Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Michael Heller on “Bandelette de Torah”

When I think about “objects” and poetry, I’m immediately reminded of the powerful influence upon me of the English translations of Rilke’s “thing” poems such as “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and “The Panther.” The power of these poems, it strikes me, is less in their rendering of a physical object, placing it before the visual imagination (though Rilke’s poems certainly achieve that), than in their unique energy and movement, their centrifugal force, that power to carry away the reader, as Rilke writes in the torso poem, “from all the borders of itself,” and “ to burst like a star,” the poem ending with one of the most well-known and astonishing lines in all of poetry, “you must change your life.”

The “bandelette de Torah” is the embroidered ceremonial cloth wrapped around the sacred scrolls when stored in their cabinet. During a synagogue service, when the Torah is placed on the bimah or podium, the bandelette covers and protects the unscrolled portions of the sacred text. When the text is to be read, the cloth is lifted to expose the scripture for oration.

When I first saw the bandelette in the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, in Paris’s Marais district, I immediately experienced one of those Rilkean “bursts,” for here was an object, that in its ornate yet near-transparent being, invoked so much of the social, cultural and historic struggles of the Jews which are writ large across and infuse the whole of Western culture from earliest times through the rise of Christianity and the Church fathers, on up to the Shoah. At the time of composition, I was reading Gillian Rose’s Mourning Becomes the Law, a book, that with sharp intelligence, ranges over themes of power and domination, transcendence and eternity, poetry, the Holocaust and Judaism. And, in a way, it was her thought that left me ripe and open for the associative feast that the bandelette represented.

Even more “symbolic,” was that, in its daily use, the bandelette lies in the in-between, in the border that both joins and separates, as borders do, the sacred text and the profane world. This nexus or gathering point, with its many currents, seemed to demand some kind of articulation. And, in an almost required dictation, I wrote them down as they came to me.

The richness of the bandelette’s associations have stayed with me, as did my continual thinking about its symbolic use, which in some way seems inexhaustible. Some years after composing the poem, I wrote another entitled “Mappah,” the Hebrew name for the bandelette, which takes as its point of imagery the burning of Torahs and their ceremonial wrappings in the Shoah, and sees the smoke and ash as a warning, “a wish to call out.”

Like the bandelette, the poem, for me, has always been the object “in-between,” the words that form a pathway between poet and world. And in that sense, the bandelette can also symbolize the idea of poetry and poem-making as “the word between us,” “words” as richly figured “burls in woven cloth.” In Paris, in that old hotel particulier in which the museum was housed, the histories and traditions I had been raised in swirled around me.

Image: Bandelette de Torah, Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris


Writing Prompt

As I hope my poem demonstrates, for the poet, an object such as the “bandelette” simultaneously leads a number of lives, as a visual figure, a jog to memories both personal and historical, as symbolic or representative of a state of affairs, a cultural or social construct. Ezra Pound, in his “Dos and Don’ts,” reminds the poet that “the natural object is the adequate symbol.” So I would suggest we are surrounded by such objects, and they are potentially generative of poetry by our intense focus on them, letting them “speak to us,” as we allow their existence, history and configurations to dictate to us. In this sense, our interactions with objects become adventures and explorations which our craft allows us to assemble and shape into poems.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Print This Post

Share on print

Michael Heller

Michael Heller has published over twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction. His most recent books of poetry are Telescope: Selected Poems (2019), Dianoia (2016) and Dans le signe (2016), translations of his poetry in French. Other works include This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010, Beckmann Variations & other poems and Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics. Multimedia collaborations with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson include the musical/theater works Constellations of Waking and This Art Burning. His libretto/poem for Constellations of Waking, a work based on the life of Walter Benjamin, was published in 2019. Among his many awards and honors are the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize, a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Poet/Scholar Award and the Fund for Poetry. A collection of essays on his work, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: Nomad Memory, was published in 2015.