The Shape of This Dying

by Harold Heft
64 pages,
ISBN: 0889627711

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A Paean to Bercovitch
by Alex Boyd

One person can be many things to many people, and in The Shape of This Dying, Harold Heft gives us a book of poetry that demonstrates this. Heft divides the book into twelve chapters that examine, from different angles and through different voices, the painter Alexander Bercovitch. Born in the Ukraine in 1891, and educated in Russia, Bercovitch eventually emigrated to Montreal. He died of a heart attack in 1951, while walking to the first exhibition of his work in over a decade. Heft takes his title literally from Bercovitch's fallen shape in the snow, and fashions the first chapter out of some possible final thoughts.
In this first chapter Bercovitch notes the politics of the art world: "Yes, Mrs. Biernbaum, you can say this / is a primitive expressionist modernist piece, if you buy it." The book hints at the difficulties Bercovitch endured on behalf of his career, and suggests he should have been allowed to be above them. While there may be a perception that talented artists will, over time, emerge from the swamp of misguided criticism and surrounding mediocrity, Heft's book notes that we should not leave this to chance. Heft carries his perception of Bercovitch's single-minded pursuit of survival into the last lines he writes for him, thereby providing Bercovitch with a final thought more banal than inspired:
The shape of this dying is simple.
Still I hope
someone thinks to buy my latest still life.

This struck me, at first, as awkward and inappropriately casual. However, it's entirely possible someone could be unaware of impending death, and have strangely facile last thoughts.
As the book continues, Heft chooses to avoid jumping around in time, and gives us the different reactions that follow Bercovitch's death. We hear from his son, his daughter, several ex-wives, and even friends such as A.M. Klein. His daughter receives the news of his death in her studio, saying "I am like you / I paint and only politeness / and a pocket of friends acknowledge / it." A friend and fellow artist observes that "for the first diver the water is always coldest." A.M. Klein recalls the painting Bercovitch made of him:

The truth is
I knew this one. The truth is
I was tired of being

only exactly what I am,
an arranger of words. And so
did the artist paint me ű tired ű

broken down
to the million elements and angles that is
a life. A cheek
they say, is only
a cheek. But in the sweep of his
brush was at once every second

it had lived to surround my mouth,
contain air and words and food, blood
and veins and tissue. The few strands

at the tip of his brush
knew each kiss
this cheek had ever gladly accepted
The book is more successful as a tribute than as poetry. Heft maintains a similar style in each chapter¨the characters maintain a fairly consistent epic, brooding tone¨and this hurts the book's ability to present distinct voices and fresh characters at every turn. There is also a tendency to be a little heavy-handed, as when an ex-wife states "I have buried the gods who blessed me." And the introductions to each chapter ("Bercovitch's son-in-law, after identifying the corpse and delivering the news to his wife, returns to his job as a house painter") were often portentous.
Clearly, Heft feels the artist and the man are inseparable. Bercovitch, for example, doesn't take trips, he has "artistic excursions." It may be true that Bercovitch was both brilliant and irritable, but those traits also happen to be something of a clichT for artists. And while every artist is forced to deal with tasks and events they don't or can't translate into art, there aren't enough moments of this kind here; it's often Bercovitch the artist, less frequently Bercovitch the man. I found the chapter written in his voice, where he details how absurd he feels selling his creativity, much more compelling than the chapter done in the voice of his first wife, "abandoned in Russia", that manages to avoid completely why they separated. She speaks very generally about him:
I may once have known him
he may once have breathed dreams and shapes and a life
into me.

If we portray artists as people who sail around on a different plane of existence, leaving out the details of how they fell in or out of love (because they may not have done it "artistically"), readers are deprived of a common point of reference and lose their ability to relate. Heft wisely portrays Bercovitch as just a man when writing in his voice, but the characterization slips a little after that (though perhaps this at least serves to illustrate that we know ourselves better than anyone ever knows us).
Heft is to be praised for dedicating an entire book of poems to an artist he clearly admires, and believes deserves more attention.There are some memorable moments here, like his son-in-law observing that "under the harsh morgue lights every /mile of his living glowed in violent/ invisible scars." The book also raises a few interesting questions (who is best qualified to speak about an artist after his death?). And while a concise poetic tribute can hardly be expected to function as a complete biography, The Shape of This Dying offers a good introduction to the shape of Bercovitch's life. ˛

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