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.
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.
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