on The Odor of Sanctity, poems by Michael Heffernan (Salmon Poetry)


What have I done? I said to my own self.
Who have I come to be? I said again.
My own self answered me in her own words.
She told me things I could not understand.
She watched my eyes move when she told me this.
They watched a bird go over the blue sky.
The blue sky took the bird and the bird left.
The air was blue all over where I was.
And where I was was there among her words.
She spoke them once again. The air was blue.
I flew across it and became her song.
I sang it while she sang the air around us.
And then the quiet fell and we fell too.
We left the air alone. And it got dark.

heffernan.jpgMichael Heffernan wrote “Nightfall” in 2001. It was published in The Night Breeze Off the Ocean (Eastern Washington University Press, 2005), his fifth book of poems from an American press. Now, it reappears in his third book from Jessie Lendennie’s Salmon Poetry, hailing from the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland. The book is called The Odor of Sanctity. Heffernan also plucked two poems from To the Wreakers of Havoc (Georgia, 1984), The Man at Home (Arkansas, 1988), and Love’s Answer (winner of the Iowa Prize, 1994). The balance of the book is new poetry. The Salmon books are effectively “new and selected” volumes – so in Ireland, Heffernan’s following enjoys a longer view of this poet’s highly accomplished work. It is folly that there is yet no book of selected poetry by Heffernan from an American publisher.

Heffernan was born in Detroit in 1942 and attended a Jesuit secondary school. As a teen he translated lines from The Aeneid into iambic pentameter and this line continues loyally to support the sound of what he has to say. You can hear its loosened pulse in the poem above – along with echoes of Berryman and Stevens. “Nightfall” is quintessential Heffernan: a tale of the trying of the soul, redemption in the ordinary (sky, bird), the tenderly shrewd speechifying, the whole built sturdily to withstand the whirlwind. He writes a disarming poetry, often spoken by one unable to understand his fate. This failure may generate any number of tones and attitudes, from empathy to contempt -- though a smart playfulness lets any extreme remark sound familiar and approachable.

When you consider the generation of American poets born in the early 1940s, Heffernan’s delivery stands out as idiosyncratically recognizable as those of Olds, Hass, Hejinian, Giovanni, Palmer, Tate, Glück, Pinsky. His persona is usually an entertaining combination of the fabulist and the friar, the wag and the seer. There is a carefully modulated desperation in his comedy, an endearing and complex element one doesn’t find in a comic poet prone to affable mini-epiphanies like Billy Collins (b. 1941). Heffernan’s epiphanies are as large as the blue sky and just as poignantly vacant. A whole life is brought to bear on the effort of metaphor until a life as metaphor emerges complete within the grasp of the poem.


One afternoon at Egan’s in Kilkee
I showed JJ my map of Shannon Estuary.
Look JJ, I told him, Look at this map:
here is the River Fergus like a great vas deferens
pouring its teeming love-juice into the Shannon.
Ah ‘tis, he said, Ah yes, a true bloody fact,
and turned to discuss the Charolais
and the Whitehead Herefords
with Jerry McDermott up the bar.
No JJ, listen to me, I urged him, Look again, look here:
this is the manhood of Ireland plunging
into that great slut of an ocean.
‘Tis that, he said, Yes indeed, I see it there,
and called for another pint from Clare Egan
for each of us, then helped himself to a Woodbine
out of Jerry’s pack. Mary Carey stepped over,
dangling a half-glass between two fingers. And what
was this you were mentioning over here JJ,
she asked. Mary Mary, let me explain, I said,
We were observing the virtue of the Whitehead cattle
As compared to the Charolais …
Which are a dead loss, said Jerry McDermott.
Oh I see, she said, Oh yes.
Nothing of the kind, Clare told her,
the infamous Yank is lying to you, Mary: he and JJ
were examining the River Shannon on this map
and how it pours itself into the ocean
in an act of fornication.
Ah go on, said Mary Carey.
A dead loss, said Jerry McDermott.

I suppose there’s not much (or perhaps not any) muted desperation in “The Manhood of Ireland,” just the infamous Yank poking fun at his own inflations. This man, unfolding the map and converting geography into metaphor, knows he has gone too far. Clare and Mary reel him back in. Just so, the overspill of language in Heffernan’s work pretends to be hapless but incorporates its own prudent Clares and Marys. Thomas Lynch has spoken of the “acoustic splendor” in Heffernan’s work. He begins “Legends of Old Castile” with these lines: “Mother’s announcement of our good friends’ departure / was held back by a morsel of potato farl lodged in her throat, / which stifled all life from her sad little person.” Heffernan’s poems are almost always about a situation and the story-teller’s enthusiasm is more than apparent. A steady force of camouflaged intelligence prevents things from getting gassy or inane.

heffernan2.jpgIn an interview in the Aroostook Review, Heffernan says, “My interest in Ireland started in my early teens, when I got a Heffernan family crest, with a page of family history attached. I had the crest framed, and still have it. Eventually I discovered that ‘Heffernan’ derives from the Gaelic word for ‘demon,’ and probably means ‘devil’s spawn.’ Such knowledge is delightful to me. I surmise that the gist of the name is that the Heffernans were unconverted pagans for a long time.”

Ha Jin has recently published a book of essays called The Writer as Migrant in which he considers the position of the writer who is exiled or emigrates from his native land. But what of the writer who makes a constant transit between two homelands? To make his living, Heffernan works and publishes in the US. He has lived and taught in Pittsburg, Kansas and now Fayetteville, Arkansas. Yet he writes for a transoceanic audience, and perhaps this accounts for or necessitates a broad vision, the directness of his narrative voice, and the unembarrassed ways he talks about the soul and humanity, happiness and misery. Ha Jin says that “at the outset of his career, a writer often wrestles with the Aristotelian questions – to whom, as whom, and in whose interest does he write?” It seems to me that Heffernan has always written for a people explicitly like himself, people who can understand him instantly and thus for whom he must speak with precision and good humor. He has written as one of them, and if he speaks with certain affectations, these are their affectations, too.

Heffernan says, “I think there is a great advantage to having another readership in a completely different place where you have to present your work to an audience whose values concerning poetry are not at all like those of your own countrymen. It’s not that I have to deal with Ireland in a certain way, so much as that I have to deal with myself as an American from a different perspective. I don’t get to take the same things for granted.”


I scaled a mountain of paradoxical remains.
Blue ruins smoldered. Boxes bulged with effects.
Bilious dread collapsed the nerve-ends.
Foes spoke selective news from outré-mer.
It gathered dust in cubbies under altars to lost gods.
Here was my own palaver, my dearest plover,
my best little wing. I was happier
than you could dream, and you were gone for good,
you were nowhere nearby, I would never again
be accosted by your drift
among speckled boulevards.
Beside myself, I ducked into the shade
of the Basilica of St Hylarion, where they kept his skull,
and knelt, only to take in, in the next frame,
a view of myself from behind
with Rinaldo, Mutt of the Nations,
muttering into his ragged apostolic sleeve
and stinking beside me, the two of us devoid of help,
our backs bent in a kinship of unholy woe.
Wind hammered the glass. Flames ate the stillness.
From long ago and far away I heard you weeping.
I smelled my own heart shaking into flakes of fire.

One senses in his work the presence of an undercarriage of primal, mythic spirituality – supporting a chassis of fecklessness and doubt. But the dual-natured conveyance gamely motors on, arriving clamorously, and affording a clear windshield on actual life. The pagan’s inchoate urgencies meet the saint’s call to reflection and praise -- the abject converses with the elevated. “Unholy woe” is balanced by the odor of sanctity (not the scent or aroma) – and the two components combined hint at a third way: facing up to the actual. Heffernan’s poems don’t merely end – they chat you up for the purpose of leaving you in deep silence. This balance, perhaps embodied in the correspondence between the America and Ireland of his psyche, is what Heffernan’s poetry has been driving at since he published his first poems in the 1970s. The shriven character seeks some relief (not the same thing as absolution). In the end, the seeking itself must suffice, a case Heffernan frequently makes. Reflecting on a past stricken time, the speaker now achieves a little daylight by realizing he somehow made it through the murk. This is the key gesture in Heffernan’s work, often repeated. Because it is so prominent choreographically, he faces the challenge of devising a variable rhythm when assembling his tables of contents -- and of ensuring that his charm does not become predictable.

The Odor of Sanctity includes sixty-four poems. Some are sonnets like “Nightfall,” wildly compact. Some are long narratives, talkative and splendidly paced. Although I could quote happily from any number of them to end, I give you another of my favorites from an earlier book.


Maybe what Thomas means when he says grace
is its own prerequisite, or words to that effect,
has something to do with these sweet tides of joy
one feels now and then in the bottom of the breast
while crossing the street against the light
or watching children at play or cats copulating
or birds leaving the branches quivering under them
and the stillness of the branches afterwards.
Maybe it’s times like these that Thomas means,
though I’m in doubt on this and other issues,
including the one correlative idea
about how the Divine Essence cannot be known
to a person who is still in the body, except
“in dreams or alienations of the senses,”
which is a truly wonderful consideration
coming from a corpulent 13th-century Dominican –
and grace again is an explicit component here:
“the images in the imagination are divinely formed,”
involving “the infusion of gratuitous light,”
Thomas having elsewhere carefully explained
how it takes grace to prepare oneself for grace,
as in that sudden shower one afternoon last summer,
like a sparkling airy essence of divine light,
I found a portly African in a Hawaiian shirt
baptizing himself in the street and marveling:
“I couldn’t help myself! This rain is exquisite!” –
the two of us finally standing face to face,
one of us an angel in a shirt of flowers,
the other blessed as he could be because of that.

[Published October 2008 in Ireland, 100 pp., $21.95. Order directly from Salmon Poetry's Heffernan Page. Also available via Amazon in late January, 2009.]

Poetry by Michael Heffernan:
The Cry of Oliver Hardy (Univ. of Georgia, 1979)
To the Wreakers of Havoc (Univ. of Georgia, 1984)
The Man at Home (Arkansas, 1988)
Love’s Answer (Iowa, 1994)
The Back Road to Arcadia (Salmon Poetry, 1994)
Another Part of the Island (Salmon Poetry, 1999)
The Night Breeze Off the Ocean (Eastern Washington, 2005)

Heffernan's The Odor of Sanctity

Thanks for the sympathetic reading of Heffernan's work and the review of his most recent collection. His books have been woefully neglected by critics.