‘A Table That Goes On For Miles’ by Stefania Heim
Photo: Youngsuk Suh
Recently, because it was offered as an in-flight movie, I watched the 1966 film How to Steal a Million starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It was a pretty but empty distraction, and I could feel myself forgetting it even before it was over. But one moment of the film has stuck with me. The morning after they’ve pulled off a climactic art heist, Hepburn’s character calls O’Toole’s from the hotel they’re both staying in to check on the fake Cellini they’ve stolen. Lounging in bed with the telephone, she yawns and stretches, blinks and sighs and the audience is given to understand that—in the manner of Beyoncé avant la lettre—she woke up like this: lipstick shiny, eyeliner unsmudged, hair glossy and styled. And even though this kind of early morning camera-ready perfection is preposterous, seeing it is delightful because it’s just so pleasing to be in the presence of.
The poems in Stefania Heim’s first collection, A Table That Goes on for Miles, all appear to have woken up like this—that is, a reader knows that she can’t simply have written an entire book of flawless first drafts and published them, but the pieces seem effortless and unified to the point where even though you know she must have worked hard on them, they seem almost natural in their beautiful artifice.
For instance, in the poem “Serenissima,” Heim seems at first to be offering a straightforward travel poem about Venice, beginning “The cobbled street behind me and its own impossible bridge” before announcing “Amphibian night comes on. What I fear is transformation,” letting the reader follow her deceptively unadorned but crystalline thoughts to the end where, “In my long narrow room, / I keep my head near the heart. This hotel, a wet night that extends.”
Or, to go for a comparison that’s more poetic and less cinematic, Alexander Pope wrote that “true wit” consists of “what has oft been thought / but ne’er so well expressed.” Heim’s witty and wise debut, winner of the Gatewood Prize from the feminist publisher Switchback Books, affords the reader the experience of what it might be like to have thoughts that are automatically already that well-expressed, even as you think them.
Her poems have the honest quality of an inner monologue of unfiltered thoughts–but rather than being raw, they feel expertly prepared. The poem “Motherhood Has Made Me Honest,” quoted here in its entirety, is illustrative of how her poems feel simultaneously casual yet crafted:
I am trying to think what Rome
smelled like when I was a child, how people
walking in pairs there seemed to wear
In some dream I just had
I maniacally performed
weeping. I am most terrified when you shut
the door of your voice.
The poem is remarkable for how, in just eight lines, it shifts from a narrated and commented upon attempt at memory to a surprisingly articulated revelation of the speaker’s deep fear of disconnection. This fear—being cut off from a loved one—is common enough that you could say it’s universal, but the words Heim uses to give it new life are what makes the piece so effective.
Of course, Heim must draft and revise, shaping her poems through writing and rewriting, but as they appear on the page in this book, they seem to suggest that she just thinks this way, even when she admits her own doubts or weaknesses, as in “Here’s Me,” when she writes:
I am having
afraid of being insincere
and thinking looming permanence
Yes we turn to metaphor in loss but
but (Storm still)
Perhaps it was an impostor.
In a sense, these poems not only depict a stylized version of thinking, but also appear to be about the act of thinking, specifically thinking hard and trying not to go for the easy image or the obvious comparison. In “Commerce in Dreams is Business as Usual,” she nods briefly to the cliché in the title before taking the poem somewhere utterly unexpected, concluding: “We are living briefly in the ordered world. We match wits with it.”
Her sentences are gorgeous, but not just prettified—truly smart. In that regard, reading the book feels not merely like thinking, but like thinking the best and most surprising thoughts. In the poem “We’re So Happy Now, There is So Much More to Talk About,” she uses the phrase “nights of great emulsion,” which is weird and pleasing, and which also reminds the reader how much better it is that she didn’t say “nights of great emotion,” and which then causes the reader to think Why did I expect that, and how did she know, and how did she subvert my expectation? And she is able to achieve this again and again, as in the poem “A Large Mirror Unloaded from a Truck in the Sun,” when she concludes, “I’ll think of some experiment to move us, / focusing on the lenses learned,” which is just a half-step from—but so much better than—“lessons learned.”
This idea of the management of expectations—both as a poet and as a person—arises throughout the book. In “Etiquette Lessons for a Reluctant Granddaughter who is Heir Apparent to the Throne,” she makes the predictable move of offering advice from the perspective of someone older and wiser to someone younger and less so. Yet the advice itself is unsentimental, arguably impractical, and not at all what you might anticipate: “Persevere, little lamb. Only hunger is straight.”
But even though this is a book about thinking, lest the poems get too heady or detached, Heim is always bringing them back around to the actual world and its concrete objects and sensations, as in one of the several prose poems all called “Moving Picture” scattered throughout the book: “Each object suggests a symbol and then it undoes her. The sun, when it is out, is always tragically high.” When I move from poem to poem, the book feels, paradoxically, both off balance and steady: you never know how Heim will land, but you know she’ll stick the landing.
To return to Pope, he also said that true wit is “Nature to Advantage Drest,” and that’s what we have here—thoughts that seem calm, transparent, and natural, but that are dressed so well and presented to best advantage, such that it is a pleasure to see them and to want to look again and again. “It’s easy,” Heim writes in “What Propels Transforms,” “this assignment, /making forms from resources / available. Just figure / out what’s enough and wear it out.” To return to Hepburn, these poems are like her character in How to Steal a Million—they just woke up and threw on whatever happened to be around and it just so happened that it was Givenchy.