Michael Heller: Constellations of Waking
Dos Madres Press, 162 p.p., SIZE: 8 x 9, ISBN 978-1-948017-26-8, $25.00 U.S.
PUBLICATION DATE: February 2019
Constellations of Waking is a libretto/poem on the life of Walter Benjamin, Heller’s contribution to the collaborative opera of the same name created in conjunction with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson which premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2000. In his “Preface (in lieu of overture),” Heller describes his sources for the work in Benjamin’s “errant and hidden life, its psychological intertwinings and identifications,” qualities which lie at the heart of Benjamin’s “empowering empathy, his intellectual stances and his profound understanding of culture, literature and politics.” In a series of scenes, interspersed with sometimes comic intermezzi, based on Benjamin’s thinking about montage, juxtaposition and constellated thought, Heller’s writing captures Benjamin’s “difficult and obstruction-ridden life, its unsettled quality,” and their inseparability from his writing. “According to recent star maps,” Heller writes, (reminding the reader of Susan Sontag’s essay on Benjamin) “the planet Saturn in its wobbling transit moves through such well-known constellations as Scorpio and Sagittarius, momentarily altering their configurations. Like those star-clusters in the night sky, this work is made up of data points and imaginary containment lines, now-times and prophetic moments. I hope that something of the passage of the earthly cosmos that was Walter Benjamin is figured in it.”
COMMENTS ON CONSTELLATIONS OF WAKING
“The palpable commitment from its creators, composer Ellen Fishman Johnson and poet Michael Heller, suggests that not writing the opera would be criminal…. Fishman-Johnson has found an ideal musical language with a style of intellectually weighty, atonal modernism so prevalent in 1930s Europe, deftly mixed with Jewish ethnic overtones. Even with its occasional severity, the score is perfectly communicative.”–David Patrick Stearns, Music critic–Philadelphia Inquirer
“Heller’s reading redoubles the tragic dimension of Benjamin’s demise, the struggle against overpowering forces, and the despair of the witness to the failure of rationality. . . . [His] poem is constructed as the long monologue of the dead, forever the object of misunderstanding, and of the obstinate quest for sense and reason. –Hélène Aji. author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: Pour une poétique américaine.
Michael Heller has enacted a powerful tribute to Walter Benjamin with Constellations of Waking. In performance, this libretto accompanies dense soundscapes and riveting verbal and visual narratives evoking Benjamin’s life and writings. The epic and personal converge amid the clamor and catastrophe of history, giving voice to Benjamin and his contemporaries, a chorus of thinkers and seekers, cast adrift upon dangerous modernity. Constellations of Waking is a work of historical and imaginative reclamation, reinvention, and reorientation of Benjamin and his legacy. It is also a work of dynamic preservation, propelling the man and his ideas into the future. –Jon Curley, Poet and Co-Editor of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory
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