Review by Ash Bowen
by Jack Heflin
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press
P.O. Box 40831
Lafayette, Louisiana 70504-0831
2010, 86 pp., $10.00
In many ways, Local Hope, the latest book by Jack Heflin, is a collection of elegies on the loss of the American dream and religious faith. The poems come from places deeply rooted in the consciousness of an America set adrift and left to fend for itself.
In that spirit, the book gathers around itself the sheet of a dream gone to ruin. God has abandoned us and all that remains is the thin hope we find in some sort of buy-now-pay-later kind of faith. We see this best exemplified in the poem, “The CAT Scan,” one of the strongest in the book. Here hope is wagered against the speaker’s ability to run five miles on the day before his son’s CAT scan.
I slip into the lead jacket, tighten the lead collar,
and at last my worry wears its own weight,
has become something more than abstraction
or superstition as it did yesterday when I went
running and told myself if I could make five miles
the X-ray would find nothing . . .
The poem ends with the speaker’s hand on his son’s foot, the other hand with fingers crossed.
The crossed fingers, and what they symbolize, are what Heflin struggles constantly to understand: what it means to be “post-Christian,” where God has clocked out and gone home and left us to find whatever faith we can in whatever we can, be it the rubbed heads of children in “Local Hope,” the lifeguard/angel in “Icarus,” or the aforementioned crossed fingers of “The CAT Scan.”
The book is pessimistic, to be sure. Life is nothing more than an collection of daily disasters: professors don’t get tenure, Larry Levis dies, the levees on the Ouachita break; and despite our children dancing to “the beat of Mahler’s Ninth,” they still don’t want to sleep because they know “we’re gonna die.” But cuddled in that pessimism is the faintest ray of optimism: at least we still have art.
Heflin meditates on art quite a bit, something one of his speakers learned from the poet Larry Levis to “romantically ennoble”:
From you I learned the happy insecurity of ,
the way style dresses the man
who’s never coming back
(“Tenure, An Elegy”).
Likewise, “Ars Poetica” is a long and dreamy poem on the creative process that moves in and out of conversation with another poet, “Mr. Anonymous.” Heflin’s speaker has awakened to a dream in which the world has been given over to poets. “But for what?” the speaker asks, “A rinse and detail?” It’s lines likes these peppered throughout the poems that keep the entire collection from bogging down into cynical, unreadable book.
And Heflin’s book is nothing if not incredibly readable and just genial (if such a word can be used to describe a book of poems). It’s Heflin’s charming poems and the voices of his speakers that make the book so damned likeable. In fact, the energetic poems are so well-crafted and carry what can only be described as a “light touch” that we don’t even notice just how pessimistic the book is until we’ve read it a few times.
The book isn’t without its moments of levity—an example of Heflin’s keen awareness for the need for pacing in a collection such as this. The poem “The Cobbler’s Journal” is witty and light:
Nothing surprises me. I love your twelve toes.
Such nerve. Such balance.
Later in the poem, we see more of Heflin’s sense of humor when the cobbler, having written of love in a previous stanza, offers another journal entry of, “I have never put my tongue in anyone’s shoe.”
While there are no romantic love poems in the book (who has time for that when the world’s falling apart?), Heflin does have poems that dip into the realm of parental affection. The poem “Domestic,” offers a glimpse into the familial moments that, if not staving off disaster, offer a momentary reprieve from life’s impending doom.
Not long after you first walked
you danced, a crazy kind of penguin hop,
feet stuck to the floor, arms at your side,
as if holding weightless pails of ice,
flightless Antarctic joke, and how we laughed.
Ginger Baker, bluegrass, Sonny Rollins,
you even found the beat to Mahler’s Ninth.
We slapped our butts and sang along,
capable, however compromised, of joy,
as in a Brueghel print, or so we have thought.
It won’t last long. Everything’s about to change:
you’ve started picking up your feet,
and just today, you whirled a dizzy windmill.
On your back, you stared for us to life you up
and we came stumbling to your need.
Local Hope, it cannot be stated more emphatically, is a wonderful collection of poems. Heflin’s poetry, while appearing in the major literary magazines, hasn’t been collected in book form since his first book, The Map of Leaving, won the Montana First Book Award. And that was a while ago. Finally, we have a new batch of Heflin poems to enjoy. We can only hope another collection is already in the works.
Ash Bowen’s poetry has appeared in Rattle, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Blackbird, and is forthcoming in Nimrod. He co-edits Linebreak (www.linebreak.org).