Winter 2001


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poems by Michael Hettich
(Pudding House Publications, ISBN: 1-930755-06-0)
by Lenny Dellarocca

At once surreal and grounded, Hettich's prose poems in "Sleeping with the lights on" incorporate everyday circumstances woven with fantastic images and bizarre scenes that are as inventive and sensual as they are
playful. Still, many of the poems congeal into a sensible story while some poems seem to remain abstract. The reader, however, feels or intuits meaning in all of them. As poet John Haag would say, the poems have "authenticity."

In his poem "Waking to Rain," Hettich starts with a bizarre event -- his hands have fallen off.  But then he takes an experience everyone has had (everyone, that is, who has lived in the north during winter), which makes everyday sense of the surreal:

When I was a child, my hands would sometimes fall off and get lost in the grass or in my house somewhere -- and I would have to search for them, sometimes late a night, when everyone else was sleeping. I'd be lying in bed, starting to drift off, when I'd need to touch my own body, and I'd realize my hands were missing. So I'd lie there trying to remember back when I'd used them last. After awhile I'd get up, get dressed as best I could without hands, and I'd walk around the dark house, out into the yard and street, looking for my hands, calling out
-- until at last I found them. Once I lost my hands for a whole winter afternoon when I hadn't worn gloves.

Throughout "Sleeping with the lights on" Hettich returns to scenes -- most of which are either in, outside, or near his house -- in which he, or someone in his family, is just waking up or falling to sleep. Dreams and dreaming figure heavily:

"Then she claimed I'd shown up in her dreams, that I'd taken off my clothes…" ("Breathing Underwater").

"When we got home, finally, it was almost next year. But no one seemed worried. No one seemed to have missed us." ("Sounds Instead of Dreaming").

No doubt the speaker sleeps with the lights on because like a child afraid of the dark, he questions the certainty of home, family, day, night, being asleep and being awake.  No longer are there monsters in the dark, but there is a sense of mystery in what is and what is not real. It is also magical, and often sensuous. The realm of dreams leaks
from his mind into his house in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the day.

"One morning you wake to find you can't move your tongue…After an hour, you get up, open a closet of women's clothes, shoes, and perfumed dresses." ("One Morning").

"He dreamed he gathered her blossoms where they fell and made a pillow, and he dreamed he slept beneath that tree until his clothes tattered and fell away." ("Song").

"I woke up in my bedroom and felt the dew soak my hair. Who glances into you, sharp as any instrument, when the colors have just started fading into dusk?" ("Everything, And Nothing At All").

With one foot in the light and one in the dark, Hettich observes that behind the façade of reality human beings are mysterious creatures, creatures with wild imaginations. The opening poem, "Mushrooms," may seem to suggest that the book is a psychedelic trip. But by the last poem, "The Point of Touching," we realize that while the trip may have been induced, it was induced not by chemicals found in mushrooms, but by chemicals found in, among other things, human touch. Perhaps more than any other image in "Sleeping with the lights on," those instances where two people touch ground the book, the poems and the experience most:

"At the touch of her sure, warm hands, I fell ever more deeply, more inarticulately, in love." ("Sounds Instead of Dream").

More than anything else, those sensual, touch images running through the poems are what make the book authentic:

"And that's the point of touching, isn't it? To make our bodies real? Things like that are sometimes closer than the world, closer than our words, closer even than ourselves." ("The Point of Touching").

Of course, the other side of all this groundedness, if you will, is Hettich's adeptness at freeing language from the ordinary. After all, a good novel could express the feel-good pleasure of touching and love. But these are poems -- set aside the debate whether prose poems are poetry -- these are windows into a world of magic exploration. Hettich brings to words the unwordable, intangible feelings that go with fleeting observation that the brain stores and then tries to make sense of while we sleep, sometimes while we are awake, and as poets, while we contemplate and write. It is in language that the poet sculpts his form, composes his music, choreographs his dance and paints his picture. Hettich uses all of the arts in his language so that the lines become literal and abstract shapes, become melody and/or harmony, move to a rhythm and perhaps mostly, become pictures:

"I was sculpting something like a bone in my garage when you came over and asked if I'd loan you some fly-tied fish hooks…"  ("Bones").

"He dreamed the girl he loved turned into a tree outside his bedroom window, where, in winter, she flowered with snow…" ("Song").

Arbitrarily selecting incredible images and ideas -- this freeing of language -- from "Sleeping with the lights on" is as easy as flipping through and randomly pointing to anywhere on the pages:

"he breaks and bruises every mirror he can find -- to get rid of flat energy, to make his brain taller. Now he'd like to sing a tall song. Would I mind? He made it up last night, he says, instead of sleeping." ("Tall Music").

"And right now in a distant city, in an office at the top of a glinting skyscraper, a woman you wouldn't even recognize remembers how you danced one mid-afternoon, by yourself in the middle of a waxed gymnasium
floor…" ("Moving Bodies").

Throughout the book, Hettich repeatedly comes back to the image of cutting, or opening the human body:

"As soon as you start to breathe deeply, she wakes, takes your hands and arms and begins stuffing you in her body, through the hole you cut." ("Mushrooms").

"Then you rake your fingernail across her belly, just below the rib cage, to draw a faint red line. Taking a deep breath, and squinting, you peel back the skin below the breastbone, reach up to your elbow into her body, behind the lungs and heart, into the mossy sponge back there, and pull out mushrooms that glow in he dark." ("Mushrooms").

"So you do the only thing you can do: you start to pull the matted hair away from her face and body, freeing swarms of fireflies and bees, which enter your face as if it were air." ("You Are Dreaming").

To ascertain the meaning of things, to get to the core of feelings and reality,

("she told me I could swim underwater as far as I can sleep, which goes down as deep as the solid darkness at the core of things") ("Breathing Underwater")

Hettich cuts the physical body open to expose the metaphysical where meaning and feelings coexist, which the poet must tease out strand by strand. These strands are the lines Hettich crafts into the colorful and poignant poems in his book. For all its Dali- and Bosch-like landscapes filled with glittering and sometimes distorted characters, "Sleeping with the lights on" is a surreal but romantic tale of tenderness, humanity and even a little humor.

Yet, I am a little reluctant to pour heaps of praise on this book, a red flag raises when I charge headlong and passionately into something that seems so good.  Aren't we all weary of all the tinsel and fireworks thrown and set off by reviewers of poetry these last several years? What have I missed in Hettich's new book, where is the flaw -- there is always a flaw isn't there?

I'll be damned if I can find one.

Born and raised in the NYC area, Michael Hettich has lived in various places in the U.S. and came to Miami years ago. He holds a Ph.D in English and American literature from the University of Miami and an M.A. from the University of Denver. Author of two full-length books of poetry and three chapbooks, Hettich has work in a variety of journals over the years, including, "Poetry East," "The Literary Review," "The Beloit Poetry Review," and "Indiana
Review." He has edited the anthology "Write in Our Midst," and was co-editor of "Having A Wonderful Time: An Anthology of South Florida Writers" (Simon & Schuster).

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