Northwest Arkansas Times, July 9th
Like Dreams, Revelations in Poetry Become Evident Over Time
By Ginny Masullo
"And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried again to dream."
The Tempest, III: ii
Michael Heffernan, University of Arkansas professor of creative writing, opens his latest book of poetry, "Another Part of the Island" (Salmon) with the above epithet from Shakespeare. To Heffernan, it is "the most beautiful statement in the English language. The sentiment is particularly beautiful coming from the voice of Caliban who is essentially a monster- like character in the Tempest. It is a powerful recognition of that place in the unconscious that is not us."
When I first began reading poetry for pleasure I wanted a poem to be immediately accessible, at least part of the meaning immediately understood. I am learning, however, that reading some poetry is like reading dreams. Their images haunt me. I go over and over them. They stay with me.
In "Another Part of the Island" which take its name from the Tempest, some of Heffernan's poetry does have that immediate "ah ha " quality:
Not only are they closer than they appear,
the objects in the mirror are darker, lonelier,
than even the rain spots on the glass can make them seem.
Some of them are crueler, some are happier,
a great many are more comfortable, others are rockier
as they head up the road. If I were one of them,
if I were driving behind you, for instance,
and you were looking at me in your sideview mirror
preparing to push my 24 valves to the max
and stuff your law-abiding 4-door in my rearview mirror
and drop you out of sight, what would you make of me?
One of the forces of darkness ready to tear
oblivion in two? or a sunshine patriot taking the highway
to a bright tomorrow swallowing us both?
The physics of the thing suggests a vanishing point
at which the glass looks back toward an empty road
where the objects are either too close or too far.
Nothing is left of you and nothing is left of me.
We keep each other in each other's mirrors.
We find each other closer than we appear.
Such poems as "Mirror" call the reader into contemplation but there are more poems in "Another Part of the Island," however, that induce the reader to reflect upon them in the same way a dreamer ponders a commanding dream; with images that touch us in a place beyond cerebral understanding.
Of Heaven as a Clearing in the Woods
The complications of generic life
account for less than other forms of it,
the life engaged cerebrally, for instance,
on the still page, serenely unperturbed
before the amplifying pen's deployment
of brain and nib exemplifying knowledge
above the daily world of this and that,
what Wallace Stevens in 'A Thought Revolved'
posits within the windy breach between
the idea of god / Aid the idea of man,'
on the mind's verge, so to speak, a place where sun
bodying forth the forest full of trees
seldom observed except in crazy dreams
becomes the naked light God let there be.
When talking about the writing process Heffernan acknowledges the similarity between poems and dreaming. "When we engage in the verbal process of writing the mind enters a place where images begin to occur the way they do in dreams. Writing is different than dreaming because we are actively engaged but it is similar because you don't know where the writing will go anymore than in a dream." In teaching Heffernan tries to dissuade his students from absolutely knowing the meaning of the poem.
When poetry gives us a new way of thinking then we are understanding poetry, says Heffernan. Influenced heavily by both William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens, Heffernan feels that Stevens' work shows us more of the art of imagination. " I've always loved Yeats, and learned from him, from an early time. I've studied the drafts of his poems for thirty years and have learned a great deal about the crafting of stanzas and the shaping of rhyme patterns. As I grow older, though, I'm less interested in his poetic persona, which is always powerfully present in his poems. On the other hand, I find Stevens endlessly accessible. He leaves himself out of his poems for the most part." From Stevens, Heffernan learned how to keep the poem open and keep a constant engagement with the imagination.
I'm going to go out and walk around a little,
because it's a nice day, in the seventies,
after a night where the temperature dropped
just below freezing. There isn't much here
in the anteroom of the self, I don't think,
so why should I go on investigating
what last night's dream meant, or the subtleties
of the numerology of the soul as evidenced
in cryptanalytical encodings in the poems
of Bertran de Montsegur? I'm out of here,
and off on a little walk in the neighborhood,
but first I'd like to tell you I appreciate
your letting me share. It meant a lot to me.
Quite candidly, I'm not sure what to do
on days like this, or any day, really.
It all runs together, into a place
the good seem to have occupied as their own
and spruced up so nicely others of us who aren't
so good, but not the worst of citizens,
can't help but feel a little out of pocket,
as the saying goes, and I for one would like
to reach into my pocket and pull out
the ruby medallion my mother gave to me,
which fell out of my coat into the grate
by the front tire of the bus I'd waited for
across the street from the Schubert Theatre
in Detroit in 1959. I'd say,
to anyone around inclined to listen,
here is a little something you can have.
I hope you like it. Why don't you just keep it
and give it to another good person some day.
Tell them it used to be Bertran's, who came here once
on a horse all spangled with rubies and golden bells.
"Medallion" was chosen for one of the thirty poems in the "Pushcart Prize XXV, The Best Poems of 2000. " In this poem and in others throughout the collection Heffernan succeeds in creating the "essential gaudiness of poetry" that Stevens wrote about when he commented on his own poem, "The Emperor of Ice Cream."
Rife with the landscape of Ireland, "Another Part of the Island" was published in Ireland by Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Press.
Salmon started as an alternative press, working from outside the Irish literary establishment, which is "notoriously male-dominated, nationalistic, and centered in the city of Dublin." Salmon was publishing Irish women writers who could not find an audience, and also began to publish the work of Americans, both male and female, who would also have limited access to an Irish readership. Eventually Heffernan offered her a manuscript, which she published in 1994, "The Backroads to Arcadia."
Lendennie is an American from Blytheville, Arkansas. She left the state when she was a child, and has lived in Ireland and the UK for most of her adult life. Heffernan describes her as having a great deal of Arkansas in her. "Her scrappy independence, her willingness to work from outside the
mainstream. One of these days she ought to be recognized as one of the State's most important literary figures."
Devoting her whole life to poetry and poets, Lendennie is doing something that doesn't often happen on the American poetry scene. "She's building a network for poetry, through Salmon, that is becoming truly international -- the way Ireland itself is trying to become part of a larger world and get past its history as an angry province on the edge of everything. The new Ireland is now the most dynamic part of the new European economy. They call it the Celtic Tiger. Jessie Lendennie has been a Celtic tigress for twenty years, way ahead of the rest of the country."
Heffernan, who is of Irish descent, has traveled often and widely in Ireland was instrumental in contributing to the international poetry network as well. In 1990 after several years of ground work, he started a cooperative summer program at Galway for students. This program brings students from all
over the world to the National University of Ireland at Galway where they workshop in poetry or fiction and immerse themselves in 20th century Irish literature. Heffernan has been three times as a teacher. This year Joanne Meschery from the U of A will travel there with six students from the U of A also attending.
In the writing of "Another part of the Island" Heffernan acknowledges grants from the Arkansas Arts Council and the NEA. He is also the recipient of the Porter Prize to Arkansas writers for Literary Excellence. "Another Part of the Island" can be found at Barnes and Noble.