by Giles Harvey
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
—W. B. Yeats, “Leda and the Swan”
I shan’t dawdle or prevaricate. The book under review confronts the reader with a whole bouquet of unenviable problems, not least of which is the stark absence, from its seventy-three pretentiously formatted pages, of anything bearing the slightest resemblance to what in simpler and less strenuously egalitarian times was referred to as aesthetic value. Now, the absence of that superannuated property is hardly in itself problematic, the state of literature and the critical appreciation of literature at this bad moment being what they are; the problem arises, rather, from the need somehow to account not only for the book’s startling popularity—I have counted no less than five burnished young poseurs brandishing a copy in the past week alone—but also for the deafening ovation it has received in lettered, or at least vowelled, society. According to one distinguished arbiter of literary tastes, the “miracle” of these “scrupulously self-limiting” poems is the way in which they “never coerce the ineffable” but allow it instead to “detonate and burgeon into speech.” Another oracle singles out the author’s “supple” understanding of “contemporary culture,” which she apparently writes about with “cunning and mischievous penetration.” With their five-scent sense of tradition, many fluent, full-throated hacks have invoked the memory of Dickinson, Stevens, and Bishop; one has even gone so far as to call Lydia Heiffer’s The Indifferent Beak the most important debut collection to be published in America since North and South.
What nonsense! Flipping through this laundry list of pampered false consciousness I find myself compelled to repeat the verdict of an old teacher on that arch shamstress Gertrude Stein: “A spade is a spade is a spade.” There is something I’m fond of repeating to my own students that is equally apropos: “To be sure, monkeys working at typewriters for an infinite duration would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare; but we would first have to endure five thousand copies of Pound’s Cantos.” Among those reams of gibberish we might also expect to find many more copies of Ms. Heiffer’s The Indifferent Beak, although I would not be surprised to discover the punctuation a good deal corrected and the line breaks more judiciously employed.
Do not mistake me. The question is not why a community of aesthetic illiterates should have chosen a dyslexic bard to press to their collective bosom; but rather why, given the vast array of more or less comparable drivel, they should have selected this particular golden cow before which to prostrate themselves. Although I usually make it a point to graze at some remove from that herd of independent minds, certain factors prompt me to the following remarks.
The note of wistful complacency that will echo throughout Beak—and later on, having refined itself into a faint but subtly lacerating skirl, in the reader’s ears—is struck in the opening poem, “What You Once Let Fall,” a kind of mongrel villanelle. After reading it through four or five times without coming any closer to grasping what it is supposed to be about or why the author had gone to the trouble of writing it, I found myself turning to the inside back cover, where an unusually large jacket photo is to be found. Ms. Heiffer is indeed a striking young lady, straddling her vigorous and nubile twenties. Although she has a somewhat high forehead, the long graceful stroke of her nose, rather like that of a Modigliani, imparts unity and coherence to a face whose features might otherwise have seemed unattractively discrete. She wears her auburn hair boyishly short with long tapering sideburns that curl dramatically at their end, as though in a frozen caress of those high glacial cheeks. Head imperiously tilted, eyes earnestly asquint, Ms. Heiffer stares out at us, the very picture of faux-inscrutability. Behind her we see the porch of what must be a handsome and spacious country house—in Connecticut, I would guess, or perhaps Vermont—and farther back, beyond a gently sloping lawn, steeped in the balmy refulgence of early evening, the beginnings of a lake—the same lake, it may be, on which Ms. Heiffer once beheld, as one of the poems in the present volume has it, “the trembling constellation of August sunlight.” (One wonders, incidentally, if the person behind the camera is the “J. G.” to whom the present volume is dedicated and to whom we should all be very grateful indeed, for, as the inscription tells us, without his (I assume it is a he) “patience and provocation,” these poems would never have been written at all. It is surely not just anyone who can coax from Ms. Heiffer a face of such Delphic fathomlessness!)
Scanning the table of contents, I see that Ms. Heiffer has adopted a habit common among contemporary poets: namely, that of gracing her poems with portentous and magniloquent titles that bear no relation whatever to the lines of aggressive obscurity they precede. The first part of the book, “Variations On the Letter I,” seems to consist of a kind of sequence or cycle whose individual components have names like “The Prince of Darkness Will Now Say a Few Words,” “I Am That I Am, And That That I Am, I Am,” “To The Military-Industrial Complex,” “Jejune Colloquy,” and “La Fromage Faire Chanter Le Bon Vin.” As in Donne’s La Corona, the last line of one poem serves as the first line of the next, the whole thing leap-frogging its way haplessly forward until eventually coming full circle with the repetition of the opening phrase, lifted from one of Rimbaud’s letters: “For I is another.” Again, I couldn’t see the point of any of this and soon found myself idly defacing the obtrusive jacket photo, adorning Ms. Heiffer’s graven image with bushy, Whitmanesque beard, monocle, and bowler hat. Below this photo we find a biographical précis, tantalizing in its brevity: it tells us simply that Ms. Heiffer “lives in Brooklyn.” How pleasant! Really, I can think of no better place for Ms. Heiffer than that youthful mecca of posturing and pretension where, from what I hear, life is an interminable feast of loose morals and effortless creativity, all generously underwritten by wealthy parents stranded out in sterile, inauthentic suburbia. As the newly minted bard of her generation, one imagines that Ms. Heiffer enjoys a very active social life. I picture her, for example, at the release party for the present book in some cavernous Park Slope loft, demurely elbowing her way through the urbane ruckus of the cognoscenti, who touch her softly on the arm and proffer glib compliments and steal sly glances at her breasts. One unctuous scenester in, say, tight red jeans and a deerstalker hat and, why not, a T-shirt with Chairman Mao’s head on it, approaches and says her collection is “better than Dante” and asks if she will dedicate her next one to him. Only if he will dedicate his next installation or, I don’t know, performance art piece to her, she says, bowing her head coquettishly. But look, here comes “J. G.,” a gangling and suavely disheveled youth, with thick-rimmed glasses and a knowing air, or so I imagine him, wading through the crowd. He leans down and slips an arm around our little poetess and whispers some piece of sordid gossip in her ear, as the deerstalker slouches off in search of another potential mate to compliment and paw at and carry off to his garish pleasure-den.
Personally I find such gatherings intolerable. Being obliged to feign an interest in the obtuse theories of earnestly perspiring graduate students, while in the background brawny men hoot and jeer at one another and lithesome strangers shamelessly canoodle in unlocked bathrooms is not, I need hardly say, my idea of “fun”; indeed, it so far diverges from my idea of “fun” as to touch upon my idea of the purest and most downright masochism. When, in the past, I did occasionally make an appearance at one of these events, I invariably regretted the decision within the first few minutes, and then spent the rest of the evening in the fear that I would all of a sudden be set upon to dance or sing or participate in some act of communal degradation. Thankfully no such thing ever occurred. Instead, I would pass the hours discreetly wiping spittle from my cheek and doing my best not to be swallowed by the crowd, that hideous fleshly congestion that so much reminds me now of van Eyk’s altar piece of hell in the Met, all those naked tangled upside-down bodies being lashed or eaten or ripped apart at the groin by prickly demons with mouths in their stomach.
However, it is not Ms. Heiffer’s life, not her bulging date book of trivial trysts and banal soirees, that I mean to impugn, but her poetry. What kind of poetry, then, does Ms. Heiffer write? With its gaudy bricolage of pop-cultural references and trivial and trivializing allusions to books that the author has clearly never read, its train wreck of pronouns and seesawing registers, its third-rate surrealism and syntactic and metrical recalcitrance, Beak constitutes a veritable harvest of all of modern poetry’s most unfortunate tendencies. Or rather, it is postmodern in the truest sense: it comprises poems about nothing that could have been written by anyone. Great art, as I’ve always enjoyed saying to my students, is a kind of large-souled philanderer; it goes behind the back of our social everyday selves in order to consort in private with that which is truly divine and eternal in our nature. Ms. Heiffer’s art, conversely, is loud with the mere gossip of the self; it speaks at us and over us. To open Beak is to enter into a null consanguinity, a salon where all the guests have secretly agreed to laugh at one another’s jokes. Just as Molière’s Jourdain is delighted to learn he has been speaking in prose his entire life, so the anxious novice who picks up a copy of Beak will be relieved and reassured to learn that all that is required to write poetry is to have had an experience. For no event in Ms. Heiffer’s remarkable life, however diminutive, is deemed unworthy of commemoration. Pretending to look at something on the other side of the room, she allows her readers to look up the skirt of her intemperate and meretricious lifestyle. Thus, for example, Ms. Heiffer gets a haircut, watches a rerun of Sex and the City, remembers something Montaigne once said, and behold: a poem is born! Or again, Ms. Heiffer meets a friend for coffee, remembers that Baudelaire liked coffee, and then scribbles down a dozen lines about the hostility of the urbanized modern world to the life of the mind, or whatever it is she is trying to get at in the awful poem “Brooklyn Reverie.” As certain literary journalists have observed, Ms. Heiffer is indeed “representative”; but what she represents is everything obtuse and vainglorious in our age. What she represents and what she embodies is the democratizing principle run amok, the doltish conviction that to be an artist is every American’s god-given right.
For all its line-by-line aimlessness, however, one notices a certain broad thematic consistency—or at least obstinacy—in Beak, just as the drunkard’s incoherent tirades against life tend to revolve around a nucleus of core grievances. Ms. Heiffer’s mind, to call it that, would appear to be drawn to images of puppetry, theatricality, and illusion. In one poem, for example, no doubt paying lip service to all those fashionable theories concerning the impersonal nature of the ego, Ms. Heiffer figures herself as
a mechanical mouth
obscurely spoken by that stuttering ventriloquist,
whose ardent accents and entreaties
fool no one [. . .]
Elsewhere, in one of the book’s more precise moments, a storm-tossed tree recalls the "eloquent/ flailings of a distressed marionette.” Or again, reclining in Central Park, Ms. Heiffer observes
the outsize bubbles sprouting from a father’s magic wand,
fatly wallowing through air, and the little squawks
of glee his children made whenever the bubbles
burst [. . .]
Presumably one is supposed to draw some kind of connection between all these images of dissimulation and the Yeats poem from which the book borrows its title, although I confess the patience required for such an effort is quite beyond me.
Anyway, I begin to wonder. Is it really conceivable that a work of such lavish ineptitude could have been perpetrated in earnest? Is there not something just a little too implausibly trite about Ms. Heiffer’s turgid introspections? Although in discussing Beak I have so far done my best to maintain a certain level of detachment and civility, I should perhaps, for the sake of candor, make one or two things plain. Until very recently I had for a number of years taught “creative writing” at a prestigious liberal arts college in New York City. That these years should have coincided, for me, with a long painful period of creative sterility is a fact I choose to attribute to something other than chance. Nothing so stultifies and asphyxiates the imagination as a regular diet of undergraduate verse, that congealed and tepid slurry of solecism, opacity, and self-indulgence, which I was force-fed in large grim spoonfuls on a biweekly basis. The idea that to write poetry one had first to spend a good deal of time reading the stuff always seemed not only alien to my gaggle of naïfs but also somehow iniquitous and undemocratic, their other classes having inculcated the notion that world literature prior to 1950 was a shameful compendium of violence and oppression at whose door could be laid the lion’s share of human wickedness. No, for these liberated and enlightened youngsters, with their pretentious tattoos and confusing hairstyles, poetry was not so much a vocation as a lifestyle choice. That there was such a thing as craft, that poems could be brought off with varying degrees of felicity and success, that nothing was further from the true spirit of creation than sincerity and effusion—these were ideas no amount of passionate instruction could hope to convey. I tried to get them to read The Aeneid; they dismissed it as a treatise on eugenics. I had them recite Paradise Lost; but oh how they vandalized those tumescent, soul-quickening cadences with their inept pronunciation and languid sense of meter. It was Nietzsche, I believe, who remarked that in mass democracies education will always be inferior, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.
As you have correctly guessed, I was privileged enough to have among my brood of po-faced neophytes a certain young genius in waiting. It may be of interest—it may, I come to realize, be of very considerable interest indeed—to know that Lydia Heiffer is a pseudonym: the girl who sat at the back of my class, cradling a thermos and twiddling between thumb and forefinger those immense, melodramatic sideburns, went by the altogether more homely and pedestrian Linda Hall. Although Ms. Hall’s verse was more or less indistinguishable from everyone else’s, the tentative and bashful manner of her contemporaries was wholly absent from the future author of Beak, who read her poems as though they were already widely celebrated, with long, thoughtful, self-important pauses and little moues of histrionic desolation whenever she came to a part she thought to be of especial plangency. At such moments, I remember, she would catch my eye and hold it for just a moment longer than seemed appropriate . . .
Perhaps more than any other in his profession, the teacher of creative writing enjoys the power to confer complete ontological validation on his students. Through the slightest inflection of his speech, he can convey to the prostrate supplicant: Yes, it is true, you are an artist. Or, more commonly: No, what were you thinking, you are a fraud. As a result he soon becomes accustomed to being the object of more than just his students’ admiration. That Ms. Hall harbored feelings for your reviewer that quite overflowed the measure of those usually considered proper between a student and her teacher would have been evident to anyone in that classroom. The exaggerated resistance with which she met my every remark upon her work fooled no one. When, for instance, after listening patiently to her latest skein of unspooling syntax, I would gently suggest, say, that in poetry concreteness was a virtue and that among the poet’s obligations was that of delicately circumscribing the range of possible meanings a reader might find in his or her work, she would churlishly respond that in the poems she admired, and in the ones she aspired to write, readers were free to bring “any meaning they liked”—and that, moreover, the search for a “totalizing” interpretation of any text was a “violent, phallic impulse,” unwittingly inherited from Victorian England or Ancient Greece, or some such cultural police state, I forget precisely which.
This amused me very much, this brash self-belief. I confess I enjoyed imagining the moral education she would receive, like that of the heroine in a nineteenth century novel, after graduating, when the reflexive praise of teachers and parents would no longer be around to bolster her titanic self-conceit, and her coarse unlettered poems would start to be rejected by magazines and publishers, and she would be forced to get a job in teaching or PR, and it would begin to dawn on her that, in spite of everything she had so passionately believed, she was in fact entirely unremarkable, and that she was doomed to live out her days in muted frustration and resentment.
It would appear, however, that the conventions of nineteenth century fiction do not apply to privileged young girls in twenty-first century Brooklyn! Indeed, it would appear that American democracy has some kind of quota for gratifying the narcissistic daydreams of talentless poets with the right connections and an ever-so-slightly-above-average level of personal magnetism. Ms. Hall, or Ms. Heiffer, or whatever it is you wish to be called: my warmest congratulations! I expect it feels rather good; I expect it does wonders for one’s self-esteem, to be elevated to such heights. I expect, young lady, that you feel entirely vindicated in your decision to ignore so completely the words of advice I once aimed in your direction. What strikes me now, however—are you listening, Ms. Hall?—what strikes me now is the degree to which you have seized upon all your worst proclivities and accentuated them into a kind of apocalypse of stupidity. The question occurs: does The Indifferent Beak meet the high standards of your own austere aesthetic credo? Is it a work to which the reader is free to bring any meaning he likes? Your earlier verses, those defenseless foundlings, were certainly such that anyone was free to exercise upon them his unrestrained hermeneutic lust; yet the poems of Beak, it seems to me, have an air of sly intention—and, I confess, an occasional flourish of talent, even of barbed self-parody—that gives me pause. Reading through them again, I am struck by the sense that these poems know how bad they are. From what I know of your imagination—and I believe I know rather a lot about that hotbed of vanity and delusion—I find it hard to credit you with such poise. The more I think about it, the more trouble I have accepting the most fundamental claims of this book. Every line in it rings false. Yet the most dissonant canard of all, I believe, is to be found on the title page: by Lydia Heiffer.
Consider the following scenario. A physically attractive but otherwise totally vacuous and unremarkable young woman falls in love with her college professor, a man of older years, in vigorous middle age, who, while flattered and certainly not untempted, would never dream of becoming involved with a person of such potentially volatile self-regard. Realizing the hopelessness of her infatuation, the young lady retreats into sullen resentment at the world which, for once, has refused to gratify her imperious desires. Soured, irritable, she quarrels with her boyfriend, a passionate, handsome, and fiercely intelligent student, the dedicatee of her earliest attempts at verse and himself already the master of a rare and estimable poetic gift. Despite his generous efforts to assuage her and draw her out, however, the affair is broken off in an ugly scene of tears, groping, and recrimination. Heartbroken at first, the young man comes to see his former bedmate for the vain and posturing brat she really is, a perception that is not mitigated by the sense of betrayal he feels. Now, is it so improbable to suppose that some time later, reading over the worthless verses she had given him, on which he had previously bestowed the mandatory praise—anything to hasten another bout of love-making—this young man of impish and eccentric imagination should find himself composing parodies on his “ex,” initially as little more than a kind of therapeutic hobby? Before long, however, driven not only by bitterness at his erstwhile companion but also by hatred for the whole modern culture of shallowness and mediocrity and self-satisfaction that she has come to embody for him, he finds that he has produced an entire volume’s worth of covert prosodic invective, a kind of extended Blakean satire on the contemporary soul in its most fallen and benighted state. More in a spirit of devious cunning than with any real expectations as to its being printed, he sends the manuscript out to agents and publishers under a female pseudonym, along with a photograph he had taken of the book’s unknowing inspiration at his parents’ country retreat, in which she appears at her most beguilingly poetical. To his amazement, the work is taken at face value and quickly snapped up by some asinine editor who sees in its putative author’s combination of youth, good looks, and fashionable obscurity all the ingredients of a pseudo-literary sensation. Without ever meeting his editor in person—a reclusiveness that only serves to heighten the book’s mystique—he guides it through the production process, sprinkling here and there, in the form of seemingly innocuous images of puppetry and artful deceit (“I is another,” that “stuttering ventriloquist” indeed!), his oblique confession. As a finishing touch he adds his watermark, a veritable purloined letter, to the dedication page: “To J. G., without whose patience and provocation this book would never have been written.”
Could it be! Could it really be that the literary establishment has unwittingly hauled a Trojan Horse, packed with ruthless mercenaries, into its innermost citadel! Now that it has occurred to me I can think of no other explanation. A work of such exemplary, such representative awfulness does not fall from the pen of any old Brooklynite poetaster. No, I see behind all this the strenuous efforts of the wounded but resilient masculine imagination. Thus are the purblind plaudits loaded on “Lydia Heiffer” rendered accurate. The Indifferent Beak is indeed a fine book about “contemporary culture,” carried off with “cunning and mischievous penetration.” J. G., you gay dog! You had me fooled—you had us all fooled! I do hope that you don’t mind my blowing the whistle on you like this—and, of course, that there are no hard feelings. I’ll assume that you don’t, and that there aren’t. It is so rare, after all, that one meets another person, even if it be through the dark glass of art, with whom one sees so completely eye to eye.
Giles Harvey, an MFA candidate in fiction at New York University, is currently at work on a novel. He has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Believer, and n+1, among others. This is his first published story. (10/2009)