Another cold day in beachtown, just right for sitting at a sun-filled window with a good book. But before anything else I tested the air with a little outdoor breakfast in my big patio chair overlooking the blue. Enjoyed some time of wandering the beach near-stifled in the bulk of sweater, hoodie and scarf then returned to the warmth of indoors and a bright window of slanting light. I keep an ever-growing file on the iMac of poems that I like, and though not always the case, on many occasions poems discovered on The Writer’s Almanac end up on that list of favorites. Let no one doubt Garrison Keillor’s eye for poetry. For those unfamiliar with it, his introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times is a classic for anyone desiring an everyman’s approach to poetry. Should be required reading in classes starting with Poetry 101 and going right up to graduate seminars.
In my list of favorite poems from The Writer’s Almanac is one by Michael Heffernan, a fine example from a March 2011 edition of TWA. A Detroit native, Heffernan has taught since 1986 in the MFA writing program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. His ninth book of poetry, At the Bureau of Divine Music was published last March. Heffernan has won three NEA grants, and two Pushcarts, along with the Iowa Poetry Prize. This latest collection of poems combines meditations on the ordinary happenings of daily life with thoughts on the passing of years, on love and infidelity, and on remembrance and regret.
From that book, “The Art of Self-Defense” shows us the poet looking back to a time in his Detroit youth in 1953. The ending, which comes in six short, staccato-like sentences suggests that the thoughts, memories and feelings in the poem are crucial, possibly moments that shaped the poet’s growth.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE
Another day’s stint in the free world
begins here in the donut shop. Standing in line
wondering how many cheese Danish and apple fritters
as well as donuts I should buy, while the creamy girls
in their summer dresses are licking their profiteroles,
I see myself as a boy in the summer of 1953
salting sliced tomatoes with my grandfather
in the white shirt he wore. The kitchen was big and sweet.
The breeze from the electric fan swung by us and away.
The oilcloth on the table was cool and slick.
The leaves of the tree of heaven dappled the sill.
In line in the donut shop is a man in a straw hat
between a woman in pigtails and a boy with large eyes.
Gramps was a boxer in his younger days, semiprofessional.
He watched the Wednesday night fights on our TV.
In his last autumn he taught me to box.
He set up punching bags in his basement.
He taped newspapers to the windows. He named me Spike.
He got me to shadowbox next to the coal bin.
He kept me at it hard till it felt like forever.
When the time came, he arranged a bout
with Mike Donnelly from down the street.
Mike struck the top of my head at once and down I came.
He helped me up from the floor and went home.
I was eleven. I wasn’t fast or clever. This was the autumn
after the summer they fried the Rosenbergs.
Gramps walked me down to the corner to get the Free Press.
The photograph showed their bodies on the front page.
He tugged my hand and kept me from seeing it.
We mark these solitudes throughout our lives.
This is not simply about things as they are.
This is about donuts, profiteroles, and straw hats.
Things cannot be as they are in this country.