On Reissuing William Heyen’s ‘Lord Dragonfly’

Nate Pritts, poet and editor of H_NGM_N BKS, launched H_NGM_N Reissues in 2010 with the republication of William Heyen’s lost 1981 classic Lord Dragonfly. He wrote the following essay in support of the reissue, which can be purchased here. (A wonderful and affordable holiday surprise for poetry readers!)

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Beginning Again: On Reissuing William Heyen’s Lord Dragonfly

by Nate Pritts

In 1992 I was a seventeen year old college freshman in Brockport, New York, a town where it’s always fall or winter, where the Erie Canal dominates both landscape & mood, all full of bird shadows, & where sunflowers look stark & lovely against the weathered brick of academic buildings.

Seventeen & I walked up the stairs of Lathrop Hall on the SUNY Brockport campus to my first college English class & the hallway chalkboard/message center told me:

xii.

Lord Dragonfly
sees me from all sides
at once.

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William Heyen’s Lord Dragonfly was first published in 1981 by Vanguard Press.  It went out of print at some point before the end of that decade, definitely by 1988, when their list was bought & mostly mishandled by Random House.

Rather than function as a retrospective on Heyen’s career, which spans decades, continues today, & is marked most emphatically by its consistency & devotion, I’d like to focus on the book itself, my reading of it, & my friend William Heyen.

The aim of this book series, H_NGM_N Reissues, has everything to do with those traits that characterize Heyen’s commitment to the art of poetry: consistency, devotion.  As a reader of poetry, I yearn to have my knowledge of what it means to be human enriched by the words on the page – either through their meanings or through the way they mean.  As a writer of poetry, I need to be supported in my efforts, to constantly learn, to absorb &, once saturated, to spark & flare.

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It wasn’t until 1993 that I first met Bill, though I had read Lord Dragonfly several times by then.  I was struck immediately by his graciousness, his calm & steady exuberance.  Through workshops, where he was both nurturing & fierce, & thousands of private conversations, Bill taught me lots about poetry but even more about how to be a poet.

It is his legendary work ethic, his boundless commitment to poetry, which is Bill’s biggest gift to me as a poet.  It was well known around campus that Bill was up before the birds, shooting hoops with an ingrained Long Island sprezzatura that indicated it didn’t matter if he made each shot, though he always did.  Before sunrise, he was writing poems in the Student Union, or hunkered in his office, maintaining his extraordinary journal habit or his voluminous correspondence with his own former teachers, students, brother & sister poets.

To be clear, all of this is embodied in the poetry of Lord Dragonfly, so maybe this is the place to stop talking about me, & my love, & start talking about why this book, why now.

In these poems, Heyen communicates a vision of the world as equal parts spiritual & physical.  The transcendent comes together with the earthly physical again & again, resoundingly so, in a racket that is recognizably human but also luminous.  It is poetry that is rooted in sensory perceptions & in the sensual – those things we can’t ascertain but must simply believe.

From “Cedar” in the book’s third sequence Of Palestine:

O death
       in whose wood
              our world is tongue

we cannot hear
       and what will save us
              when will we awaken

Leaving aside a discussion of the tonal quality of this (grim & deafening), the speaker’s stance is one of ecstatic desperation.  But in even these depths, bordered by death & mute wood, there is an implicit hope – not will we awaken, but when.

This transcendence, this move from crude physical thinking to a more phenomenal state of knowledge, is enacted with devastating precision.  Also, it’s not naïve.  Some of the most powerful poems come in the book’s fourth sequence XVII Machines, where the physical isn’t always pastoral or natural but instead mechanistic & brutal.  How much more beautiful & ravishing, then, the transition (in “The Machine in Your Field”) from a machine that “lops off your legs and arms” to this:

The machine’s gentle rain will bless you.
At night its own stars will burn above you,
its moon draw blood from your bones.
You’ll stretch and grow, your shoulders
will break earth.  The machine will lift you,
kiss your forehead, teach you to live again.

The constant shift from delicate utterance to violent action (bless to burn, draw blood but also lift you, kiss your forehead) keeps the reader unbalanced but attuned, aware that “all our lives are lived / in the here and now, in one constant season” (“The Machine that Air-Conditions the World”).

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“Lord Dragonfly / sees me from all sides / at once.”  What affects me most profoundly in this collection is the visionary nature of the work, that the poems relentlessly create & enact a sense of the world as something we can know, something we must strive to know.  In “The Eternal Ash,” from the book’s first sequence The Ash, Heyen directs the reader, in a torturous passage, to a simple goal, “yes, but to know one thing, but know it.”  There’s an emphasis on the final “know” in that line; certainly we all agree that we can come to universal truths through knowing “one thing” but the truly “know” it – to see it from all sides at once – is something more harrowing, more fraught.

Today, with evening dawning, the landscape of contemporary poetry is littered with lines & whole poems that seek to reject this world we’re stuck with, that forge a barrier between our human feelings & this emotional living we’re trying to make sense of.  We’re having a conversation about what poetry can be & it is cluttered with ironic postures & an elaborately codified estrangement that forgets the reality it is seeking to make new.  There are so many poems that forget we can be made out of words that mean, & that mean what they mean earnestly.

Lord Dragonfly is a book that challenges me in its forms of feelings, through the intricacies of its thinking, & by the linguistic deployment of both, a book sadly unavailable to a generation of readers & writers who need it.  It is a book I am honored to welcome back into this ongoing conversation.

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