» Book Review
A Balm to Soothe the Fevers
Bluer and More Vast by Michael Hettich
Hysterical Books, 2018
Paperback, 82 pages, $15.00
In Michael Hettich’s Bluer and More Vast, the reader bears witness to a man who is barely and beautifully tethered to the world around us. These small prose poems are evocative, tender stories of companionship, confusion, home life, memories of fathers, and dreams of wives and husbands dreaming together. In “The Double Dream of Sleeping,” we are invited inside:
One night, my wife and I dreamed the same dream: we had carried our mattress to the ocean, thrown it into water and climbed on. We lay together in that bed as we drifted out into the deep water, in a night that was teeming with stars and silence.
What happens next, as throughout the collection, asks more questions of us than provides answers: What is memory? A dream? Family? Can small things save us?
The man and his family here reside in tandem with opossum families and insect worlds and the forest dwellers and everywhere the presence of birds, the birds, the wild Florida birds. Their homes are in the water and in the branches and the moss and the boat. We are all in it with him and looking around and wondering. Hettich brings a David Byrne-like beautiful befuddlement to it all: Is this my beautiful wife? Who am I? How did I get here?
Reading a new collection by a white male poet isn’t usually first on my poetry list these days. I have spent too many years on assigned books written by white men, and I need to catch up on years and years of missed and silenced voices from my queer, brown, trans, young, female, Asian, and other and other and other poetry family. I approached Bluer and More Vast with my armor up. I was curious. What does a seasoned white male poet have to say to me, a woman, right now? Right now?
In the end, I am grateful for the read and review. Taken as a whole, the collection feels like a balm to soothe the fevers whipped up in my body—and so many othered bodies—these days. Oh, these days. Even my teenage daughter has been taught dozens of dark, dystopian YA books in recent years—a response, they say, to our untethered, anxious world. Hettich’s prose is like a pill one can take to quiet some of the angry male voices on the air, across the bumper stickers that berate us, the defiant, spewing Supreme Court nominees.
The speaker of these poems is a man at once fully grounded and light as air—someone who puts a soup in the crock pot and carries injured long-necked herons to bed (“The Guest”) and who loves his wife. Really loves her. So many love poems here. Did Hettich know we needed this? In “Sunday Morning” a man recalls a long list of the books he and his wife are reading, and the passing of the days together:
We were putting our reading aside and going out to putter in our garden, to listen to the cardinals and mockingbirds and mourning doves, to smell the spearmint we’d planted by the henna tree. It was raining then, softly, and we let ourselves get wet, soaked through to the skin, which belonged to us now.
The beautiful, dreamy poem “To Sing The World” almost asks what is love? And it is not too sentimental; rather, in Hettich’s hands, it becomes serious meta-commentary in a world battered by a lack of gentleness.
Magical realism works well for these poems, especially because they occupy that murky, liminal place: the prose poem. Hettich’s emphasis is on story and mood more than traditional poetic elements like sound or metaphor. What is happening to these people, these fish, the deer with bird nests nestled in racks on their heads at the beach (“Solitude”)? Strange and confusing things, sure, but the reader is not scared. The language is evocative and beautiful, so the brevity of each piece lends an urgency to the collection that is hopeful instead of harried.
Hettich’s words play with idea and imagery, giving us just enough weirdness to want more. Does he want us to know he is dreaming or does he want us to just not care for once, to get in the poem and go? “The Ordinary Wonders” encapsulates much of the trip we are taken on, via spider web and the neighbor’s lusty libretto. These poems and this speaker are something to sing about. And so, in turn, are the little and big lives always happening around us. Like Mary Oliver, Hettich skillfully slows us down, and we look together on the wading birds in ways more studied than sappy, more insightful than ordinary in spite of the quiet subject matter.
And we wonder, too, as we sink in steel lawn chairs with Hettich and our ancestors all around us smoking pipes and bringing wayward turtles to our laps. All along the birds and the neighbors and the mothers keep singing and the opossums lumber. It is the big world in our small yards. It is knowing:
Everywhere we look there are reasons to go home
I felt like the poet carried me through this book because I needed to rest. It felt good to know, just a few poems in, that I could be taken well care of with words. The poems were the lullabies, the myths made by us, and maybe they were breadcrumbs, too. Maybe Hettich is a kind of prose poem Pied Piper, but he is not leading me far from home. He is trying to tell me, trying to tell us, that home is the safe place and the vast, relentless water rising all around at once. It is loving the person beside us as much as the people still in our dreams. It is standing in the shallows every chance we get. It is our feet finding sand dollars in the water while we still can.