William Heyen Essay - Critical Essays


William Heyen has written, “The most meaningful word in the language for me is ’home.’” This statement best summarizes the themes running throughout his poetry, for home can be located in a variety of places for Heyen. In Depth of Field, Noise in the Trees, and Long Island Light, Heyen is involved in intense recollection of his boyhood home in Suffolk County, Long Island. The Swastika Poems and Erika show Heyen longing for better understanding of the way his German ancestry influences his sense of belonging. Even his Crazy Horse in Stillness volume was generated by a sense of connection to the Algonquin culture that once flourished in what became Suffolk County.

Heyen is a writer whose purposes are clear: He believes that his poems should bear witness to the diminishment and desecration of the environment (including the environment of other people) and, by addressing this theme, empower people to act to prevent destruction of one another and of the earth. Though this aesthetic has resulted in unromanticized poetry, its purpose is essentially romantic—using art to inspire action. Heyen’s concerns with his childhood home and with finding his place among his German ancestors, his spiritual home in Brockport, and his worldly home in an environment safe for all living things result in poems that serve as reminders of what human beings have lost and a prayer for what they may still be able to save.

In his first volume, Depth of Field, Heyen explores his concern for the shared home, the planet, and its environment, a focus that would intensify greatly in his later books. Many of the poems in Lord Dragonfly, Brockport, New York, The Chestnut Rain, and Pterodactyl Rose reflect the poet’s exploration of the environment and the relationship between his view of the environment and his aesthetic principles. He says, “As I open the gate into our next century, memory is my balancing pole.” What does this mean to the poet-environmentalist? “Now, for the first time in our history, esthetics is a matter of life and death,” Heyen writes. The result of this view is poems that reflect an effort to see environmental responsibility as a moral and ethical imperative.

One should not be surprised to see in Heyen’s earliest works the search for his relationship to his various notions of home. These early works contain seeds of an aesthetic position the poet was only later able to verbalize. He has called it an “art of realization and commitment” that “will insist we change our lives by way of its presence and witness.” An examination of Heyen’s concerns over the years, from Depth of Field to Pterodactyl Rose, will show the evolution of his sense of responsibility as a poet and planet-dweller.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field, in the light of Heyen’s later works, offers glimpses of a growing Heyen aesthetic. Intuitively, he leaned heavily on themes of home, place, and ancestry. Depth of Field is broken into two sections, “The Spirit of Wrath” and “The Dead from Their Dark,” arranged to suggest two of many possible ways of viewing experience. In “The Spirit of Wrath,” Heyen explores a spectrum of experiences that are centered on loss or the threatening potential for loss, taken from his family and nature, both remembered experience and imagined.

Not surprisingly, given this range of subject matter, Heyen’s lost Nazi uncles, Wilhelm and Hermann, enter this section of the book, foreshadowing the poet’s more complete exploration of his German ties in his later poems of the Holocaust. Heyen addresses his uncles directly. As images of Wilhelm’s life and sudden death are cinematically spun out on the screen of the page, Heyen writes, “Wilhelm, your face is a shadow/ under your helmet.” To Hermann, he writes: “Hermann, you received the letters/ my father still talks and wonders about/ the ones in which he told you to bail out/ over England and plead insanity.” In these moving pieces, Heyen calls on memory to help him explore his relation to his family. Even in their differences, Heyen claims identity, finding his place among other Heyens.

The message of “Birds and Roses Are Birds and Roses” is quite simple: There are no satisfactions for the poet, when confronted by the threat of devastation, in the transcendent romanticism that sees “the timeless in the temporal.” When confronted by “the remains of a thrush,” Heyen recognizes his impotence: “I would flesh this one bird’s feathers,/ resume its quick eye and lilting trill./ But these were not the mystics’ flowers:/ their bush cast a shadow like a bell.” Still, this is not the language of the cynic. Rather, this is a hopefulness, perhaps a longing to believe such miracles possible. Clearly, the world of a Heyen poem draws attention to the need for miracles and demands that humankind observe the simple requirement of leaving things alone and permitting them to undergo natural healing.

In “The Spirit of Wrath,” it is clear that regardless of human efforts to control the natural and personal worlds, each person can hope to do only “what can be done,” nothing more. The shark of the poem is simultaneously within one and abroad: “What it is you’re after/ feeds at the bottom/ below the reach of your anchor.” The shark-snagging adventure in “The Spirit of Wrath” is the promise of the poet’s confrontations both within himself, in self-understanding, and outside himself, in the environment. This shark also sets up other mythopoeic interludes in the first section of Depth of Field.

Like the horse in “A Man Is a Forked Animal,” which “does not think well enough to know/ his waking from his standing sleep,” Heyen seems to suggest that as a species humans are not always able to differentiate the fearful elements of waking observation from the fears they imagine. On one hand, in “I Move to Random Consolations,” Heyen rises at the poem’s conclusion “to rock the crane’s death.” On the other hand, he envisions a dreaded insect that “never touched earth” and a spider that “hovers always/ just above the land.” Confronted by fear-provoking environments, personal as well as natural, real as well as imagined, people are much like the eel in “Existential” that “can’t or won’t remember/ the small way out it entered.”

A clue to an understanding of the second section of Depth of Field comes from an epigraph from Theodore Roethke:

But when I breathe with the birds, The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing. And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.

“The Dead from Their Dark” offers the recompense William Wordsworth discovered in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798): the ability to “hear the still, sad music of humanity.” The world is portrayed in “The Dead from Their Dark” as art, since only in and through art can one find the ideal, that moment of perfect anticipation. Heyen writes as if humanity were on the verge of something, some breakthrough, some deeper understanding but always suspended on the cliff of epiphany: “What was it I/ was thinking of saying?/ I can’t remember.” Perhaps from their dark, he urges, the dead know, like Roethke in Heyen’s “Memoriam,” that “whatever cripple seeks a Lord,/ however slowly,/ a Lord finds.” In the end, Heyen seems to suggest, are not all human beings crippled seekers?

There is affirmation—though it arises from a certain unromanticized appraisal of the human condition—in this section of the book: “Today, unfolding a flower,/ the sun kindles, spreads/ the wren’s feathers,” Heyen writes in “The Fourth Day,” the day “different” from those recounted in “The Spirit of Wrath” section. In “Depth of Field,” he asserts that one affirms one’s existence by attending carefully to the details of natural events that surround one. In the moment of such intense concentration, one achieves the kind of transcendence that the young Wordsworth promised but few modern writers have achieved. The reward for such transcendence and participation in this higher level of consciousness may, for Heyen, be the image. He writes with care and commitment to the transcendent moment: “It is the harp/ of the curved sun that orchestrates the morning.” It was inevitable, given this view, that Heyen’s aesthetic would change, moving from a young man’s frenzied perception to the recollection of a mature poet. “This matter of memory,” he writes in “To Live in the World,” “runs deep/ as earth.” Later, his intuition leads him to the question he continues to answer in later works: “And how will spirit want to say it?”

Noise in the Trees and Long Island Light

In Noise in the Trees and Long Island Light, in which poems originally published in the earlier volume are deepened and extended by the inclusion of thirty-one new poems, the “spirit” is the spirit of Long Island as Heyen recollects it, or, more precisely, the spirit wavering behind natural phenomena. In either case, these poems are mythopoeic. “Legend of the Tree at the Center of the World” tells of the first spring morning, and “Dog Sacrifice at Lake Ronkonkoma” describes a ritual performed when “the sacred lake laps shore/ with syllables of approaching spring.” These poems promise an ancient, mystical spirit in nature. Heyen offers more modern ritual in “Smith’s Ride,” describing a monument to the man who in 1660 rode bareback on a bull to claim as much of Long Island as he could. Now, each Halloween, the statue is desecrated. A troubling image in this poem brings change into focus: “the bull, whose spirit is metal,/ . . . now stares at the traffic below him,/ these cars that climb the hill like deer,/ trucks that lurch his wilderness like bear.”

In the same spirit, Heyen portrays the Long Island of his youth, “before the influx of the machine and cars and smoke and soot and dust.” In Noise in the Trees, the poet is in love with this planet, this place of his youth. However, simple recall is temporary: “the herds, of course, were doomed” (“The Trail Beside the River Platte”); “the pigeons avalanched/ down the boughs, and had not room to fly,/ and died by the thousands” (“The Pigeons”). In the first section of Noise in the Trees, Heyen addresses nature in the Whitman tradition, recalling its potential and mourning its loss. A significant outcome of Heyen’s compare-and-contrast strategy is the inevitable effort to find his place, as T. S. Eliot says poets must, among other writers: Roethke, Mark Twain, and Theodore Dreiser, to name but three. To this end, experiences in nature become more than ritual; they become a matter of spirit and redemption in “Clamming at St. James Harbor,” “This Island,” and “Tonging at St. James Harbor.”

The memoir that separates the two sections of poems is a rich and poetic effort to show, as Wordsworth does in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850), the “growth of the poet’s mind.” It seems well suited for placement in the midst of the poems, as a break in the effort of recollection. No doubt originating from journals, such writing, by its very nature, enables one to deal with certain subjects unreachable through the poetic imagination and to express them differently. The writer speaks more authoritatively, if not more authentically, in the language of journals. “Some aestheticians believe the lyric impulse begins with a crisis,” Heyen explains. Of perhaps greater importance to a writer seeking his place among other writers, however, memoir and journal writing is squarely in a literary tradition, best exemplified for Heyen by Henry David Thoreau, who would “require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own...

(The entire section is 4967 words.)