WITH THE LIGHTS ON:
poems by Michael Hettich
(Pudding House Publications, ISBN: 1-930755-06-0)
by Lenny Dellarocca
At once surreal and grounded, Hettich's prose poems in "Sleeping
with the lights on" incorporate everyday circumstances woven with
fantastic images and bizarre scenes that are as inventive and sensual as
playful. Still, many of the poems congeal into a sensible story while
some poems seem to remain abstract. The reader, however, feels or
intuits meaning in all of them. As poet John Haag would say, the poems
In his poem "Waking to Rain," Hettich starts with a bizarre
event -- his hands have fallen off.
But then he takes an experience everyone has had (everyone, that
is, who has lived in the north during winter), which makes everyday
sense of the surreal:
When I was a child, my hands would sometimes fall off and get lost in
the grass or in my house somewhere -- and I would have to search for
them, sometimes late a night, when everyone else was sleeping. I'd be
lying in bed, starting to drift off, when I'd need to touch my own body,
and I'd realize my hands were missing. So I'd lie there trying to
remember back when I'd used them last. After awhile I'd get up, get
dressed as best I could without hands, and I'd walk around the dark
house, out into the yard and street, looking for my hands, calling out
-- until at last I found them. Once I lost my hands for a whole winter
afternoon when I hadn't worn gloves.
Throughout "Sleeping with the lights on" Hettich returns to
scenes -- most of which are either in, outside, or near his house -- in
which he, or someone in his family, is just waking up or falling to
sleep. Dreams and dreaming figure heavily:
"Then she claimed I'd shown up in her dreams, that I'd taken off my
clothes…" ("Breathing Underwater").
"When we got home, finally, it was almost next year. But no one
seemed worried. No one seemed to have missed us." ("Sounds
Instead of Dreaming").
No doubt the speaker sleeps with the lights on because like a child
afraid of the dark, he questions the certainty of home, family, day,
night, being asleep and being awake.
No longer are there monsters in the dark, but there is a sense of
mystery in what is and what is not real. It is also magical, and often
sensuous. The realm of dreams leaks
from his mind into his house in the middle of the night, or in the
middle of the day.
"One morning you wake to find you can't move your tongue…After an
hour, you get up, open a closet of women's clothes, shoes, and perfumed
dresses." ("One Morning").
"He dreamed he gathered her blossoms where they fell and made a
pillow, and he dreamed he slept beneath that tree until his clothes
tattered and fell away." ("Song").
"I woke up in my bedroom and felt the dew soak my hair. Who glances
into you, sharp as any instrument, when the colors have just started
fading into dusk?" ("Everything, And Nothing At All").
With one foot in the light and one in the dark, Hettich observes that
behind the façade of reality human beings are mysterious creatures,
creatures with wild imaginations. The opening poem,
"Mushrooms," may seem to suggest that the book is a
psychedelic trip. But by the last poem, "The Point of
Touching," we realize that while the trip may have been induced, it
was induced not by chemicals found in mushrooms, but by chemicals found
in, among other things, human touch. Perhaps more than any other image
in "Sleeping with the lights on," those instances where two
people touch ground the book, the poems and the experience most:
"At the touch of her sure, warm hands, I fell ever more deeply,
more inarticulately, in love." ("Sounds Instead of
More than anything else, those sensual, touch images running through the
poems are what make the book authentic:
"And that's the point of touching, isn't it? To make our bodies
real? Things like that are sometimes closer than the world, closer than
our words, closer even than ourselves." ("The Point of
Of course, the other side of all this groundedness, if you will, is
Hettich's adeptness at freeing language from the ordinary. After all, a
good novel could express the feel-good pleasure of touching and love.
But these are poems -- set aside the debate whether prose poems are
poetry -- these are windows into a world of magic exploration. Hettich
brings to words the unwordable, intangible feelings that go with
fleeting observation that the brain stores and then tries to make sense
of while we sleep, sometimes while we are awake, and as poets, while we
contemplate and write. It is in language that the poet sculpts his form,
composes his music, choreographs his dance and paints his picture.
Hettich uses all of the arts in his language so that the lines become
literal and abstract shapes, become melody and/or harmony, move to a
rhythm and perhaps mostly, become pictures:
"I was sculpting something like a bone in my garage when you came
over and asked if I'd loan you some fly-tied fish hooks…" ("Bones").
"He dreamed the girl he loved turned into a tree outside his
bedroom window, where, in winter, she flowered with snow…"
Arbitrarily selecting incredible images and ideas -- this freeing of
language -- from "Sleeping with the lights on" is as easy as
flipping through and randomly pointing to anywhere on the pages:
"he breaks and bruises every mirror he can find -- to get rid of
flat energy, to make his brain taller. Now he'd like to sing a tall
song. Would I mind? He made it up last night, he says, instead of
sleeping." ("Tall Music").
"And right now in a distant city, in an office at the top of a
glinting skyscraper, a woman you wouldn't even recognize remembers how
you danced one mid-afternoon, by yourself in the middle of a waxed
floor…" ("Moving Bodies").
Throughout the book, Hettich repeatedly comes back to the image of
cutting, or opening the human body:
"As soon as you start to breathe deeply, she wakes, takes your
hands and arms and begins stuffing you in her body, through the hole you
"Then you rake your fingernail across her belly, just below the rib
cage, to draw a faint red line. Taking a deep breath, and squinting, you
peel back the skin below the breastbone, reach up to your elbow into her
body, behind the lungs and heart, into the mossy sponge back there, and
pull out mushrooms that glow in he dark." ("Mushrooms").
"So you do the only thing you can do: you start to pull the matted
hair away from her face and body, freeing swarms of fireflies and bees,
which enter your face as if it were air." ("You Are
To ascertain the meaning of things, to get to the core of feelings and
("she told me I could swim
underwater as far as I can sleep, which goes down as deep as the solid
darkness at the core of things") ("Breathing
Hettich cuts the physical body open to expose the metaphysical where
meaning and feelings coexist, which the poet must tease out strand by
strand. These strands are the lines Hettich crafts into the colorful and
poignant poems in his book. For all its Dali- and Bosch-like landscapes
filled with glittering and sometimes distorted characters,
"Sleeping with the lights on" is a surreal but romantic tale
of tenderness, humanity and even a little humor.
Yet, I am a little reluctant to pour heaps of praise on this book, a red
flag raises when I charge headlong and passionately into something that
seems so good. Aren't we
all weary of all the tinsel and fireworks thrown and set off by
reviewers of poetry these last several years? What have I missed in
Hettich's new book, where is the flaw -- there is always a flaw isn't
I'll be damned if I can find one.
Born and raised in the NYC area, Michael Hettich has lived in various
places in the U.S. and came to Miami years ago. He holds a Ph.D in
English and American literature from the University of Miami and an M.A.
from the University of Denver. Author of two full-length books of poetry
and three chapbooks, Hettich has work in a variety of journals over the
years, including, "Poetry East," "The Literary
Review," "The Beloit Poetry Review," and "Indiana
Review." He has edited the anthology "Write in Our
Midst," and was co-editor of "Having A Wonderful Time: An
Anthology of South Florida Writers" (Simon & Schuster).
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