Horror Vacui

Horror Vacui

By Bert Almon

A review of Horror Vacui by Thomas Heise

Published on October 1, 2006

Horror Vacui
Thomas Heise

Sarabande Books
cloth
84pp
1932511318

Traditionally, first poetry collections are slim volumes, and so prematurely published that their authors later try to buy or steal all the surviving copies. Thomas Heise, a recent immigrant to Montreal, has published a substantial first book, and writes from an avant garde position with mixed results.

Heise is not a neo-traditionalist but an experimenter, which does not mean that his work is formless. He can write a fine extended ghazal (a transplanted form from Persia), but the truly distinctive poems in the book are written in double-spaced lines of absolutely equal length. Sometimes he uses brackets or vertical marks to interpolate words or phrases into those lines. The interpolations can be used to comment on the words around them; in some cases they form an inner narrative. The effect is one of crowding. The title of Horror Vacui is a term with at least two meanings: in psychology, a fear of empty spaces, and in art, a crowded design. Appropriately, the arresting cover of the book is crowded with a Latin text from a 15th-century prayer book. There is a third implication of the term: a fear of death, that ultimate emptiness.

Heise presents self-elegies in various versions, including a deconstructed one, writes a long narrative poem about the discovery of a dead dog, and laments his dead father. These poems are strong on menacing atmosphere and short on explicit meanings, but it is clear that like Blaise Pascal, Heise is frightened by the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. Good company, Pascal. Heise, an American new to Canada and teaching at McGill, deploys an evocative but rather general vocabulary in a slightly archaic mode, the portentous diction used by W. S. Merwin in his middle period and by such Midwestern surrealists as Robert Bly and James Wright. Rain, sky, birds, leaves, branches, grass, fields, and light are among the obsessive words, and the reiteration of them is one way to crowd a canvas. He can write in a more explicit mode, certainly, and then he tends toward a Romantic rhetoric, as in the long final poem, “These New Days,” his somewhat fearful celebration of a new phase in life. The poem is cast as an address to a lover, who is of course absent. Heise alludes near the end to Robert Graves’ famous claim that there is one song, and one song only: the praise of the White Goddess, who dispenses both life and death. Heise’s White Goddess is absence, the subject he dreads and cannot avoid. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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