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Sawyer, Larry. "& i dreamt i shot arrows in my amazon bra." Jacket Magazine, (August 2002).
I looked forward to reading a purchase in the white botanica by Piero Heliczer, having heard his name mentioned among the elite cadre who are considered to be the best of the underground filmmakers of the late 1960s, New York scene. Two of his collections, I learned, were published in his lifetime by his own press, dead language, and now this book represents almost everything collected and considered to be his lifetime poetic output. Staring out at me from the cover of this well-designed book, Heliczer himself, in a photo taken by Gerard Malanga in Paris, circa 1970, seems to beckon to us to come inside and look around.
Piero Heliczer passed from this life in 1993, but this book serves as a testament of his stay among us. His poetry reveals a positively otherworldly sensibility full of medieval imagery. Anselm Hollo, in his foreword, states that: "Heliczer, the poet, was a loner—not glum at all, but often as impish as his Etruscan smile." He then quotes from a poem by Heliczer:
i am the sort of figure meant to be heretic
the stone age seduction girl taking her clothes off
i seem more of an ant than a cigale because i like to sing in winter
joan of arc the woman astride a prick
when i smoke my shirt turns blue
("soul searching institute," uncollected).
Heliczer emerges from the pages of this book as if some exiled wanderer from an Old English poem. The best of what exists in this collection interests this reviewer because of its eccentric qualities. Much of contemporary poetry seems banal in comparison. The quotidian has its place in Heliczer's work, but it is filtered through an Old World lens. Heliczer is not some lost American original, but this book will add a bit to his mystique. America does not suffer fools gladly, but at some point in the process that's what poets risk. But poets are fools of a divine sort, who explore regions of thought hitherto undiscovered. At least that has been the accepted, Romantic understanding. Has America produced an equivalent to Gerard de Nerval? In Heliczer, I think that is what we have, but because he was primarily a member of the underground, his work is not as well known as some, and rightly so. His is a poetry that exists far from any workshop. It is our good fortune that this book has appeared to give the apparition of his talent a coherent shape for our present-day world.
The air of isolation prevalent in Heliczer's work, also gives it a unique quality and visionary allure. As the underground culture of 1960s America became a recognizable part of the mainstream in the Nineties, would-be bohemians discovered true bohemians. Heliczer's existence was truly bohemian by all accounts, in that his itinerant lifestyle led him to travel constantly between three main locations that serve as the artistic centers of the western world. He would travel from New York to Paris to London on a whim, usually one step ahead of the law. Through it all, and despite a turbulent upbringing that forced his family to travel from place to place to escape detection by the Nazis during WWII, Heliczer has written of an inner world that hinges on the truly marvelous:
all of my actions are self-made prisons
then i said goodbye to the lieutenanted darkness of the night
there is an open scar on my right hand
which i purposely keep unbandaged
when i shake hands with someone
i am giving them perhaps more of my self than they
is that the right thing to do
...the chestnuts burgeon above the walk
in their parasols
In the sort-of easy, surrealist, mannerism of Heliczer's work, we are simultaneously charmed and made aware of a dark undercurrent of thought that keeps us questioning his intention. His line breaks and diction do seem arbitrary at times, but his metaphors provide many interesting hooks that coalesce with assonance in the imagination long after this book is set aside for other interests.
Ultimately, what we come away with is the idea that Heliczer has left us with a testament to his double vision, as he synthesizes late twentieth-century New York in the mindset of a medieval troubadour. Amid the sometimes sterile environment of contemporary poetry, this book provides a fruitful cathedral of new avenues for a whole new audience, giving Heliczer a rightful position among the visionary artists of the twentieth century.
Larry Sawyer is editor of milk magazine at <http://www.milkmag.org/>.
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