top of page


“The Denby Sonnets”


Common sense to help out to think

of the work they do, the momentary

and mortal expression of beauty.

In spirit classic artists of the past

are present at a serious performance

and watch it with attention, affirming

the inner force called self-expression.

A tender irony is close to the heart

of it, a feeling of dignity and

proud modesty. The meaning of it,

as of classical dancing generally,

is whatever one loves as one watches

it without thinking why. Up to you

to look and seize them as they flash by.


To look and seize them as they flash by,

I am angry but still interested,

the dancer does not congeal to an

impersonal instrument. The dancer's

best gift is natural human warmth.

The rest left me with an overdose

of vitamins and virtue. The more

correct their style, the more their

individual personality becomes

distinct—what it hopes for is an

unforeseen beauty of expression,

an eerie grandeur as true and sure

as that of an Emily Dickinson lyric:

there are many jokes at lightning speed.


There are many jokes at lightning speed,

pretty without the least embarrassment,

a special note of hurt and tender assent.

Unconscious grace is a natural and

impermanent gift, a lucky accident

you keep meeting with all your life

wherever you are. Art takes what in

life is an accidental pleasure

and tries to repeat and prolong it.

Ours is no worse than that elsewhere,

except that there is more of it

packaged for breakfast. The violin parts

call for no special schmaltz. At the scary speed

they move such a lovely modulation.


They move such a lovely modulation,

with poignant gradations of greater and

less airiness. You know the main technical

problem the first time you try; it's to move

boldly without falling flat. You have to get

the knack. There is something unprofessional

about carrying reality around with you

in public that goes straight to my heart.

Poetry is the same thing—it's words, only

more interesting, more directly and

richly sensual. A formal path involves

electing a base from which to move,

giving a spot an arbitrary

imaginative value. It is a feat.


Imaginative value is a feat, an

oscillating one-two in their ritual

action: the thrill they felt as they

found themselves aware of hearing

a beat from the outside and taking

a step from the inside, both at once.

Men and women on the street

keep making personal shapes

with their legs, they trip or stalk or lope,

they shuffle or bombinate. When they

get the feel of the bodily rhythm—a

profoundly personal and instinctively

emotional recognition—they know that

nothing will fail to carry.

*“The Denby Sonnets” are centos transforming language found in Edwin Denby's dance criticism, collected in his Dance Writings and Poetry, Robert Cornfield, ed., Yale University Press, 1998.

Kathleen Heil is a writer, dancer, and translator. Recent poems appear in The New Yorker, Barrow Street, Fence, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. A recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, among others, she lives and works in Berlin. More at

bottom of page