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At the Bureau of Divine Music

Cribbing from Leo Tolstoy, poets of place are all alike in how that particular locale obsesses them, whereas poets from Detroit are uniquely autochthonous. Jim Daniels, Toi Derricotte, Robert Hayden, and Philip Levine are four writers who come to mind, and each wears their (sometimes bittersweet) affection for Detroit like a permanent tattoo. Michael Heffernan, along with the above poets, has spent more time away from his native city than within it, yet no matter where he goes—Kansas, Washington, Ireland, Arkansas—he totes Detroit’s DNA along with him, whether he chooses to or not.

Cribbing from Leo Tolstoy, poets of place are all alike in how that particular locale obsesses them, whereas poets from Detroit are uniquely autochthonous. Jim Daniels, Toi Derricotte, Robert Hayden, and Philip Levine are four writers who come to mind, and each wears their (sometimes bittersweet) affection for Detroit like a permanent tattoo. Michael Heffernan, along with the above poets, has spent more time away from his native city than within it, yet no matter where he goes—Kansas, Washington, Ireland, Arkansas—he totes Detroit’s DNA along with him, whether he chooses to or not.

At the Bureau of Divine Music is Heffernan’s ninth book, published as part of Wayne State’s Made in Michigan Writers Series, and its browser-friendly Library of Congress cataloging gives co-credit to “regional interest” as well as poetry. The cover, a triptych picturing the Lee Plaza Hotel’s decimated yet still eerily beautiful ballroom, forges a connection with the not-unpopular notion of Detroit as a ghost of its formerly industrially mighty self. Still, At the Bureau of Divine Music operates less as a well-pinned map than as an MRI of a Detroit state of mind.

Heffernan is a poet whose work is plain-looking as well as plainspoken. That Detroitish self-effacement is reflected within the aesthetic credo coined by architect, Louis Sullivan—form follows function—meaning that Heffernan is less interested in how his poems appear on the page than with what they have to say. (It’s true that form and function can also live in blissful harmony, but Heffernan adheres to the separation of church and state.) Technically, he prefers to write in longer-lined, single stanzas, diverting from that principle pragmatically, such as in the first of a few persona poems, “The Way You Do,” where stanza breaks give the reader a moment to pause, and the poem itself a place to shift its interior focus. One mode of Heffernan’s technique is its intermittent obliqueness; for example, it takes a few lines for the reader to discern that “The Way You Do”’s speaker is definitely not Heffernan, and not even male:

You caught me at a bad time, when things were weird,
and bound to get weirder with you around.
What you call love can make me really crazy.
My ex did that, only in a different way.
He would come home to have sex at lunchtime,
no matter what was going on with me.

Such confessional chattiness is engaging, and pulls one easily into the narrative. But without any formal notification, the use of the masculine pronoun causes the reader to stop, and reevaluate what is being related by the speaker. The next few lines further develop that speaker’s personality:

The kids could be frying cats in the track-light sockets,
after turning the broken bulbs into kitty food,
in case they couldn’t kill them some other way;
or crucifying a neighbor kid in the backyard,
or using the custom-built treehouse as a gallows
for each other; or I could be doing laundry,
and he’d walk in and lead me to the bedroom.

“The Way You Do” is an engrossing psychosexual portrait, appearing early in At the Bureau of Divine Music, and one of the best poems in a uniformly well-calibrated collection. While others, such as the five that precede it, are good as well, they more so support the book’s overall tone and add counter-balance to its leitmotif. The next poem to jump out, “The Message,” thematically echoes “The Way You Do,” right down to the now-explicitly female voice that begins it:

My husband had a knack for knowing things.
I don’t know how he knew about Jack and me,
unless he had me tailed. I think he did,
though he would never say. All I know is
one day the Company security
came by and told me to clean out my desk
and head for the parking lot.

Again, this speaker’s cavalier attitude, and the scenario Heffernan lays out makes for compelling reading. “The Message” is the book’s lengthiest poem, yet it doesn’t feel long-winded or desultory; if anything, with its left-field ending Heffernan smartly refuses to neatly conclude an unresolved (or unresolvable) situation. However, readers shouldn’t think that the author’s emphasis is solely on fabricated characters here. “The Art of Self-Defense” is, if not admittedly attributable to the poet himself, a vehicle for a contrastive point of view and wholly disparate temperament:

Another day’s stint in the free world
begins here in the donut shop. Standing in line
wondering how many cheese Danish and apple fritters
as well as donuts I should buy, while the creamy girls
in their summer dresses are licking their profiteroles,
I see myself as a boy in the summer of 1953
salting sliced tomatoes with my grandfather
in the white shirt he wore.

One is inclined to appreciate this poem as autobiographical, as evinced by its reference to one of Detroit’s dailies, and the sense that it comes from a personal place lends even more credence to its quietly devastating conclusion:

I was eleven. I wasn’t fast or clever. This was the autumn
after the summer they fried the Rosenbergs.
Gramps walked me down to the corner to get the Free Press.
The photograph showed their bodies on the front page.
He tugged my hand and kept me from seeing it.
We mark these solitudes throughout our lives.
This is not simply about things as they are.
This is about donuts, profiteroles, and straw hats.
Things cannot be as they are in this country.

These declaratory, end-stopped lines evoke a stammered litany of thoughts, memories, and feelings clearly crucial, perhaps even influential to the speaker’s evolution. Here Heffernan is justifiably solemn, but At the Bureau of Divine Music is not without moments of levity. In fact, he can skillfully temper even the most intense revelations with comical underpinning, such as in “Do We Never Tire of This?”:

You had redone the dining room again.
I came downstairs to find my father’s urn.
It wasn’t under the set of Chinese dogs
on the knickknack in the corner where it was
with the Flemish compote tureen under it
on the Amboise table, and I was miffed a little.

Like the die-hard Detroiter he is, Michael Heffernan finds humor in places where the geographically-challenged would spot only death, disloyalty, and destruction. His poetry is all the more industrial-strength for it.

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