“The Halo of Bees: New & Selected Poems 1990-2023” by Michael Hettich

Award-winning poet Michael Hettich, a former Florida resident and professor who now lives in North Carolina, has an avid appreciation for nature, domestic life, language, trust in the simple things, and in the often-elusive connections between entities. With intelligence, insight, and occasional wit, Hettich writes superbly on these subjects, and others, in his new 233-page collection, The Halo of Bees: New & Selected Poems 1990-2023 (Press 53 2023). There’s a delightful vibrancy in his work as Hettich chronicles some thirty-three years in poems which have been chosen from over two-dozen of his prior publications. Within these works, there is a natural ebb and flow and a kind of elasticity that enhances their impact and imagery. New poems are also included, with some reflecting experiences in leaving Florida for the Carolina mountains and the necessary shucking away of old things.

While Hettich writes of “respecting … darkness” in the poem “I Wake,” he tends often toward an embracing stance of being “happy to be sitting there,” as in the poem “The Lesson.” Some poems, such as “The Happiness of Trees,” are so celebratory just the title alone is enough to evoke a joyful response. The poem lives up to it title with lines like this one: “humming …patterns / I couldn’t sing along with but felt inside / like the happiness of trees when a soft wind / turns their leaves’ pale underbellies to the sky / and makes the sap rise.”

Michael Hettich

Yet, despite such delight expressed in “The Happiness of Trees” and other poems, there is no denying the yin and yang quality in his poems with frequent juxtapositions between that which is joyful and that which is not. Finding this balance, and with a great spirit of resiliency, Hettich writes in “The Hurricane” about how a storm “stole all our windows,” and “pulled the glass from the wall.” Though “dazed,” the poem’s narrator and his children then scattered bird seed for the flocks of “brightly-colored birds” entering the hurricane-damaged house and “made bird baths from the / cups and cereal bowls, grottoes for nests where the books had / lived” and therefore “transformed our house from disaster to / refuge.”

One poem in particular, heartbreaking in its story and candor, might well haunt readers and yet it is also painfully beautiful. “And We Were Nearly Children,” at eleven pages the second longest in the collection, details the birth and death of the poem’s narrator and his wife’s first child, a daughter in a home birth that went tragically bad:

 in Vermont, that beautiful summer of swimming

naked in the crips West River, …

Outside, in the tall grass by the apple trees, there were

fireflies rising, and the stars were thick,

heavy and almost wet with their gleaming.

We were sure of our choice,…


Ultimately the daughter, Audrey, who was born and died the same day, is still present:

…a beautiful woman who lives

in the woods, a silent woman who lives


in the way the leaf of a birch tree might flutter

in the wind no one feels, …


…this woman who can’t

be, although she is the gleaming

we love so, in water or mica,

and when the first snow falls, she is that silence

that will melt into the ground before anything lands

or walks there, … .


The poem which gives the collection its title, “The Halo of Bees,” is another example of Hettich’s tendency toward blending the joyful with the poignant. Beginning with the “jasmine is flowering with so many bees / …as its fragrance woke me,” the poem ends with “old men huddled under cardboard.” And, as he often does, Hettich asks an important question. Here, he wonders “what if I’d stood there / while a thunderstorm pelted those blossoms to the ground?”

While there are many topics and themes in these collected poems, recurring references to being naked, trees, and waterways occur with striking power. Such is his talent that though these matters appear multiple times in several poems, each time they are different and fresh. For example, in “Ceremony,” he writes of “water that’s older than language,” and in “The Stone Wall,” he observes: “Under our feet there is water / moving, always, and animals that breathe / all that falls away.” While swimming naked in an underground spring in a cave, in “Another Life,” the narrator lets an afternoon rain shower which “streamed through the ceiling hole … / …scour my face / and eyes while the minnows kissed my body.”

Not surprising given that it is the tool of a poet, language as a word and concept also appears in several poems. In the poem “The Wound,” there is a woman knows how to “speak / whatever language anyone else / was speaking.” An old man who “tended his garden / summer afternoons in pressed shirts and bow tie” also talked to the flowers “using a different language / for each shape and color” in the poem “Philosopher.” A boy who loves frogs in the poem “The Frogs” will sing with them “at dusk at pond’s edge,” then later walk home “through the tall grass, through the dark / still singing in his own language.”

Hettich’s poems have a rhythmic sound, a cadence, that fits their topic and adds pleasure to reading them out loud. For example, in “The Ancestors,” he writes of “living here / in breath and marl and swelling fruit.” And in “Marimba,” he writes of “The man I wish I’d had the gumption to become / back when I was green and restless…”

There is a lot of magic in these poems too, from the “Ghost Trees” and “The Mica Daughter” and “Angels in the Trees” to the “man who blistered his fingers on the clouds / he leaped to grab onto.” Yet, in some ways, the stronger magic is how Hettich infuses the ordinary with its own enchantment. While the poem “An Ordinary Morning” exemplifies this with its “whiff of winter in the air” and “a score of other deer / moving through the woods,” perhaps it is the woman in the poem “The Dark House” that says it best: “Trust the simple things.”

All in all, then, a brilliant and beautiful collection of poems.

Michael Hettich in Utah

Born in Brooklyn, New York, and with a childhood in Manhattan and Mamaroneck, Hettich earned an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Denver and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from the University of Miami. He lived many years in South Florida when he taught at Miami Dade College, where he was awarded an Endowed Teaching Chair. He now lives in North Carolina. His work has appeared in many prestigious journals including Orion, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Poetry East, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, and The Literary Review. His writing has also appeared in a number of anthologies, including Visiting Bob: 100 Poems for Bob Dylan (New Rivers Press, 2018) and Rewilding: Poems for the Environment (Flexible Press, 2020). The winner of many awards, Hettich is also most recently the inaugural recipient of the Hudson-Fowler Prize in Poetry from the University of Central Arkansas.

In an interview at Mountain Xpress, Hettich challenges readers to embrace life’s unknowns and speaks of things “unsayable by any form other than poetry.” Initially, he is speaking of an encounter with a bear, but as the interview develops, he says “I think one of the primary functions of poetry — indeed of any art — is to communicate glimpses into what’s ultimately beyond our ken, that place of need and yearning where the mysteries reside.” Visit Hettich at http://michaelhettich.com/


 Ghost Trees

(This poem appears in its entirety and is used with permission.)

And now a certain kind of scientist says
the weather in various parts of the world
is growing exhausted and just wants to lie down
for a nap, or maybe for a longer dose
of oblivion, so its dreams can be
re-spawned, its creatures large and small
replenished to wildness, the air re-folded
into its invisible origami, even
human language shot-through again
with sap: In the clear-cut woods—
raw ground and stumps—invisible trees
are learning to move from one place to another,
blurring paths and meadows—the people
who live there call them fathers who turned
away without waving goodbye and learned
to dance slowly
; they contrast them with the boulders
and rocks, who really know how to dance
in slow time, even as the humans and the creatures
in fur and the creatures in feathers leave
their bodies and all the bodies they passed through
to arrive at now through eternities, but still
we pretend they cast shadows across the ground
and still we pretend they bear fruit.


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