KATHLEEN HEIL | Five Poems
“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 kathleenheil.net.