November 2006

Jason B. Jones


Horror Vacui by Thomas Heise

Sources for Thomas Heise's Horror Vacui include the rosary, the poems of Edward Taylor and the Persian ghazal. In their different ways, each of these sources suggests a rigorous discipline, either in thought or formal structure. Heise brings this discipline to bear upon such topics as the death of his father, the nature of poetic representation, and the problem of memory. While this may sound austere, especially with the Latin title, Heise manages to be affecting without sentimental, and to confront the mysteries of absence with intelligence and honesty.

Horror Vacui is remarkably difficult to categorize. Most poems here are impersonal, even when addressing his father's death, but there are quite personal moments. Although most of the poems involute syntax or otherwise play with the formal conventions of verse, there are also some poems of plainspoken narrative. While the overall tone is contemplative, there are also poems or lines that are pretty funny, even when they're about death. For example, there's the self-obituary "Obituary [Revised]" which is then run through BabelFish to become "Obituary [Translated]." And "Corrections" begins by setting one urban legend straight: "We were mistaken. The Queen never / loved a horse." The collection gains some coherence by the repetition of titles: In addition to the "Obituary" series, there is also the group of poems called "Examination" and a second group called "These New Days." But these groups thwart any expectation of solid ground, inasmuch as the first is a kind of dialogue with a ghost, and the second is impressively oblique. The overall effect of the volume is somewhat unsettling, an effect heightened by the eccentric typographical arrangement of the poems, which apparently alludes to the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts. If he can acknowledge, on the one hand, a "cold, idolatrous devotion to accuracy," nevertheless "This room is warm because I have / lived in it."

The thing that is truly striking about Horror Vacui is its unexpected tactility. Because Heise's tone is so controlled, and his diction is so consistently formal and self-consciously poetic (welmish makes an appearance), one might expect an abstract or philosophical poetics. Not at all. "Exeat" imagines Horror Vacui as a well-used cane, as broken-in shoes, or as a long-inhabited room, any of which are still warm from his presence. "Ghazal for the Body" makes the flu sound sexy: "Nothing is west of the fever / unlocking the frontier of your body. / Your name hesitates in my chest, my love, infectious." (The slight quibble as to whether it's "your name" or "my love" that's infectious will ring immediately true to anyone who's spent a winter swapping viruses back and forth with a loved one.) "The Orchard of Orange Trees" is haunted by the "large and swollen" corpse of the neighbor's missing dog, and one almost has to wring the pages dry of the humidity of a Florida August. The most embodied poem in the book is probably the lovely "My Pietà," in which father holds son, and then vice versa, throughout their lives.

In the "Examination" series, words come to be written on the first speaker's body in Braille, such that they have to be read by the second speaker. The second poem sets this up:

            When I name
its secret in your ear [ Said. Its belly
was smooth, no holes ] you'll know I
was [ in its hands, ] there and why I
came back [ from there to here ]
altered [ without a mark. Said. What
words you couldn't take ]. To find
them fouled, rotted to seed [ down,
you wrote ]?

It's never exactly clear how to read the second voice: Is it a parallel speech, and so we should connect it up from bracket to bracket? Or does the second voice punctuate the first? When the voices share a line, at any rate, they seem to comment directly on each other: The first speaker insists he's "altered," though apparently "without a mark" -- for instance, unmarked by words that were either what the speaker elsewhere "could not remember" or "did not care to remember."

If in the second poem the speaker couldn't take the words, by the third they arrive unbidden as a blessing: "Without coat, / I warmed with words [ I heard / but did not speak. ] I cannot say." These words are written directly on the speaker's body:

            My back
braille, [ I kneeled to read in dark ]
do you see [ when light failed ] how
god has touched [ my eye and what
you wrote ] me with both hands
[ became illuminated. ].

The question of where the words come from -- to the first speaker, they're from god's touch; to the second, they're "what you wrote" -- is not resolved in the final "Examination" poem, which closes with a prayer that breaks down the division between speakers. By the end of the sequence, the brackets setting off the speakers have changed to virgules:

I have wrapped / my hands with mourning
cloth / because the world has broken
/ its truth / without sorrow / yet other
worlds opened

There can't be sorrow, because that implies absence and, as the book's title suggests, that would be a blow. Besides, the work of the series is to blend the perspectives of these two speakers, such that there is no need for sorrow. The death that is being mourned here makes these poems possible; as the title poem puts it, the father "left us to fill in / the space in the margins."

Horror Vacui posits that in "These new days, the news is a dance of death," and asks "What shelter shall I assemble against / this?" There isn't much shelter in this book, much less reparation against loss, but there is life in the poems, in their crafty language. And though that's not comfort, exactly, it isn't nothing.

Horror Vacui by Thomas Heise
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 1932511326
84 pages