Constellations of Waking by Michael Heller


According to recent star maps, 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.

As I saw it, Benjamin’s story, though far more heroic in every regard than mine, nevertheless resonated with some of my own experience at the time. I had started writing a few years earlier. . . . I was also a wanderer of my own inner life. Later, as I came to read more deeply into Benjamin’s work, the psychological intertwining and identifications, the blundering, “the errant and hidden life,” struck me as the very heart of his empowering empathy, his intellectual stances, his profound understanding of culture, literature and politics. More than with most thinkers I have encountered, Benjamin’s life, the difficult and obstruction-ridden life, its unsettled quality, felt inseparable from his writing. My own experiences and this seed-syllable, this romance of Benjamin’s dis-ease and uncertainty, was, in retrospect, what would ultimately lead to the libretto/poem of this book. —Michael Heller, from the Preface of Constellations of Waking


  • Kind: Perfectbound
  • Pages: 162
  • Language: English
  • Date Published: February, 2019
  • ISBN: 978-1-948017-26-8


“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, 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


View an excerpt of the script and stage directions (pdf format).


Michael Heller’s poems first appeared in print in the nineteen-sixties while he was living in a small village on Spain’s Andalusian coast, a period he describes in his book, Earth and Cave (Dos Madres Press, 2006). In 1967, he returned to the U.S, taking a teaching position at New York University. Since then, he has published over twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction. Among his most recent works are Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (2012), This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (2012) and Dianoia (2016). A new collection, Telescope: Selected Poems, is forthcoming from New York Review Books in 2019. Since the nineteen-nineties, he has been collaborating with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson on multimedia works including writing the libretto published here for the opera, Constellations of Waking, which premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2000. Among his many awards are grants and prizes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America and The Fund for Poetry. A collection of critical essays on his work, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 2015. A frequent traveler to Europe, he resides in New York City and spends his summers in the Colorado mountains. He is married to the poet and scholar Jane Augustine.

Additional information

Weight 14.3 oz
Dimensions 8 × 9 × .5 in