Thomas Heise. Horror Vacui: Poems. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2006. $13.95 paper (ISBN 1-932511-32-6), 84 pages.
Reviewed by Jenny Burdge
The poems in Thomas Heise’s first book reveal, explore, fill, and create the empty spaces left in the wake of a father’s death. The title of the book, Horror Vacui, refers to a fear of empty space in visual art. The term was also used in the Middle Ages to describe machines that operated by creating a void, which nature then rushed to fill. In this collection, the bereaved also rush to fill absence. Of the many voids that crop up, the central one is death, specifically the father’s death. Many of the poems are elegies and obituaries, and there is even a long epitaph whose speaker has died, leaving a void that the epitaph fills with his own words.
The cover is an excellent introduction to the challenges of this collection. The image is taken from a 15th century prayer book in which the pages are covered with black ink. The page is blank only within the space of each letter. The conundrum of the cover as it relates to many of the poems in this collection is in the confusion of what is empty and what is not. Spaces that appear to be empty may in fact be filled, and some that appear to be filled are empty. This is because a void can only be filled so much before the filling itself appears to be empty. On the cover, an appearance of emptiness is achieved with a wash of black ink. In the collection, the appearance of emptiness is achieved with an endless layering of images. This appearance of emptiness is an emptiness. The paradox is that there is always a void, and no way to fill it.
Many of the poems in Horror Vacui seem to struggle with this paradox. It is first apparent in the forms. Most of the poems in this volume are double-spaced center-justified blocks of text, with a right margin that reaches only halfway across the page. This leaves a great deal of empty space—both to the right of the block of text, as well as between the words of the text. Even while the poems themselves explore empty spaces, they create them. They allow the reader to encounter empty space, and given the context of the terrible void, proliferation and organization of empty space provokes uneasiness. Each space seems like a grave to be filled.
“Obituary [first draft]” is one of these poems. Additional empty spaces are introduced directly into the poem through blanks, which fill the page in one way and yet leave it empty:
Mr. William Thomas Heis, ______,
has finally left us from ______
[ the year unknown ]
The bracketed text is another way of introducing empty spaces. Even though the space is filled, there’s an absence of information. Just as nature—and human nature—would dictate, these empty spaces are filled in the subsequent draft, “Obituary [revised]” with all the desired information: age, date, place:
Mr. William Thomas Heise, 29,
entered into rest from massive heart
failure on Friday, September 22nd,
For all the portent of writing an obituary for oneself, playfulness—through puns and syntactic invention, among other things—introduces some humor here. Yet, instead of creating any real levity, the humor serves as a foil, thereby enhancing the darkness of what is, for the most part, a dirge. It also provides the opportunity for some unexpected things to happen, as they do in “Obituary [translated].” The version that was ostensibly put through an electronic translator ended with the following lines:
Entombment will be celebrated
at the Mausoleum of Flowers
by the ocean. Friends welcome.
His father is expected to play
These lines are transformed, and the results are simultaneously playful and disconcerting:
The setting with the tomb
celebrated with the Mausoleum
of the Flowers by the ocean.
Welcome friends. One expects
his / her father will play the body.
The fallout from the last line and a half is tremendous. The ambiguity of play is responsible. There’s a creepiness to the father playing the body, as if it were a musical instrument. Another possibility for play is that the father will perform the roll of the body. This obituary is then, in effect, an obituary for the father and son both— there’s been a death in the son who feels the emptiness his father left.
Silence too is an absence. Heise uses alliteration and assonance to combat that absence, but the most powerful tool he employs is repetition. The table of contents introduces the reader to the repetition before a single poem is read. Two poem titles are repeated wholesale several times, “Examination” and “These New Days,” as if they were a kind of refrain. Other titles serve as repetends, such as the obituary poems. The effect is almost that of a drone trying to fill the silence.
The repetition of words within and across poems also serves to give the impression of rewriting, both within and across poems. Such is the case in the title poem, which is about a father’s death:
What shelter shall I assemble against
this? Could I hammer a narrow boat
from this old barn’s frame? Could I
assemble an empty boat from this
old hammered frame? Could I frame
an empty boat for this old body’s
frame? I could frame an empty body
in this old broken frame? Shall I
break an old body to fit this narrow
In the acknowledgments, Heise writes, “My father: these poems are you.” The book embodies the father, and one absence is filled. However, the book also creates a multitude of smaller voids, which expand the original absence, and the conundrum persists. This rewriting, then, both within and across poems, might be the only way to defeat the fear of empty spaces—to always be filling them, over and over again, saying the same thing multiple ways. In doing so, even should empty spaces remain, nothing would be left unsaid.