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Poetry Book Review
Good Harbor by Max Heinegg
Max Heinegg’s Good Harbor begins with a jolt and ends with a kind of communion. The collection’s first poem begins “You’ve been reading The Year of Magical Thinking / & tell me you want to die before the children, / & I agree.” It’s a long way from that initial sobering address to his spouse to the final image of the book, where Max, spouse, and children pick blueberries together. There, he says, “we offer each other / all we have in our hands.”
These are appropriate poles for this collection of poems. The first acknowledges the finite reality of our limited time on this Earth, in these bodies. The second typifies the poet’s vision of the redemptive power of human connection, present again and again in this book.
“I don’t want to be alone!” a child cries at the close of the book’s title poem, a good 3/4ths of the way into the collection. That’s just it. Who does? The book does not encourage us to ponder solitude or to idealize our individuality. Instead, it encourages the reader to pay attention to small, poignant moments of connection. In another poem, Heinegg tells the story of the sparrows nesting just outside the bedroom window. He removes the nest one year, not wanting to offend a grousing neighbor, but, recognizing that he’d caused the sparrows to sacrifice a powder-blue egg at the eviction, the next year he lets them stay.
Heinegg’s book is riddled with family memories – moms, dads, grandparents, kids, a family camp on Lake George, the poet’s grandmother’s old bedroom. We can hardly go two or three poems without tripping over a relation. If you’ve been blessed with a close-knit nuclear family and/or any further extension of relatives that maintain close bonds, this poet’s reflections on his abundance of family relationships may prompt you to reflect on your own. These are poems that might spark another poet to write their own work, to think, hey, I’ve got an experience something like that one. Good Harbor invites conversation via comparison. One poem tells a lively extended family fishing story that had me recalling the handful of times my own kids managed to catch a Winona or Pike Lake fish.
I really love the teaching poems in this collection. Like me, Heinegg teaches high school English and, like me, he can’t but help share a few of the more pointed moments of that experience. In “Lockdown,” dedicated to a custodian, Heinegg recounts how kids spend their fraught time during an active shooter drill, when they must “trust that although I haven’t learned all their names / yet, I would block the door for them.” In “Ms.” he says something about the magic of staying in a teaching role for a long career, noting the affection between a veteran English teacher and others in his school even if “one by one the heads drop / to the desks like leaves” as she reads aloud from the Oedipus cycle. It’s notable, too, that, as has been rumored about the high school I teach at in Indiana, Heinegg’s upstate New York institution is rumored to be “built by a man / who perfected prisons in California.” I wonder if each community employed the same architect, or if urban legends are liable to be recycled as the travel from the East to the Midwest?
Two of my favorite poems deal with the reality of America’s entrenched drug culture. In “Keepers of the House” Heinegg ponders his attempts to admonish a select group of students away from engaging in some non-sanctioned extra-curricular activities that he admits he sometimes took part in as a youth. Ominously, he notes “I’ve read the epitaphs of morning texts, / learned the limits of a teacher’s influence.” I understand what it’s like to worry that your students are making the kinds of decisions in their lives today that may lead to trouble down the road, or, as Heinegg notes, that he was fortunate enough to escape without ever being kicked out of his parents’ house. “Higher Ground” concerns a friendship with a man who went on to a much more adventurous life than the one that typifies teaching high school. His friend “[trained] Navy SEALS to scuba dive” and questions “why buying drugs / had to involve violence.” In his 30s, Heinegg tends to avoid this friend, answering emails late, keeping his distance from someone closer to the edge than himself, an experience I recognize as a fellow staid and, in terms of personal behavior, rather conservatively-inclined man of secondary letters with a comparably checkered past.
This collection balances the bitter and the sweet. It reminds us that because life ends, the right attitude is to treasure it. Often ruminative, sad-but-glad, Good Harbor contains the quiet presence of the type of poet I often find myself drawn to in my own writer-friendships, someone in whose company I might find communion, and solace. I recommend it.