Poet Of The Week

Thomas Heise

     February 17–23, 2014

Thomas Heise is the author of three books: Moth; or how I came to be with you again (Sarabande, 2013), Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande, 2006), and Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2011). His work has been anthologized in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and will be included in the forthcoming collection The Americas Anthology of New Writings: From Patagonia to Nunavut. An associate professor at McGill University, he divides his time between Montreal and Brooklyn.

New York City (lyric)


There’s nothing latent in my wireless imagination where everything, even the heart’s muscle, is public. Give me one more love song and I’ll destroy it. Orpheus looked over his shoulder because he wanted Lili Brik to disappear, the only way to save himself for the poems he thought he’d write before thirty-six arrived, a shock in its chamber. Oh mother. Oh love. Beauty enters wrapped in furs and the whole train to Moscow suddenly unsure of itself, the revolution suspended between wheels: “Down with Symbolism. Long live the living rose!” The moment the chimp recognized he was human, he began to paint over the mirror. These days, mystery floating in the recesses of the plaza, a memory of green sky high above us like glamour and the history surrounding us forgotten for a minute, then we’re cold. Every woman begins as a description. A brochure. A leaflet. Love made into origami. This one’s now for July. This one’s now for August. This one’s now in the wave pool, buoyed by the chlorine and sense of possibility, as if the water were in me and churning and could this feeling last forever and that seagull, you don’t have to think. Sometimes you have to be shot in the heart in order to stop dreaming. These days of false humour and sequins, like Jean Nouvel’s windows, we look in from the outside because we’re fortunate to be poor and part of the city. Every city begins as an accident and soon becomes a need. The player-piano melancholy through the avenues now that the night is quiet ushered in by a line of crows as if pulling a photographer’s cloth. Finely granulated static after the daily life counting coins in our solitude after the dry cleaners after the loneliness of the mall at closing, the lights in the fountain turned off, after that you were, after the ornamental civic gardens after the letters tossed from a balcony after the street that ended at a power plant and a river you never drank from, you were, then the orphanage then the House of Assignation then the locked door then the brain scan, you were, the nonfunctional façade after the mattress store after the Museum of Mind Over Matter after that after all that, you were, and the great throbbing crowd once in super slow-mo formed a Rorschach blot, the visuals moving to the melody of a soundtrack, I don’t have a map, she said, I just enter the territory–I love you to this point. A leaf. A few thoughts on paper. Nature doesn’t grow on trees, the critic said, but we don’t believe her because we don’t believe in Nature, and even her dress is synthetic and her glasses have no lenses so how can she see the moon, or the flag planted there for Marilyn? These days, the intricate architecture of our past lives, the rhythm and beauty of it, the way you could walk into a stanza at midnight and surprised to find me at the desk, our home, it was an idea I grew inside of, and if asked to describe these days, what I would say would fail, as does every poem at the title. I’m remembering in Berlin remembering you and I’m remembering in New York remembering you and I’m on a bus by Tupper Lake remembering you for the first time I can’t, the morning in blades of light through the pine trees, a kind of triage. Every map begins as a legend and ends with a woman on the Bosphorus where the blue is so supple you wore it as a scarf and then you took a shuttle called a metaphor. In forty years, I’ll be dead if I’m lucky. These days, three o’clock in the afternoon of November, the Eiffel Tower a radio transmitter of secret signals to the befuddlement of the professor who thought life was fixed in amber and that one’s home could never turn into a pawn shop or that no one would blow up the Louvre and replace it with a W, rather than these love letters to the people of Juarez. We walk through the streets like a seam in Barthes’s stocking, we’re where the threads come together before they unravel. All that’s solid melts into money and the day ends with a comma, and even belatedness is marketed like the colour green will wash the dirt out of your mouth and with it another philosophy of progress. The city in which you left me I give it back like remorse. My breath in your deaf ears, we’re both bodies, only yours in autumn is gone.

–From Moth; or how I came to be with you again, Sarabande, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“New York City (lyric)” was a difficult and painful poem that came easily to me. It poured out in a rush, which is unusual for me. At the time that I was writing it and the book—Moth—in which it appears—very significant parts of life were breaking apart. If you’ve seen tornado footage of a house imploding and then scattering outward, you’ll get the idea. Plus, a whole lot of stuff that I was reading at the time—Mayakovsky, Italian Futurism, theories of architecture—all got swept up into the poem too. That period is past now, but it lives on in the poem which, for me at least, salvages some of the artifacts of love—scraps of experiences, feelings encoded in memory, the worry that those memories will themselves fade with time. An emotionally devastating epigraph from Proust—“I am sad, not because you are leaving, but because I am going to forget you”—hangs over the entire book and is very much present in this poem, which I hope readers can feel.

What are you working on right now?

Two very different projects.

I’m in the early stages of a novel about a contemporary art historian who is researching Matisse’s models and in the process comes to discover that one of them is, inexplicably, still alive and has not aged. Or at least he believes this is the case—because the truth of the matter is never clear. In discovering her, he falls in love, though it remains unsettled if what he experiences and knows is his own wish-fulfillment or an elaborately staged performance on her part. Since all love is a mysterious mix of the will-to-believe and theatre—does it matter what is true and what isn’t, so long as it works?

The other project is a book called Crimes of New York: Contemporary Crime Fiction and the Reinvention of the City. It’s about how recent crime literature represents the city after the precipitous drop in violent crime in New York since the 1990s and how the genre of crime fiction turns its attention to a different set of “crimes,” such as gentrification, ethnic displacement and the erasure of social and cultural memories.

What’s a good day for you?

Getting up before seven with a pot of coffee prepared the night before, a cleared desk, and freedom from the news of the world. Then lunch. Then a walk around my neighborhood, which usually ends in a café, more coffee and a book to read. I wish I could say that this “good day” happened every day, but alas …

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve lived off and on in Brooklyn since 1999, with significant periods in Montreal and Manhattan. At one point or another, the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and Greenwood Heights have all been home. At the moment, I live where South Park Slope starts to edge into Gowanus, a neighborhood where you can find excellent tacos served out of the back of a bodega, greasy car repair shops along the wide gulch of 4th Avenue and old yellow and blue clapboard houses next to giant-box luxury highrises. It’s not a bad place, but like all places in Brooklyn, it is changing quickly, especially since 4th Avenue was rezoned to attract priced-out Manhattanites and spillover from Park Slope. All in all, I’ve loved some of these neighborhoods more than others and probably—for sheer beauty at least—Brooklyn Heights the most. Sun-soaked brownstones, narrow tree-lined streets, the promenade and a ton of subways stations that are one stop from Manhattan—what’s not to love? Well—the price, I guess.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Thankfully, I’ve had too many “Brooklyn experiences” to recount, but a year ago when my landlord increased my rent by $1000 a month—that certainly wasn’t the best one!

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Walt Whitman. Risky. Egotistical. Humble. Repellant. Attractive. A weirdo. Utterly canonical. Inimitable. Often imitated. A flaneur. A homebody.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

BookCourt. Why? Because I can shop for books and then cross the street and buy dark chocolate mints at Trader Joe’s. Highly recommended.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the summer between noon and sunset. If you see me on one of the benches, say “hi.”

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Brooklyn Bridge Park, hipster beach in the Rockaways especially during the week in the summer, Smorgasburg in Williamsburg.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Lisa Robertson, Magenta Soul Whip (2009), because she’s the best poet you don’t know about but who will change your life once you do.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Rimbaud,
And what I Rimbaud you should Rimbaud,
For every Rimbaud belongs to me as good belongs to you,
     Verlaine, to

Why Brooklyn?

Because we’re all a little closer to god and the devil when we’re here.