Michael Hettich‘s seventh collection of poetry, The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011) has the wonderful quality of reading like one long integrated poem instead of a pastiche. The connections are thematic and stylistic, and the layering makes each individual poem reverberate more powerfully than if it stood alone.
Although the book touches on many themes–long-term marriage in particular–in essence it is about grief and how we manage it. The opening poem, “Widow,” has the griever both cut off from the world, “When it’s cold you understand things by leaving them alone” and “burning inside.” In this poem, Hettich controls the mood through syntax. By setting up subjunctives and not completing them he creates a great sense of anticipation:
If silence were a creature like a dog, and could follow you around like a dog does, and come when you called. If silence were a housecat you rescued from the alley.
The reader hopes for resolution but is denied. The subjunctive carries within itself the dashing of hopes. “If it were” implies “but, it is not.” These techniques make the reader ache, as the “you” in the poem is longing for an end to grief that will not come.
The final poem, “Measuring the Days,” arrives at a grief that is much more personal, calm, and joyous. This time, instead of a disembodied “you,” the griever is the speaker, a son, and the focus is centered on the father who has died. The father is both still here, “his way of staying present. But of course we miss him.” and fading away from us, “as he slowly dissolves into the current. And we remember him/like hair and teeth, like skin–if we remember him.” The speaker has permission not to remember the father and in the final image, the father is relaxed and propels himself out to sea. The reader is given all complete sentences and left content.
As would be expected in a book called The Animals Beyond Us, animals permeate the book, and they are often beyond our help or comprehension like the eggs the child steals from the woods and that hatch under his bed “ravenous.” But then there are the animals that call us into a new understanding of ourselves and the world as in “After the Rains”:
You study caterpillars, spend your evenings imagining the lives of the creatures you rarely see, hummingbirds and manatees, foxes and opossums, birds of lovely plumage, and you start to open up
Or in the “House of Light”:
Step away from those other animals, as though you weren't wild yourself in all the parts that matter: in your blood and vivid thinking, seeing colors for their light which sings out how to move and be and feel until you burst alive.
A few of the poems fall flat or lose trust in the reader. In “The Ghost” the speaker tells the reader the cat is not a real cat but “an animal of the mind.” In this poem, Hettich has already established powerful concrete imagery that works as metaphor. The meta-commentary only serves to kick the reader out.
However, most of the poems do work, and the links between them are tight and powerful. One poem might end with “the brine of a womb where a child waits to breathe.” The next begins with a baby being born. A poem called lullaby is followed by a poem where “she would sing lullabies in a language he has never learned.” The word “silence” appears in ten different poems, “basement” in seven. The unfinished subordinator appears in several, most notably “Skin” where the heightened anticipation is perfect for the subject matter: the “we” in the poem is waiting for the moment of death that hasn’t quite come.
Death has come to my life recently, and I find myself searching for poems that speak to my experience. How do I honor that liminal state as someone is dying? How do I pay attention to the concrete and let myself enter the dream world? While Hettich‘s poems speak to the struggles of long-term marriage and how to treat the natural world, it is when they take on grief that they shine.
Review by Deborah Bacharach
New Rivers Press American Poetry Series, 2011
$13.95 // 59 Pages