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Review: Good Harbor by Max Heinegg

Poetry Review

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. 

—Carl Sandburg

Poets are, if nothing else, fantasists. But, as Delmore Schwartz reminds us, in dreams begin responsibility. Good Harbor is, first, a book rooted in Home and Tenancy and Fatherhood. Decency is the subtext, or ethical behaviors we’d class as decent. In the poem “Lockdown”—about a drill for a possible school shooting—the teacher is honest, forthright: “Kids / who trust that although I haven’t learned all their names / yet, I would block the door for them.” The speaker of the poem is saying he will behave as if it were his answering the sense of obligation to others that some feel. In this case, the speaker’s obligation extends to the children of his fellow citizens.

And why is that such a big deal? Because if this life is anything, it’s cruel; and if that cruelty is to be assuaged at all, then it will require just this sort of reflexive citizenship. So, Max Heinegg’s poems exist in a moral Metaverse, whether one exists or not. The writer is saying that when there’s joy, there is also the concomitant obligation to answer threats to the joy of others.

Social responsibility is accounted for, but not in a check-that-box fashion. Heinegg references mask-wearing and -wearers, the current experience, but with a respect for the nascent and uninitiated—this is the voice of the Teacher, which lots of great poetry has roped off as its territory. Sometimes with crime-scene tape to remind us the danger is real but not the point of the fantasist’s testimony or teaching. Along these lines, ”Night Fishing” is a poem that anchors the book in Seeing—“to set the dark in motion & stare, / transfixed, the ocean come to me.”

A playful tone blossoms every so often, as if to say I don’t mean to say that’s the only aspect I see. “At Last, I Discover My Parents Are Ancient Egyptians” is one such poem:

The signs were everywhere. They staggered
the house with surprising wine—who drinks
Vouvray?—& stacked the attic
with Iranian rugs, the photo from Tehran
where my mother was pelted
for walking with bare arms.

Their rooms were full of the symbols
& ornaments of myth—the African statues,
their court of cats, named deceptively:
Horatio, Achilles, Daisy.

The poet concludes that the world he saw, the world of his parents, might as well have been a world of rivers and reeds and Moses stories—“past the wet rushes, / into the effortless field of reeds.” The book is rife with exhilarating concision and eureka-moments, which you expect from any manuscript that shoulders its way to a win in a major contest. (Good Harbor won the Paul Nemser Poetry Prize and is published by Lily Poetry Review Books.) But there is a generosity of spirit to the book, and Max Heinegg’s speaker, that drew this reader in.

It may be the general decency and moral responsibility at the heart of much of this volume, but I felt myself in the presence of the Authentic as often as beautiful artifice and real wisdom. In the last poem in the book, “Blueberrying” we are told “While hikers above / talk of the good salt / air resting in panorama, / we offer each other / all we have in our hands.” I trust this speaker. And, by the end of this remarkable venture into Consciousness, I found myself thanking Whomever for hearts like his.

*

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GOOD HARBOR by Max Heinegg

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