Remembering Steven Heighton
Notes on the death of a poet and storyteller
The last time I saw Steven Heighton, which I had no reason to think would be our final encounter, my back was aching from carrying around a knapsack full of his books. It was 2017, and I'd been invited to deliver a lecture at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario; Steven was a Queen's alumni and still lived in Kingston, a small city with a peculiar social composition. I figured I’d make the most of the trip and arranged to meet up with Steven with the idea that I'd get some signed books.
Kingston is a university town, but it also houses a prison and military base. As Heighton wrote in a 2003 autobiographical essay for the anthology Writers Talking (edited by John Metcalf and Clare Wilkshire), Kingston was:
[A]n inexpensive harbour city with plenty of writers, bookstores, pubs, live music, and weird turreted Victorian houses, along with a volatile mix of population groups: the inbred local gentry, ex-prisoners, the profs and upper-middle-class professionals of the downtown, soldiers from the base, Royal Military College cadets, factory workers, bike gangs, the largely affluent student body, young artists, thousands of retirees.
As both a person and a writer, Heighton was Conradically mobile, roving the world to bring stories that could as easily be set in Japan or Greece or the Artic circle as suburban Toronto. But Kingston’s strange stew of Upper Canadian stuffiness and underworld grit spoke to him and provided the basis for some of his best fiction.
My plan was to go out to dinner with Steven as well as the academics who had invited me and then to get Steven to sign all of my books (I had all his poetry, essay and story collections as well novels). As it happened the dinner was too successful for me to pull off my autograph plot. Steven was such a lively and open talker, so good at getting down to the brass tacks of candid self-disclosure that bringing out the books seemed like it would introduce an element of fannish disruption. I assumed, wrongly, there would other future occasions for book signing.
Like many of his friends and his admirers, I was shocked by Steven’s death on Tuesday. He was only 60, struck down by a sudden, aggressive bout of cancer. His partner Ginger Pharand described it “a forest fire of an illness.”
Heighton was never a best-seller, but he achieved enough mid-level success to support himself and his family;his work had a modest but measurable international audience, and he relied on what he called his “deranged frugality” and the odd teaching job. Among the community of writers, he was loved for both his work and his person. He was committed to the life of writing, always refining his work and broadening his range. His early prose and poetry tended towards the romantically florid, lush outgrowths of verbiage that he would learn to prune over the course of his 17 books. His writing became ever more muscular, focused, effective. His commitment to literature was on constant display in his relationship with other writers. He was always ready to provide a probing reading and apt, encouraging criticism.
Here, I want to single out two examples of his writing. One is “Missing Fact,” which the poet Jason Guriel has called “the best essay on half-rhyme I've ever read—in the form of one of the best sonnets I've ever read.”
Noli me tangere, for Caesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, thought I seeme tame.
– Thomas Wyatt, c. 1535
Sometimes time turns perfect rhyme to slant,
as in Wyatt’s famous sonnet - how the couplet
no longer chimes, his “ame” turned “am,” now coupled
more by pattern, form. So everything gets bent
and tuned by time’s tectonic slippage. You and
I, for instance, no longer click or chord
the sharp way we did, when secretly wired
two decades back (not fifty - but then human
prosody shifts faster); and surely that’s best –
half-rhyme better suits the human, and consonance,
not a flawless fit, is mostly what counts
over years. But, still, this urge (from the past?
our genes?) to shirk all, for one more perfect-
coupling rhyme: for two again as one pure fact.
It’s hard to know what to praise more, the mediation on the shifting of language or the implicit linkage of coupling with couplets.
The other passage I want to call attention to is from the short story “Fireman’s Carry,” found in The Dead are More Visible, in which a firefighter narrates putting out a flame:
A rooming house is about the worst place for a fire, short of a chemical factory. Narrow hallways, the wiring below code, a dozen rooms or more, each warehoused with the kind of fodder that fires dote on—aged mattresses, bales of newspapers and Reader’s Digest, paperbacks, LPs, dry-rotted furniture. This place was sensationally decrepit. Shredded Insulbrick over century- old clapboard. Packed with flammables and going up in a whoosh. We had four trucks out front, ladders deployed, crews fighting to dent the firestorm that had already blown out the lower windows, seeking more oxygen, more space to expand. The crews were spraying from all angles, triangulating the fire’s heart, trying to buy us a few minutes upstairs. In the south alley, another hose was drenching the side-door stairwell where we’d entered and where we hoped to exit, soon. For now the lower flight of stairs was a foaming, terraced cascade, like a salmon weir.
This is not a showpiece paragraph but a typically observant one. It has Heighton’s characteristic commitment to, as he liked to say, “noun the world”: to use the naming power of language to mimetically capture reality. Anyone who has spent time in a rooming house will immediately feel a shiver of recognition.
There will be more to say about Heighton in the future, but for now I want to end with a review I wrote in 2012, for the National Post, of The Dead Are More Visible. I stand by the enthusiasm I expressed then and hope one day to write about his larger body of work.
Steven Heighton is fascinated by the things couples do in bed. Which is not to say he's a voyeur or a pornographer. Rather, he is a writer who is exceptionally clear-eyed about the fact that emotions are only alive to the extent that they are incarnated in physical acts: in looking, in touching, in caressing, in cuddling, in grappling, and in all the other motions that led up to the act of lovemaking and are intensified by it. Nor do these tactile experiences disappear after consummation but rather linger in the body like still-warm embers from an exhausted fire.
The stories in Heighton's new collection The Dead Are More Visible are impressively varied, but one feature that gives the book unity is the author's recurring concern with the biological and emotional urges that bring couples together and also sometimes push them apart.
Here is an account of a long-married couple who lost a son in an auto accident: “Every night for months they lay twined without ever having sex, a strange shift from all the years when they had often made love but always slept a little apart.” Here is a Canadian who teaches English in Japan describing the postcoital routine he has with his employer and lover: “Always, after the night's last sex and cigarettes, we would turn away from each other and lie back to back, space between us, to fall asleep, but when I woke up in the small hours she would be furled into me, face on my shoulder or pressed into my nape, sleeping hard.”
Here is a husband about to divorce thinking about the lingering sexual tensions that exist between him and his soon-to-be ex, a woman whose outwardly cool exterior conceals her private passions: ”Whenever they were in each other's vicinity, a vital arc would leap the synapse between them, etching the air. And in the sweaty aftermath of sex she would act as if nothing shocking had just occurred, as if she hadn't just been far beyond herself, laughing wildly, her hard little thighs crushing his hot ears and cheeks.”
Sex is a slippery activity that notoriously resists the efforts of prose fiction to grab hold of it. There is even a sniggering annual prize given to bad sex writing. It is a testament to Heighton's authorial gifts that he not only can write about sex with exquisite delicacy, but that many of the best passages in his stories are about intimacy in the broadest sense, meaning not just carnal acts but the full spectrum of sensations that underlie all human relationships and also our very existence as selfconscious animals. Heighton is a full-bodied writer, disconcertingly candid about fleshly urges in a way that shocks us into recognizing and remembering intense experiences that we've been socialized not to talk about.
In an autobiographical essay, Heighton once asserted that “I wouldn't have to write if I could be a gifted athlete, an artist of the body – a runner, a swimmer, a boxer.” This admiration for artists of the body—those who live by doing rather than more sedentary activities—explains some of the focus on sports in this collection. One story is about boxers, another focuses on a sports doctor who once had a promising career as a runner, and a third deals with the non-athletic but still very physical job of being a fireman. All of these artists of the body are described with the same vivid and precise prose Heighton brings to describing sex. At its best, this prose manages to achieve the same miracle of incarnate expressiveness found in Joyce or Nabokov, masters whose words are so intensely textured and specific that we feel them pulsing through our body.
To say Heighton is an immensely talented writer is true enough but insufficient. Thanks to creative writing programs, Canada has many skilled writers who can carpenter together serviceable sentences to make a readable story or novel. Middling competence in fiction is now the Canadian norm and enough to win prizes and even sell a few books. Unfortunately, given the small army of writers who can jump over the bar of adequacy and win attention and some praise, it is forgotten that there is a much smaller cadre of writers who belong to a different league, who write fiction of first rank. If Joyce and Nabokov seem like too distant and foreign as points of comparison, then here is a comparison closer to home: the best stories in this book—the title tale, “Shared Room on Union” and ”Nearing the Seas, Superior”are as good as the fiction of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. Or to be more blunt, Heighton is as good a writer as Canada has ever produced.
Critics are paid to be querulous and to earn my keep I can find a few faults. Heighton is an ambitious writer, which means he occasionally aims further than he can shoot. In the last story, “Swallow,” the plethora of secondary characters overwhelms the central plight of the protagonist. I wish Heighton hadn't reprinted (in slightly edited form) his older story “Heart & Arrow,” which is written in a florid prose style he has since, thankfully, abandoned. But these are niggling quibbles. The best stories in this book do what only great art can do: make us feel more fiercely alive.
(Post edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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