Horror Vacui by Thomas Heise (Louisville, Kentucy: Sarabande Books, 2006, $21.95)
Literally translated, Horror Vacui is the fear of empty spaces. In a more technical sense, it refers to a maximalist aesthetic in visual art in which details proliferate to fill every square inch of blank canvas. This aesthetic is associated with many different periods and places, including Islamic art and the medieval manuscripts illuminated by monks—an example of which adorns the cover of American-born, Montreal-resident Thomas Heise’s debut collection—but more recently has been associated with what is called “outsider art” produced by unschooled artists with mental illness.
This association of an aesthetic phobia with a wrenching fear of the vacuum is what gives Heise’s compelling book its formal and emotional energy. The first poem, which shares its title with the volume as a whole, concludes:
Whthis? Could I hammer a narrow boatat shelter shall I assemble against
Here Heise, like a carpenter, frames the structure of the collection to come. “Frame,” repeated seven times in a space of five sentences and fifty-six words, studding the passage like two-by-fours, has as many or more meanings as it has iterations. For one main sense of the word, I refer to Heise’s epigraph, drawn from the last four lines of Gray’s “Elegy Wrote in a Country Graveyard.” The “narrow frame” of Heise’s poem is an allusion to the “narrow Cel”—the casket—in which each of the dead lies in Gray’s cemetery. Horror Vacui is a book obsessed with death—in particular with the death of the poet’s father—and the vacuum left by it. The above sample should allay any anxiety in the reader that she will come across a sentimentally-inflected inner journey. Nor is this book the sort of lyric elegy pulled off so movingly by Tim Bowling in The Witness Ghost.
Just as the title of this book points in two directions, so does this obsessively re-iterated trope. The frame is also the hole in which a picture is to appear; as with Dickinson’s “After great pain…,” how to fill that hole with art is as much at issue as the question of how to deal with a death and Death more generally. Indeed, “formal feeling” is an apt encapsulation of Heise’s book. Heise does not write in any of poetry’s traditional forms—the closest he comes is a sequence of occidental ghazals, while other poems carry a faint ghost-image of terza rima—but form is a prominent concern of this poet. Many of the poems are written in a fully-justified, double-spaced column, occupying half of the page. This is visually suggestive of the book’s title, filling in an available frame alongside a disquieting empty space. How he fills that frame is of course what matters most. While the sample quoted above is an extreme example, throughout the book obsessive anaphoric repetition of words and phrases, sometimes inverted, sometimes with substitutions, provides a compelling verbal imitation of horror vacui techniques in visual art, while creating powerfully disturbing rhythms. Indeed, the book as a whole has the structure of a fugue (and the mood of a psychological fugue), with tropes and techniques picked up, dropped and picked up again from poem to poem; this is far less a collection of individual pieces than a dirge cycle. Ray McDaniel has commented on the “monotony” of the book— not completely unfavourably—and it’s an accurate term, but the kind of monotony Heise creates is, I think, a formal inevitability.
Monotony does not preclude variety in Horror Vacui. Even within the strait confines of his columnar poems, Heise mixes things up considerably. Several of the poems, all titled “Examination,” take the form of oblique and interpenetrating internal dialogues; these poems cry out for a two-voice performance, as it’s not easy to hear their polyphonic music on the page. In “Exeat,” one of the finest of his column pieces, Heise puts a horizontal metrical energy and embedded rhymes in tension with the vertical rigidity of the poem’s visual structure:
I have walked this room, margin
Outside of the frame, Heise proves himself more than capable of producing a more formally conventional sort of poem, particularly in the haunting narrative piece “The Orchard of Orange Trees,” the sole occupant of the five-part book’s middle section, and in the third installment of the series “These New Days,” a 74-line poem which anchors the collection and frames the private pain of the speaker in a more public context:
…These new days, the news is a dance of death.
My hair has grown long, as if I’ve died and been exhumed
but I swear I am sweeter than them, so do not fear.
with her quiver of arrows to rust. She points the way
Not all of the writing is equally effective. There are points at which the accretion of images and symbols creates a sort of Gothic gloom that does not seem as sincere as the mood of the best poems. In other pieces, particularly the afore-mentioned ghazal suite, Heise’s lines clog with abstractions. Overall, this book leaves me with questions about the poet’s tonal range, leaves me wondering if he has anything to celebrate, if there might be ecstasy as well as anxiety and grief in his poetic universe. Certainly, Heise has the technical arsenal required, but this is of course never enough on its own. For now this very strong first book serves notice that we should be alert to future work from Thomas Heise.
Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled (Insomniac Press, 2004), a contributing editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and a frequent contributor of essays and reviews to Quill & Quire and Books in Canada. www.zachariahwells.com.