Poets Michael Heffernan and Thomas Lynch are teaming up for a few appearances in northern Michigan this week. The dynamic literary duo will kick off their Notable Books Tour on Monday, May 16th, 2011, at Petosky’s McLean & Eakin as part of their Yellow Chair Series, followed by several other stops dotting the northern part of the state.
While I happen to love poetry, honesty forces me to admit that I’m not the most able when it comes to its interpretation. Therefore, I have happily turned to fellow blogger Maggie Lane (Poem Elf)* to share her views on Michael Heffernan’s latest work, At the Bureau of Divine Music. Heffernan’s book was published in March and is part of the Wayne State University Press’ stunning Made in Michigan Writers Series.
At the Bureau of Divine Music by Michael Heffernan
– review by Maggie Lane
If one morning travel guru Rick Steves woke up bitten, in spite of the mosquito netting on his hammock, by the poetry bug, and upon finding himself unable to write a single sentence of his usual clear and cheerful prose, decided to give over to his new muse, what he’d write might sound like this:
Never fail to go as far from home
as you can find the means to get
. . . I had to move,
at least to put new things in front of me
if not to make another kind of home
if home was what I wanted in the first place
The lines are from Michael Heffernan’s new collection At the Bureau of Divine Music. Heffernan, like Steves, is a world traveler, a restless spirit for whom “home” is not a refuge but a place which must be left behind. The urge to inhabit new spots on the ever-alluring space-time continuum is too great for Heffernan to stick in one locale or even one gender for long in this entrancing new collection of poems.
And move around he does, from a café in postwar Paris to boyhood days in Detroit to Russia to Macedonia to Shreveport to a place, perhaps imaginary, with the lovely name of Kittythorpe. Always his imagination is flitting back to the past and jumping ahead to the future. Restlessness is a trait he shares with many of his characters, some of who appear in masterful dramatic monologues: travelers, dreamers, unfaithful lovers, embezzlers, and a man who aspires to be the neighborhood Gaughin.
His travels, real or imaginary, pack his poems with references and asides that had me chasing to keep up. The allusions in the poems can be challenging, but well worth every Google search. If you’re the type of person who thrills at a conversation with someone smarter and wittier than you, you’ll get charged up reading Heffernan. And if you are also the type of person who’s fantasized about being married to a smarter, wittier person, here’s a little scenario for you from “Consecration of the House”: Heffernan sits upstairs in his bubble bath, quite the Diogenes, thinking about big questions and quoting Yeats, and calls down answers to his wife’s crossword puzzle. He calls down more information than she asks for, just because he knows it:
’It’s also the word for being as in L’Etre et le Neant by Jean-Paul Sartre.’
Pretentious, oh yes, but he’s playing a part and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Clearly he knows that no man sitting in a bathtub can be judged as anything but silly. The poem, through Heffernan’s deft maneuvering, becomes a meditation on the soul (on being, the crossword clue), and ends with an unforgettable image of Kennedy moments before his assassination.
Just how seamlessly Heffernan travels through time and moves from drollery to tragedy and from matters mundane to the metaphysical, is evident in a favorite poem of mine from the collection, “Morning Mail.”
The poet in his bathrobe, aimless and alone in the house on a Monday morning, gets a letter from a friend in Boston. The friend asks for reasons to keep on living from those of his friends who took the time to soothe him where it hurt/in the exhausted tissues of the soul. The poet, as he considers his friend’s pleading for reasons to be vertical, reclines on the couch, which is funny but also dark, as if his friend’s despair entices him to try on death himself.
Lying there he remembers an old lover, a woman in a café in France who would just as soon be back in Worcester. They both seem to wonder why we were doing this, a phrase that connects the vignettes in the poem, but the couple continues the doomed relationship in long travels through the Balkans on ships and uncomfortable trains. In Greece they watch three women in black dresses step into the sea. Two of them are daughters bathing their blind mother, who is crying. The image is indelible to him and to the reader.
From the pain of this reverie he comes back to the present as the letter drops behind the couch. The time had come to rise up and occur, he says. (I’m going to store this line as a useful antidote to indolence.) In typical fashion for writers, this resolve to action leads him to stare out the window. There he watches three blackbirds on a neighbor’s roof. The blackbirds become the three Greek women and then transform into black angels come to make him face uncomfortable truths. Why are we doing this? they seem to ask as they tumble from the roof and swoop up again. His friend’s existential question has reverberated through his past and through the past of the two women who forced their mother unseeing into the sea and now into his present. Why are we doing this? And once we realize the futility, how do we stay vertical, how do we stay aloft?
Heffernan’s humor, allusions, and exotic locales form a viewing platform from which he hopes to catch sight of the unseen. His restless spirit seems always in search of permanence, which some would call, especially those with Heffernan’s Jesuit education, the divine.
Heffernan, a Detroit native, teaches poetry at the University of Arkansas and is the two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, among other awards. At the Bureau of Divine Music is Heffernan’s ninth book and, as noted, part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series by Wayne State University Press.
– If you can’t make it to those readings, click here to listen to Garrison Keillor read “The Art of Self-Defense,” a poem from this volume set in Detroit.
*Maggie Lane lives and writes in Beverly Hills, Michigan where she hosts the blog site Poem Elf. You can find her at http://poemelf.wordpress.com.
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