash in the air, as I go
forth in daylight, as I wade home
at evensong. The moon vibrant
as a rung bell releases birds
from my mouth. In my hand I hold
a tuning fork and clang the weather
vane, I strike my hand on the garden
wall and am returned a dull sound.
to conclude with this:
What shelter shall I assemble against
this? Could I hammer a narrow boat
from this old barn’s frame. Could I
assemble an empty boat from this
old hammered frame? Could I frame
an empty boat for this old body’s
frame? I could frame an empty body
in this old broken frame? Shall I
break an old body to fit this narrow
While I’m impatient with the limited arsenal of symbols (what I’ve come to think of as the Ingmar Bergman Box Set) and the light surrealism, I do appreciate the way this poem allows itself to fall apart, to witness its own undoing. I also see how the perfect monotypic columns (a device Heise uses repeatedly) suggest a firm line drawn around a language impulse that clearly requires strictly applied control, lest the fact events slip into endless, futile self-replication, forever trudging up the hill of the uncanny only to fall back down again, before any evaluative vantage can be reached.
Formally, Heise doesn’t wander too far from the pattern set here, which for a project like this is a wise choice. His style is consistently anaphoristic, with one syntax tending to dominate each poem, and a somewhat understated fondness for assonance drawing the lines through the conclusion of each. When he makes this work to a degree that surpasses the requirements of the syntax, the results can astonish, as in “My Pieta,” a catalogue of the ways in which the son has been held by his father:
He held me bone-tight. He held me backward.
He held me high with the bellows
to smoke the beehive, hanging delicate
as a lung in the branches and bleeding
a half-gallon of honey while he held me. He held me
in the bathtub, scrubbed ashes from my small tongue.
He held me in the pond of his hand,
as if I were a tadpole, and wouldn’t let go.
When it doesn’t work, however (as in “Wreckage,” which likewise catalogues, though here those things that refuse to surface from an intimacy metaphorically dashed to the ocean’s floor: “No boots. / No wigs. / Not your best dress. / Not your nail polish. / Not my worst mood.”) the results are merely distracting, not catastrophic. And while a mid-sized volume by today’s standards — 82 pages — the poems in Horror Vacu that do succeed, do so with such spooky, fevered conviction that the lesser efforts become redundant. Which, I suppose, is the risk of monotony, even monotony redeemed by obsessive attention.
The two poems that best manifest the weird energy of this book distinguish themselves by their interruption of the book’s larger syntactical habits. “Rosary,” a quasi-epistolary in seven sections, occurs in broadly-dispersed fragments that allow the somewhat hermetic symbolism of the other poems a respite from the rhythmic insistence of their earlier incarnations. And in “The Orchard of Orange Trees,” an extraordinary mood piece set in the middle of the book, Heise does what he refuses to do in any of the other poems: he tells a story. Though drunk and doubtful of the animal’s survival, the poet helps a neighbor look for his missing dog, and promptly succumbs the viscerally transfixing conflation of living matter and dead matter characteristic of the near-tropics:
The air smelled of musk, of leaves decaying.
The earth was full of August. We were lost
and the ground was so dark, it was like wading
through water. My legs heavy, completely immersed,
and a noise traveled over the surface.
It was only an irrigation pump in the distance,
flooding one field and draining another.
Though I did not know this, I was there,
so I can say one or two things. The alligators sink
to the bottom, and the current washes them
downstream. Though in the morning you can find
large bands of blood in the water.
And the grass turns red by noon. But it’s gone
after a few days. Especially if it storms.
Stunned by torpor and heat and dread, the narrator summons what he can. It isn’t much, but it’s what keeps him together, if barely. And it’s this property of being barely held together that makes Horror Vacui so striking. Glibness is one kind of control, but it’s a pretty cheap kind, since it is easy enough to keep a chatty distance from something that has no real purchase on your mind. Formal discipline, compulsive repetition: these are other kinds of control, more disturbing ones, disturbing because to whoever exercises them, they represent a line with self-possession one on side and, well, something else on the other. Horror Vacui may concern itself with death, but its sound is that of the poet holding on for dear life.