“Solo Protests Against Solitude”: A Review of Steven Heighton’s The Waking Comes Late

by Myra Bloom

Myra Bloom has published on Canadian/Québécois literature in The Puritan, GUTS, The Rusty Toque, as well as in a number of academic journals. Find her on Twitter @myradbloom or on the web.

The Waking Comes Late
House of Anansi
128 Sterling Road, Lower Level
Toronto, ON, M6R 2B7

2016, 84 pp., $19.15, 9781487000936

“How do we come to wear the shirts of mentor poets?” Steven Heighton once mused, considering his relationship with the late Al Purdy; “Is it a good thing, bad? Is it a gesture of loyalty or a ghoulish appropriation?” Anyone familiar with Heighton’s writing—erudite, intertextual, given to vertiginous conceptual shifts—will not be surprised to learn that the “shirts” in question, in this instance, were both literal and metaphorical: clad in a bright blue polyester top bequeathed to him by his mentor, Heighton spoke at a 2006 symposium about the intertwined admiration and envy he felt toward the elder statesman of Canadian poetry.

A decade later, Heighton clearly remains preoccupied with questions of inheritance and influence. His new collection, The Waking Comes Late, is a profoundly dialogic reflection on the large and small failures that connect us to each other and to a history of human disappointment. While dedicated to Purdy’s wife, Eurithe, and undeniably bearing the marks of her husband’s tutelage, the book attests to the breadth of Heighton’s poetic inspiration. His interlocutors are the ghosts of poetic giants and underdogs alike, whose voices are heard through translation, allusion, and thematic echo. This allusive dimension is one of the collection’s great strengths; it is also responsible for the sometimes elusive quality of the writing, which can occasionally veer toward the obscure. On the whole, though, The Waking Comes Late is a poignant examination of the challenge to make meaning out of life’s struggles.

Heighton is one of those poets, much admired by T.S. Eliot, who writes “not merely with his own generation in his bones.” This “historical sense” is particularly acute in The Waking Comes Late, where translations (Heighton calls them “approximations”) are “interleaved” instead of “sequestered” (his words), in a departure from his two previous collections, Patient Frame and The Address Book. Ever self-conscious about his place in the canon, Heighton flags the “optical risk” of positioning his own modest lines next to the “classic cadences” of Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, Georg Trakl, and other poets of their rank. However, he explains in an author’s note that this intermingling better represents his process of working on poems and translations simultaneously, the two influencing each other. The overall effect is of an intergenerational call and response, with translation serving to “carry over,” as its etymology implies, the voices of the past.

‘We killed with the best of intentions,’ the soldier states confidently.

The most prominent of these ghostly interlocutors is Celan (1920–1970), a Jewish German-language poet known for his use of Holocaust imagery and his aphoristic style. Heighton quotes, translates, emulates, and otherwise invokes him throughout the collection: stylistically, his influence is detectable in the repeated use of dreamy images and Germanic compound adjectives (blue-ribbed; ditch-dark; eyefar). It is tempting to blame the opacity of some of Heighton’s poems on too much time spent mining Celan’s notoriously cryptic verbal stylings; the first four poems in The Waking Comes Late feature dreamscapes that pose varying degrees of interpretive challenge.

If Celan can be faulted for making the personal poems less accessible, however, he can arguably be credited for adding depth to the political ones. The poems “¡Evite que sus niños…!” and “Thalassacide” open on an identically “shrink-wrapped shoreline,” where a solitary figure “sits shiva for the seas”: “By the time I fell in love / with the planet,” says the speaker in the first poem, “it was dying.” Heighton interposes his translation of Celan’s “Untitled” between his own two poems, suggesting that we are meant to read the latter in dialogue with the former. “Untitled” opens,

What was written caves in,
what was spoken, seagreen,
flames in the bays,
And concludes,
in this
is gasping […]?

If Celan’s poems occur against the backdrop of the Second World War, Heighton’s response embodies the concerns of the here and now; in “Thalassacide,” the contemporary poet intimates that it is the earth itself gasping for air as the sea level climbs:

a castaway hamlet floats
eastward over the dateline (the village
retains its form, its dirt lanes now
salt canals, small Shinto temple
a flagship).

This vision of catastrophe on a global scale is further underscored in poems like “Humanitarian War Fugue,” a rewriting of Celan’s most famous poem, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”). “Death Fugue” is a chilling depiction of Holocaust death camps, written in the collective voice of Jewish prisoners who are forced to dig graves and play execution music. Their fates are determined by a sadistic guard “who cultivates snakes and who writes”:

he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start
flashing he whistles his
  dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us to play for the dance

Celan’s poem derives its terror from the juxtaposition of music and murder: its title and cadence approximate the musical fugue, a form in which a melodic phrase is successively repeated and interpreted by different instruments in the orchestra; they also evoke the music inmates in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were forced to play during executions. As readers, we are simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the turning of beauty to horrific ends.

Although intelligent and well-crafted, Heighton’s political poems lack a sense of urgency, substituting verbal dexterity for depth.

Although Heighton doesn’t cite “Death Fugue” directly, it is the clear intertext for “Humanitarian War Fugue,” which likewise features an incongruous pairing of violent imagery and lulling dactylic rhythms. The perspective is flipped from the victim to the perpetrator of violence: chillingly, the speaker uses a bureaucratic military jargon to justify the so-called ‘collateral damage’ of his wartime actions. “We killed with the best of intentions,” the soldier states confidently; “The goals that we died for were sound. / The notions we killed for were sterling.” As the poem progresses, however, these assertions are quickly unmasked:

Bad guys by the graveful we gunned down so
girls, little girls
by the classful, could go to school. Girls, too, busing to school,
we slew so girls could go to school unharmed, in error
we slew them, with better intentions, bad eggs however we harmed
to win hearts, warm cockles, gain guts and livers and
limbs and minds

Through alliteration, assonance, and lexical repetition, the fates of the “bad guys” and the “little girls” become indistinguishable, the motives for killing increasingly illogical. All are eventually swept up in the bloody war machine that, failing to ‘win hearts and minds’ (as the saying goes), ultimately reduces everything in its wake to guts and limbs.

Heighton explores similar themes in “Coronach, Post-Kandahar” (about a soldier with PTSD who commits suicide) and “Baffled in Ashdod, Blind in Gaza,” which is inspired by the all-too-real episode of an Israeli soldier who posted photos of herself smiling next to bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees. Celan makes a cameo in this poem as one of the pantheon of Jewish artists and intellectuals, whom, along with Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and others, Heighton imagines “weeping quietly / in their tombs,” “tallowing / hours away in the earth / to understand this ‘Facebook’.”

If the aforementioned poems gain authority by invoking bygone intellectuals, however, their overabundant irony dampens their relevance; while their wry detachment ostensibly replicates the institutionalized indifference they target, it simultaneously makes them easy to dismiss. “Benedict I Hear that Christ,” a poem about the laissez-faire attitude of the Church toward child-molesting priests, is another case-in-point. The title at first glance heralds a hymn, but the poem’s first line (“would like a word with you about the children”) reverses the meaning in a neat little piece of zeugmatic punning. Reading these ostensibly political poems, one is put in mind of David Foster Wallace’s claim that “irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Although intelligent and well-crafted, Heighton’s political poems lack a sense of urgency, substituting verbal dexterity for depth.

As readers, we are simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the turning of beauty to horrific ends.

More incisive are the poems that, rather than trying to take on The Big Issues, deal instead with the microcosm. “The Minor Chords” neatly embodies this perspective in its portrayal of life’s “fleeting, non-fatal snub[s].” A “lauded colleague’s cocktail / froideur, or just a driver at a four-way / giving you the finger” are minor slights that can be contrasted with the images of cultural degradation writ large in the political poems. Heighton traditionally does his best work in these mundane spaces. “Wheat Town Beer-Leaguer, Good Snapshot, No Backhand” poignantly renders the desire to forsake the tortured life of the artist (“the simian prattle in my prefrontal lobe”) for a simpler life “in some wind-burned wheat town, raising cheerfully unsupervised kids”:

And the compound stink of the arena—fabricated frost,
the popcorn stench of old hockey gloves—would flag
a curious liberty from the fakery
and fuckery of culture—its pretense that one is special, elect,
consecrated to a purer calling

Of course, the fantasy of fleeing “the fakery / and fuckery of culture” can only ever be temporary, for the poet is ineluctably compelled by the “purer calling.” The inescapability of this destiny is underscored by the juxtaposition of this poem with a translation of Constantine Cavafy’s “The City,” which admonishes its addressee,

You will find no other country, no other shore—
the city will follow you. You will wander the same
streets and enclaves, aging, in the self-same
rooms fading slowly to pale.

This idea of imprisonment within the self is a reoccurring motif in The Waking Comes Late. By contrast with Cavafy’s pessimistic depiction of the existential huis-clos, however, Heighton consistently affirms poetry as a means of transcending the “coma” of an unexamined life (this metaphor appears in several poems). “After the CAT Scan” depicts a man who, having had his larynx “shattered in a crash,” exiles himself to a family cottage. It is not accidental that the doctor’s orders—“write what you need to say”—ironically recapitulate the labour of the poet. The question of how to follow these instructions—to ‘write what you need to say’, and in so doing, give it meaning—is presented elsewhere as the artist’s ultimate aim:

How you would like to transcend this primate
sadness […] we try to understand
and salve with poems, paintings, songs or prayer—
solo protests against solitude (“The Minor Chords”)

This passage also expresses the dual function of art-making, the “solo protests against solitude”: although a solitary excavation of the self, the ultimate orientation of art is outward. In The Waking Comes Late, Heighton situates himself in a community that encompasses both the voices of his poetic forebears and those of his present interlocutors. This idea of artistic community, and of the power of poetry in general, is the major chord in a collection aptly blurbed as “fierce music performed in a minor key.” Though Heighton perpetually reminds us that life is a grim affair, he nevertheless remains hopeful about the transcendent power of art. 

Myra Bloom has published on Canadian/Québécois literature in The Puritan, GUTS, The Rusty Toque, as well as in a number of academic journals. Find her on Twitter @myradbloom or on the web.