top of page

I confess–I’ve known Michael Hettich for 50 years. We were housed in the same freshman dormitory at Hobart College. But it’s more accurate to say I’ve known of Michael, impressed when I happened to stumble across his work. I knew he was teaching somewhere in Florida and when I started this magazine I reached out to invite him to submit some poems. Soon after, we began a casual correspondence and eventually he began writing reviews for this journal four years ago. In that time, though we’ve mostly corresponded through email, we’ve become close friends. In addition to being a wonderful poet, Michael is an effective editor and teacher. He’s helped me a great deal with my own work.

I also confess that I didn’t know just how good a poet he is until this summer when he sent a copy of The Halo of Bees: New & Selected Poems, his recent collection that spans the years 1990 - 2022. Before opening the book, I glibly decided to write a review for Hole In The Head. Easy, right?

That was months ago.

Somewhere early on I stopped reading The Halo of Bees as just another book of poems and more as a deeply honest and touching autobiography in verse. Each page brought new insights into the mind and heart of the poet moving quietly, gently through a sometimes soothing, sometimes unsettling landscape, at once concrete and surreal. The collection opens up a landscape full of life, small fish that nibble toes, a swan caught in ice, birds…so many birds, wife, children, siblings, parents–all loving, all loved. And singing! Always singing and music.

I began to limit the number of pages I read each morning, something I do with the books I love and don’t want to end, most recently–Gary Snyder’s Selected Writings, Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By and Thomas Merton’s Asian Journals. Fine company.

The collection opens surprisingly and brilliantly with the new work giving the reader a chance to see where the poet is before learning how he got there.

I’m taking a pause from the person I’ve been

for most of my life and starting to enter

the man I’ve been only occasionally, even

the man I’ve only pretended to be–

a stranger I’ve hardly imagined.

and later in that same poem:

…I can only be naked,

though I’m trying to locate the clothes I wore

when I was a man who sported perfect teeth

and a full head of hair, the kind who tells the truth

when he lies–or vice versa, I can’t remember now,

though I’m sure it must matter to someone.

(from “The River”)

These new poems are contemplative, the poet thankful to be looking back in the company of the small animals that populate the book throughout, strangers vaguely familiar, and most especially his family. In “Love Poem” Hettich explores this inner life that he shares with his wife:

If every word is a path, and every

silence a glimpse of the sky, we’re walking

farther now, under more fragrant trees,

though we move more slowly, resting by the side

of the road, waving to strangers and old friends

as they drive off to work, or to foreign countries

where no one knows them.

This is not nostalgia, not a wish to be back in time with a chance for a do-over. This is a clear-headed and honest accounting of a life lived.

…Soon we will get up and walk

a bit farther, looking for a clearing with a lake

as warm as our blood; we’ll swim out into

the middle, to find its shallow core

where we’ll stand with only our heads poking out

and feel the minnows nibbling our legs

and laugh at their gently tickling, then turn

and swim back to shore, just a few strokes away,

to watch as the evening fills the spaces

between things; we’ll listen to the night creatures

wake up and sing until morning.

The lines move with a comfortable rhythm, lulling us into a kind of dream, though very much alert to the senses and the surroundings where past, present and a glimpse of the future all come together.

Moving ahead in the book and back in time, shapes shift, time shifts and people–friends, parents, children move through time–sometimes dead then reappearing. Rooms and houses are sometimes inhabited by the shadows of the past. The poems seek an understanding as Hettich tries to find the balance of who he was and who he is now in the midst of all this.

In “Doubles,” he considers dopplegangers and the possibility of one day meeting them.

Sometimes we imagined we might set up a meeting

between ourselves. What would happen if we did that?

Would we merge? Would one of us have to disappear?

How would our parents react, if they saw us

together? Didn’t they have doubles too?

Recognizing that “it was just a silly game,” he writes that it was “reassuring” to know they’d never meet because:

…We’d heard all those stories

about animals that turn into uncles and wait

to devour little children, and houses full of wolves

dressed up like grandparents, at the end of long paths

through the woods, or even through an ordinary neighborhood…

The poem ends with “our own parents” making

...a fire in the backyard, out of clothes we’d outgrown and snapshots

of people they insisted we didn’t recognize.

Uncle James looked like taffy as he melted into flames.

Aunt Betty seemed to grow a beard, and then she was just ash.

Some two thirds into the book, I found myself waiting for the surprise of the transformation that I’d found in the preceding pages. And I was stunned by the long and beautiful poem, “And We Were Nearly Children,” the emotional heart of the book.

It begins,

Reading in my garden on a Sunday afternoon,

I realize with a shock that blurs my eyes

when I look up at the flowering bushes and trees,

it’s been over thirty years since you died, daughter

I never really knew–as your mother did–beyond

feeling you kick

and laughing, planning our future together…

and proceeds with delicate honesty to tell the story of the young couple who joyfully anticipated the birth of their first child, a child who would live only a matter of hours. It is the work of a skilled and careful craftsman in touch with his own grief, not maudlin, but honest.

and we’ve made a family without you, dear daughter,

who’ve always been with us, I promise you, somewhere

deep in the blood, in the marrow, in the breath

we share each night, your mother and I,

in sleep, no matter what we’re dreaming.

Hettich is not afraid to work in different forms as seen in the prose poems from Sleeping with the Lights On & Bluer and More Vast.

It’s like the time our subway stopped beneath the river. The

doors slid open and everyone got out, pulled back the curtains of

darkness that hung there and walked into a place and time where

they were exactly who they should have been, even if they should

have been ugly or alone, which hardly ever happened, or they

should have been a dog, or a bat, or a field mouse, which did in

fact happen, more often than you might expect.

(from “The Purposeful Hum)

The voice is the same, searching, always searching for a vision of what is behind the curtain. In the end, in this poem and throughout the work, the vision is not and can not be grasped for long.

And then the curtain closed again, and the empty train moved

forward through the dark.

And that, I think, is the message and magic of these poems. Hettich comes to celebrate the limits of perception and understanding. The “curtain” lifts a little when we take our place; the extraordinary is best revealed by living an ordinary life. This is made clear in the final poem of the book.

The Prayer

If you wander through the woods collecting stones

to border your garden, your path won’t follow

logic, as might be the case if you were gathering

mushrooms or looking

for the quickest way home.

Some stones are so pale they glow in the woods-light;

others rest on last year’s leaves

as though someone had carried them there

and set them down. Still others are so grubby

it’s difficult to see what they’ll look like

once they’re clean. Lined up along the path,

they look pleased to be admired, and I do admire them

every time I walk there. I know stones sing

only perfect silence, like the stars, which is why

I carry them down through the woods, and why

I talk to them in my own language

as I hold them to my body,

as I lay them gently down.

This book, the work of a master poet, deserves your attention. Take your time reading. And when you put it down, be still. Hear that? It sings and echoes.

- Bill Schulz


The Halo of Bees: New & Selected Poems, 1990-2022


by Michael Hettich ISBN: 978-1-950413-65-2 9 x 6 inches, 256 pages

Updated: Oct 31

For years, I’ve known poet Mike Bove and admired his work. When I taught at Southern Maine Community College, where Mike has taught for over twenty years, we’d bump into each other in the English office, and together with a cadre of other poets, we’d commiserate and shoot the poetic shit. I believe Mike and I share a quality – on the exterior, we’re very nice and agreeable and polite, but there’s much more going on inside us than we are able to let show. Good thing for poetry! As Mike writes in his poem, “This Poem Isn’t Going to Write Itself,” “a mind in fever, hot and pumping quietly, so quietly.” Mike’s third book, EYE (Spuyten Duyvil 2023), is a deeply immersive experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his book via email in October 2023.

JN: As you mention in the note at the end of the book, you wrote this book over the span of three days during a snowstorm. According to myth, it took Jack Kerouac a lazy three weeks to write On The Road. How do you think about this torrent of production in which you wrote almost sixty poems? Possessed? Lucky? In the zone? Cursed?

MB: Maybe luckily possessed? Definitely not cursed. I was certainly in a zone, I tend to be a bit obsessive. I wrote all of the poems in four days, and on the fifth I ordered them into manuscript form with three sections. The book’s structure is exactly the same as it was on that fifth day. I didn’t move anything from my initial ordering, and the poems also pretty much appear in their original state with a few small revisions. There are fifty-one poems in the book. I wrote fifty-two over those days, but the last one was complete doggerel so I interpreted that as a sign I was finished.

I think of it the way I think about those studies done of Jazz musicians in flow state. They know their instruments well enough to enter into a trance-like state of fluid creation. Kind of like turning on a machine that runs on its own. I’d never claim virtuosity, but for whatever reason the poems just flowed out. And to say I wrote the whole book in five days is both true and not. The act of writing only took that long, but some of the ideas had been rolling around in my head for quite a while. There’s one about a last-minute halloween costume my dad made for me when I was little. I’d been looking for a way into that poem for years.

I should say I never write that way normally, though it did happen in college once at the very end of a Fiction Workshop. I wrote something like a twenty-page story in a day or two that was so different than what I’d been doing in the class that the Professor suggested I’d plagiarized it. That story went on to be the first thing I ever got published!

JN: I'm glad you mentioned the poem about a last-minute halloween costume your dad made ("Tree"). That's an incredible poem, and I love hearing that it had been rolling around your head for a while trying to get out. Can you say a little about what clicked that allowed you into that poem? And I should say how much I love the ending of that poem: "we went from / house to house / hand in hand / and took / what we were / given." To end a Trick or Treat poem with this sense of openness to what you're given is genius. And I also think this ending adds complexity to the "luckily possessed" way this book came to you. In a sense, you took what was given to you, which gets at a sense of good fortune, but also belies the sheer amount of effort and concentration it must've taken to write these poems in that short a time. Or, as you write in "This Poem Isn't Going to Write Itself," "a mind in fever // hot and pumping / quietly so // quietly."

MB: Thank you, I’m really happy that one spoke to you. It’s one of my favorites. For a long time my memory of that halloween took up a lot of mental space as a way to stay angry at my mother for all kinds of things, and earlier attempts to write it always came out focused on her. She never used to appear in my writing, but then years ago I started writing all these mother poems, mostly angry ones. I ended up frustrated with all of them. They seemed to miss the mark and felt self-indulgent. It takes a lot of ego to stay angry at someone. After a while I realized I was tired of being angry at a thing I couldn’t change, it just didn’t make sense anymore. But acceptance is slow. I had to write all those other poems in order to write “Tree.” Sometimes that’s just how it works. So when the moment arrived to write it, I had worked through those feelings and reframed the memory with my dad as the quiet hero of the story, the one who attempts to assemble normalcy out of chaos, who can’t quite get it right but tries his damnedest. As soon as I thought of it like that, the poem just came, and the memory became one of my dad rescuing me, of the two of us walking out into the unknown together, ready to accept whatever we got.

There’s this quote of Richard Hugo’s I think about all the time, where he called writing “a slow, cumulative way of accepting your life as valid, of accepting yourself over a lifetime.” I think that’s true. And I also know there are worlds of people who had and have it way harder than I ever did. With a poem like “Tree,” part of what I’m trying to do is bring us all together, united in suffering. That sounds bleak, but actually I think it’s beautiful. That’s part of the reason there are no first person pronouns anywhere in the book.

And yes, the whole experience was a lot of effort but also very liberating. There’s so much play in this book, even if much of the subject matter is serious. I look back at those five days and I’m amazed I wrote so much. And I did other things too! I took walks with my family, took my boys skiing with my brother, even attended your book launch that weekend. I also shoveled the driveway more times than I can remember. But in every other moment I was writing. That’s what I was thinking with "This Poem Isn't Going to Write Itself.” A common stereotype is that the muse visits and the work just pours out, as if the writer is simply a conduit for the universe’s magic. I always thought that made it sound so passive, when for me writing has always been active. Even when it comes easily, it’s still the product of years of active practice.

Geez, that’s a long answer. I hope you’ll edit some of this!

JN: I like how you keep foreshadowing my next question. Who needs to write in transitions when they're already here?! I love to hear the bleak and beautiful intent behind the lack of the first person pronoun. At first when I read "eye," I read it as you'd created an alternative first-person pronoun, rather than the "I," it's the "eye," which functions similarly in grammar, but seems to extend, or turn, the first-person outward, to have it be more observational. And I think that goes with the universal sense you mention. However, the more I read it, the more it started to sound like the imperative tense, like a gentle reminder to do something, as in "Arrival," when you write, "eye // remember now // the days they were / born." And it was like the "eye" was some sort of collective memory. Could you talk a little more about that decision to use "eye" and how you came to it?

MB: Yeah, that “eye” is really versatile! It was very spontaneous. I’d been struggling with another manuscript for about a year. It was filled with first-person poems I was frustrated with, poems I’d revised and rewritten all kinds of ways with different perspectives but that never seemed right. I’m very interested in ego-dismantling in poetry, but writing from the first-person makes that challenging. Some poets are really great at it. Robert Hass’s book “Sun Under Wood” is a good example, or think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” There’s a universality some writers achieve with the first-person that I admire, but I was so sick of failing in my own attempts to emulate it that when the storm started on that first day I decided to put aside that problematic manuscript and write some experimental stuff without using “I,” without using punctuation, and also trying out some weird line breaking. I knew I’d have a couple of days of being snowbound, so I let myself play. It felt so good I just kept going.

Some of the poems needed an “I,” like “Arrival” which is about the anxieties one has about being a good parent, and so I used “eye” instead and liked the way it worked as an inclusive proxy for the first-person. I know I’m not the first to attempt it. Whitman and Hughes famously redefine “I” in their poems. In the act of writing it felt a lot more natural to use “eye” as “I,” but also as a real eye, a physical organ that allows sight, and then too as a metaphor for consciousness. It also serves as a way to frame memory. “Eye” in some of the poems becomes a stand-in for our remembering selves. That’s a little abstract, but that’s where my head was.

JN: As you're mentioning Robert Hass or Elizabeth Bishop's universal "I," that reminded me that I also wanted to ask you about Emily Dickinson's eyes ("Emily Dickinson Upstairs"). I loved how this poem was about actual eyes, and the possibility of Dickinson's blindness and the anxiety that accompanies it. Ultimately, it seems to be about "the triumph of light." I believe she's the only poet mentioned in the book (unless I missed someone!), so I wondered how you feel about Dickinson, and how did she make her way in the book.

MB: There are a few writers in there, but you’re right, she’s the only poet. Unless you count Shakespeare and Thoreau, who also make appearances. I love reading author biographies, and I’d recently finished Richard Sewell’s of Dickinson and another one by Martha Ackmann. The Ackmann book focuses on ten defining moments in Dickinson’s life, and that moment in her upstairs room is one of them. The image of her alone up there opening her favorite book to see if she could still read it is such a powerful one. So much hung in the balance in that moment. What if it went the other way?

Like many people, I first read her poetry in high school. A lot of it went over my head then. After spending more time with it I started to better appreciate that jarring intensity her poems have. The best of them rattle with it. And that comes from the intensity of the world she lived in. Not the external world, which is plenty intense, but the internal world of a mind like that. That’s how my mind has always felt, and I can’t turn it off, which is the old blessing/curse paradox. I don’t think that’s unique to me or to her. Wouldn’t you say that writers’ lives aren’t so much lived as they are felt?

JN: If it was anyone else, I'd say that's a great place to end -- the intense inner lives of poets! However, because we're friends, and I know what car you drive, I wanted to ask you about "Push Start." Reader: Mike sometimes drives around Portland in a lovingly maintained, old VW Beetle that sometimes doesn't start and requires some human push power to get it going. I don't even quite know how to phrase this question, but I'd love to hear more about your relationship as a poet with beloved objects/things. It's something I've always loved to think about, and I was hoping to hear your thoughts.

MB: Collecting curious objects runs in my family. I love old things and natural curiosities. I collect a lot of things, especially interesting stones. And my Beetle is a beloved object of curiosity I can drive around in. For a long time it randomly wouldn’t start without a push, and you know first-hand what it was like to help me get on the road. Part of the reason I bought it was to be able to learn how to maintain it, and the starting problem drove me nuts. I researched and read and tried all kinds of things. Finally I took it to the shop this summer and it turned out a three-dollar fuse was faulty. Literally the simplest solution. It’s started reliably ever since. “Push Start” is about the feeling one has when something works fine, just not the way one expects.

An object becomes loved when there’s a story inside. When I look around my house at things I’ve collected, I think about where they came from, who they remind me of, all kinds of details like that. My dad was a collector, and he used to label things as he got older with where he found it, the date, etc. I do the same. Turn over a stone in my house and there’s likely a note underneath saying where it came from, who found it, and the date. I’ve left notes all over the place, inside furniture drawers and on the pages of special books. The next time someone replaces the appliances in my house, they’ll find notes I wrote on the wall when I installed them. As much as I try to stay conscious of impermanence, I can’t help but stare at a stone or a piece of driftwood or something and imagine its story. And I’m part of that story. And so are you and everyone else. Objects and stories are pieces of the people and places we love, ways to feel connected, to feel as if we’ve mattered. Poems do this too. Little notes to the future saying, I was here.



Mike Bove

Spuyten Duyvil

ISBN 978-1-959556-80-0

100 pages $17.00

bottom of page