Nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award

“It’s important to realize that this is a book that rushes from clinical madness to a liberation discovered in religious union. The runaway is a real human who experiences the fire of the divine that hurts and saves. Maybe only once in a lifetime and only spoken in poetry like this.”
---Fanny Howe, poet and winner of the 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement

“Kythe Heller has written the poetry of a burning girl. If you are or have been one, well, you know who you are. Firebird is a searing, exhilarating book. It establishes grief and radiance in their correct proportions; it has life-giving power.” 
---Ariana Reines, poet and author of The Sand Book, longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry

“The runaway, the fire girl, the feral girl: she’s been broken by life but persists stubbornly in an openness to the world--to love--that borders on the mad. From the ashes, she plucks what remains to build a cairn of oracle bones and shimmering words. Kythe Heller knows how close pain is to mystic grace.” 
---Jackie Wang, poet and author of The Sunflower Casts a Spell to Save us from the Void, shortlisted for the National Book Award

“Kythe Heller’s Firebird sequence probes the capacity of the human spirit to endure under extreme conditions. Here, fire is both a destructive and a unifying force, altering people and landscapes. Runaways, the sick and the poor, a forest and a smoldering mattress — these stunning images burn themselves into the reader’s imagination. The female body becomes the site of trauma and myth, a place where “everything is burning, has been and is always burning.” Fiercely intelligent and relentlessly visceral, Firebird renders the world with singular clarity: “there were so many things that would look—nice—if they were seen through flames.”

--Askold Melnyczuk, award-winning novelist and founder of AGNI journal 

“What to call it? Poetry? Song? Metamorphosis? Exorcism? Blessing? Gratefully, the collaborative world of “Firebird” unequivocally offers something beyond the limits of language, a psalm whose burning originates before and beyond us.” 

--Laura Dolp, PhD, Associate Professor of Musicology, John J. Cali School of Music, Montclair State University 

Reviews in

“Behind the Girl was the Fire,” in TALISMAN, by Peter Valente

“The Poet’s Notebook: Review of Kythe Heller’s Firebird,” in Best American Poetry blog, by Andrew McCarron

“FIREBIRD” in Manhattan Poetry Review, by Lennart Lundh

Firebird (multimedia 2021), published by Arrowsmith Press. Buy the book by clicking here.
“Behind the girl was the fire”: On Kythe Heller’s Firebird by Peter Valente [TALISMAN, January 2022]

Kythe Heller’s book, Firebird (Arrowsmith Books, 2020), opens with an anonymous Sufi poem, in which the poet’s heart is exchanged for a new one, during a kind of transformative ecstatic process of unknowing, after which the poet writes: “Now I have made claim / Of my self, myheart, my voice. / They are worthless to me.” The poet feels chosen for this path and it was precisely when the “mind was stripped of knowing / and fled in terror from encompassing strangeness,” and her “mind betrayed heart” that his heart was “returned to a shattered place” and replaced with another. The poet seems to struggle because of the conflict between the initial impression of love, which is human, and which is merely Ishq-e Majazi (an illusion of love); but in the poem, there is the movement toward the spiritual plane, which involves a purity of heart; it is movement toward Ishq-e Haqiqi (true love), which is the love of God. This reminds me of the words of the Sufi poet, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad:

Anyone who is so dead of heart who has never had the good fortune of destroying his peace and sanity in anticipation of the unveiling of earthly beauty is hardly likely to experience the presence of Divine Beauty through his earthly sense.

In the Sufi path, yearning and longing for the love of the Divine comes to those who are fortunate enough to have experienced this desire for a Beloved who is heartless and indifferent. It is at this point, in extreme pain and mental distress, that the lover can destroy and become free of the self and alive to the harmonies of creation. It is this blurring of identities, in pain, which is a major theme in Sufi poetry; it is the movement from object to object, lover to beloved, and the unifying of them in a mental movement of yearning, a dance of dispossession. The distance between lover and beloved is closed, one flows into the other. There is a process of unificationon a spiritual plane, where individual ego is subsumed in ecstasy. Azad writes: “If the seekers aresearching for beauty, then why wait for the hidden to be revealed? They should be startled and dazed by the light emanating from the veil.” In the opening poem, the poet’s anguish and despair are so intense that you can feel her breaking away from reality, and experiencing a kind ofecstatic despair. Love is consummated on a higher plane and this involves the destruction of the Self.

The heart, according to Islamic, Sufi, or Christian mystics, is often symbolized by the Bird -Simorgh, Dove or Phoenix - ignited by the divine passion, which then is known as the “The Fire Bird.” Fire is the primal element that works its magic in these poems. We encounter the poet, herself, the burning girl, and a runaway. As she relates in the podcast “Texts for Nothing,” Heller spent time in Oregon, working nights at a homeless shelter; it was there that she encountered a young woman who had a disease in which her body suffered from intense fevers; her whole body was as if on fire. In Firebird, the identities of the two women will blur; Heller’s own life will weave, like a mosaic, with that of the burning girl. Heller has spoken of how she befriended the young girl. But even as this and other burning girl characters blend into each other, it is important to note, as she relates, that many of the experiences the book relates have actually happened to Heller, as a homeless teenager, as a runaway, as someone who is “burning.” And yet there have been intense connections with others who also are burning, and whom she worked with at the shelters and elsewhere. And some of these burning girls have also entered an archetypal character of the burning girl. She may be multiple or one, or nothing, complex and subtle, unknowable, herself and not herself, all at once. Or maybe not. For Heller, “Life itself should have been enough / but she wanted more. She wanted meaning…./ Perhaps that is why she was punished / with obvious zeal: she was not clever enough / to understand a lesson more subtle.” She goes on to write:

But that life is over.
She set fire to the paper bird. She swung the flaming effigy through the sky until it was gone.
Speak, said Death.
But I am a child.
Do not say you are a child;
You are no one you have ever been.

The Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar, writes, “And when you become ashes and dust, / Then you will dance reflected by the Sun.” There is an emphasis in Sufi poetry on the direct personal experience of the Divine. This can happen through something Sufis call fanaa, which means “to pass away” or “to be annihilated.” It is the self that is being annihilated while remaining alive (the purest manifestation of this is in death); to achieve a state where “you are no one you haveever been.” The Sufi poet Mansur Hallaj writes: “In my annihilation is my annihilation’s annihilation / And You are found in my annihilation.”

In our present time, “fire” takes on a new, urgent meaning. This country is so polarized with imaginary lines that divide white from black, gay from straight, man from woman, old from young, Muslim from Catholic. Trump’s angry rhetoric, even after he has lost the election, is starting a war among the people in the USA, and the recent riots in the streets are only one symptom of a larger problem. Recently, protesters swarmed the streets in New York and Los Angeles and throughout the USA, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. The streets of some cities looked like a scene from Paris in 1968, with the flames rising from burning buildings. It was a reminder that Black Lives Do Matter. The police are grossly overpaid and protected by police unions, so it’s hard to get them fired, which is why that murderer cop, after 17 complaints, didn’t get let go. It does seem that the sky is falling. Heller writes, “everything is burning, / has been and is always burning.” She continues:

I laughed and laughed. And I thought: How can the fire hurt me when I too am made of fire? The fire’s fingers, my fingers; the fire’s eyes, mouth, tongue -, mine. Fire you are mine, you have always been mine: LIFE! LIFE! LIFE! LIFE! LIFE! And I thought: I have a pure heart. I have annihilated everything that is created. I HAVE SEEN how it is so small, smaller than even my thumb, so small it is nothing. And I thought: it is nothing that is burning.

This passage can be understood as a reflection of the insanity of the burning world. I think of the forest fires that ravaged the West Coast recently. It is as if the heart of the world is on fire. But there is hope that, like a phoenix, this world will emerge from its pain, from the dust and ashes,transformed into something new. Since people are home, because of the lockdown, as a result of the Covid 19 virus, their priorities have changed; they have now perhaps realized that material things are not so important when loved ones are threatened with death. Perhaps the self can now be conquered by love. From the vantage point of the spiritual plane these events in the world seem small, or rather part of a deeper process of transformation. Heller writes, “I dreamed that I was fire, she said / a ragged bandage over the light. / Then the bandage was torn away. / When I woke, I felt tears burning my skin –” This is the pain and suffering of love, that precedes the love on a higher spiritual plane. It is said in various mystical traditions that when nothing is left, and one feels abandoned as if in a desert, there is one thing then that does remain: God.

In the second section of the poem, “Mattress Under the Overpass,” the burning of a mattress will have implications for the narrator and her relation to the world. Heller writes: “Look inside the mattress, the suffering // burns. The desire // to heal again through suffering burns.” This burning is an attempt “to burn away what she was, what she meant to become – ” The burning mattress represents human desire and physical love, as well as the pain and suffering associated with this, in flames; the burning represents the heart on fire; and as this flame is refined it transforms into pure spirit. It is a healing fire that transforms one to another plane. Furthermore, Heller writes: “The body of eyes everywhere a joyful sobbing; everywhere a crackling wash of cries where the glowing coals emerge // just at the center of the fluff of ash and blackened fabric.” At one point, in Heller’s short film in which she burns a mattress on the beach, there is a close-up of the fire; it is blurry, and it appears as though there are orbs of color that appear like eyes looking out. The various recent protests in the streets are like a collective cry of pain, amidst the flames, “everywhere a crackling wash of cries.” I think of government buildings on fire, men and women on the street protesting: “a whole body, eyelids flickering…a unified weeping like the emergence of a soul.” The section ends with a quote from The Resonance of Allah (Fellowship Press, 2001) by M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen:

Then that heart…melted into the form of liquid pearl, which wobbled, flowed over, and rolled, drop by drop, to shatter into resplendences of grace…scattered as seeds of life and as light rays…

The passage describes the fire bird’s final transformation. A liquid pearl is produced as if from an alchemical process and “drop by drop” it scatters seeds “of life and light rays.” It is a lovely and mysterious description of what occurs after the heart is burned and purified by fire.

In 2012, I filmed, alone and with a small point and shoot canon camera, homeless vets, former drug addicts, and gang members in New Jersey and on the Lower East Side for a film I was making; despite considerable risk, I was able to document the language and face of despair and anger otherwise silenced in the media. There is an increasing divide between the everyday “normal” life of the average American and the “extraordinary” life of the privileged. Many of these men and women live outside these two worlds. They are invisible. But they all have something to tell us. And we must listen. The burned girl and the runaway are the kinds of people I talked to. They are on fire; there is anger, despair, suffering, extreme pain, and perhaps the possibility of transformation. They, too, have the possibility, as we all do, of  emerging, transformed like a phoenix, from the fire. This would mean seeing all of us connected, “moving together in a flushed permeability,” where there are no false dividing lines, no mysterious Other, but a single body of which we are a part, working together, accepting our differences. We must remember, as E.J.W. Gibb writes in A History of Ottoman Poetry (Glasgow, 1931),” that Man, like the phenomenal universe in which he finds himself, and of which he presents an epitome, is double-natured, partaking at once of Being and Non-Being, of Good and Evil, of Reality and Unreality. But as that side of him derives from Being, and which therefore alone has a real and eternal existence, is necessarily an emanation of Divinity, he is, so far, ultimately and essentially one with God.

One must, as the Sufi poet Sa’di Shirazi writes, “destroy the idol of the self.” It is through Love that the self is conquered. Heller, writes, “In the mirror, all the sparks stir. A mirror is a liquid fever.” To long for something or someone, to suffer, is like a fire that blurs one’s reflection in a mirror; it is a fever, that melts the ego. It is the annihilation of the self. Heller writes, “It’s not enough to know what she knows. I want – what she is the metaphor for. What she is – beyond metaphor.” That is, beyond language. But the way in which the visible and the invisible interact, is often in equal measure. A certain detail is able to inhabit and express simultaneously the visible and the invisible, able to articulate as much as it hides. But there is a break in the continuum, a rift in the eternal, and we are time-bound, painfully aware of our own mortality in this fallen world; but the Sufi poet Kabir writes: “Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus / And there gaze on the Infinite Beauty.” To see “beyond metaphor” is to see things as both unified and as double. It is essentially to break the chains of Reason. Here is the weaving of past and present into a single continuum and this is the Sufi essence of time. In this perception the splits between past, present and even future disappear into a simultaneity – into movements of perception. In the space of consummation time is not split into past, present, and future. Just as the idea of linear time interrupts the perception of a continuum, so does the ego create a distance between the I and the other. I am reminded of the words of the Sufi poet Kabir: “The consciousness and the unconscious, both are His footstools. / He is neither manifest nor hidden, He is neither revealed nor unrevealed: / There are no words to tell that which He is.”

Heller writes in “That Heart,” the final section of Firebird, “She was that last, unspeakable thing:/ the body like a field stripped to bare ground, then burnt –” She refers, in the last line of Firebird, to the anonymous Sufi poem that began it: “In that heart [my emphasis], what point is there in dying or being born again?” Melancholy begins at birth. The original state of unity is broken; there is instead a multiplicity of phenomena and this is what causes suffering; there is also a potential source of despair since the movements of time sometimes are much slower than the forward movement of our hopes. This forward, linear perception of time is also a cause of suffering; one fails to experience the simultaneity of past, present and future during the arc of ascent/descent. The Sufi concept of the arc of descent and ascent is the movement from the multiplicity of phenomena to the unity with divine essence and the reverse. This movement is not sequential but continuous, two aspects of this divine essence. It is a sobering experience rather than the dizzy, disoriented feeling of ecstasy that is at the heart of Sufism. To die and be born again is to be bound by time. But, as Hafiz writes, “In comparison to a drop of that wine, Hafiz, /All reason and sense are useless.” Let us hope that all the anger and division in the world is transformed in a collective song of hope and love. Kythe Heller’s Firebird is a book that reaffirms my belief that change is possible, especially now when there are so many who are suffering without any hope in the future. Poetry like hers is life-affirming and exactly the type of writing we need in this world; it is a transformative light in the growing darkness.

Kythe Heller is an award-winning poet, multi-disciplinary artist, and scholar whose work spans text, film, performance, and social practice. Her work
re-imagines art-making as a practice of consciousness: In what ways can our works become sites of evolution, realizations of new social, technological, and ecological relationships, by considering how to use language and media to radically change our ways of being in the world?
Recently nominated for a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award for her poetry collection Firebird, her work was described by poet Fanny Howe as containing “…a real human who experiences the fire of the divine that hurts and saves. Maybe only once in a lifetime and only spoken in poetry like this.” She is the author of
Firebird (Arrowsmith), a hybrid book of text,
photographs, and ritual performance, Rite of Spring (with Meghan McNealy
& partially published by BBP Gallerie), two chapbooks, Immolation (Monkhoney) and Thunder Perfect Mind (Wick: Harvard Divinity School), and critical studies in philosophy of religion, Islamic mysticism, and poetics, published by Cambridge UP and Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. She has received 
fellowships and grant awards from The MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Mellon Foundation, Harvard University, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Film, performance, and installation work has been screened and exhibited in the US and Canada. Currently
she is completing a doctorate at Harvard University in Comparative Religion and Art, Film, and Visual Studies / Critical Media Practice. She founded the global arts and research collective VISION LAB in 2017.