This poem, collected in Michael HELLER’s volume Knowledge (1979) and reprinted in his memoir, Living Root (2000), was originally conceived by Heller in the late 1960s as a historical novel on the life of Jews in the Polish city of Bialystok, from which his father’s family had emigrated. In pursuing this subject, Heller joins the ranks of American Jewish poets writing after the Holocaust, who can neither totally ignore nor totally submerge themselves in the great Jewish tragedy of the 20th century.

The poem’s parenthetical subtitle, “from a book of old photos,” refers to David Sohn’s book Bialystok: Photo Album of a Renowned City and Its Jews the World Over (1951), which Heller procured on his father’s advice in 1963. Most sections of the poem, then, address photos from Sohn’s book. On the series of poems, Heller has said, “I am remembering then, not for the sake of what was, but in a sense, in order to be” (15). Heller also cites Walter Benjamin on the subject of photography, quoting the German-Jewish philosopher’s notion that a photograph is a “posthumous moment” (33).

In his commentary on the poem, Norman Finkelstein sees photography in “Bialystok Stanzas,” beyond either Heller’s or Benjamin’s explicit statements, as “the inevitable violation of a historical space, a psychic zone which can maintain its dignity only in the medium of mute memory” (77–78). Burt Kimmelman expands the implications of the poem to those of Heller’s entire theory of poetics having to do with how words and lived experience intersect, writing that a Jew’s “first condition” is her or his “relationship to the idea of a text” (70). Here Heller is dealing with photographs as “texts.” Part 7 of the poem, subtitled “Terrible Pictures,” specifically its lines describing Jews being photographed just before their execution, underscores this point. Heller is making it clear that the extermination of European Jews is both a real experience and a textual one, part of the literary tradition of the Jews that has bound them together throughout the diaspora.

The final section of the poem, the “Coda” entitled “Senile Jew,” is the only section not dealing with texts in general or photography specifically. Describing an interaction with his elderly grandfather, Heller asks about a missing boot: “Do you wear the boot? / Or does he who wears the boot / Wear you?” (32). Soon the voice of the grandfather and the grandson become intermingled. However, in ending the poem with the line, “I am the Jew,” Heller acknowledges his role in Jewish history as a member of a persecuted people who is, himself, not persecuted. With this line, Finkelstein is able to tie the poem to the OBJECTIVIST SCHOOL, noting that objectivism “remains an important mode of Jewish-American poetry because Objectivists must acknowledge their responsibility to the circumstances from which their poems arise” (78).


Finkelstein, Norman. “Dy-Yanu: Michael Heller’s ‘Bialystok

Stanzas.'” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and

Poetics 10 (fall 1993):77–80.

Heller, Michael. Living Root. Albany, N.Y.: State University of

New York Press, 2000.

Kimmelman, Burt. “The Autobiography of Poetics: Michael

Heller’s Living Root.Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary

Poetry and Poetics 10 (fall 1993):67–76.

Andrew E. Mathis