Pioneer Valley Poets: Poetry that transports readers to fantastic worlds

  • Deerfield poet James Heflin will be hosting a reading from his new book, “Krakatoa Picnic,” on April 28 at 7 p.m. at Brew Practitioners. Contributed Photo

For The Recorder
Monday, April 24, 2017

Deerfield poet James Heflin doesn’t like that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Quoting from the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love,” Heflin says, “‘There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.’”

“We all want certainty and safety,” he adds. “We all want to know we’ve done the right things. But the choices you didn’t make, and the branching roads that lead to the future just refuse to give up their secrets.”

That doesn’t seem to stop him from pursuing those secrets. The poems in Heflin’s first full-length collection, “Krakatoa Picnic,” just out from Hedgerow Books — the poetry imprint of Levellers Press in Amherst, travel many of those “branching roads” into fantastical worlds.

Heflin will be launching “Krakatoa Picnic” at a reading on Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at Brew Practitioners, 36 Main St. in Florence.

The book’s title poem begins with the lines: “The unlikeliest thing is/ the one that is happening now,” and indeed, unlikely things happen as a matter of course in Heflin’s poems. In “Light Speed,” a man peers through a telescope and ends up looking back through time at himself as a younger man. When the full moon follows Heflin home, he’s not talking figuratively: it rolls right into his kitchen, where Heflin feeds it pancakes and cole slaw, then shoves it out onto the back porch.

But even things we take for granted, like looking out a window, are transformed into the near miraculous by Heflin’s reminder that glass is made of melted sand. It’s as if we, like the space-suited figure on the book’s front cover, have entered an alternate world and all we can do is keep moving forward. It comes as no surprise to learn that Heflin, who works in the marketing and public relations office at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, also writes science fiction.

In a prolonged section of ten poems entitled, “Exit into Sunlight,” Heflin conjures an imaginary Order whose members seek wisdom through often eccentric and not entirely apprehensible methods.

Heflin says, “I imagined a bunch of people trying to divine the future and trying to get at the big mysteries via self-examination. It’s an old idea, obviously, and always seems to involve weird, made-up rituals and foolish hats.”

He created two characters, one a neophyte wishing to be introduced to the Order’s mysteries, the other his guide, “an eccentric old uncle type.”

“It’s always eccentric old uncle types who get into this occult business, it seems to me,” Heflin says.

The poems are written as if they were a series of letters from the guide to the neophyte.

“His ‘wisdom’ seems profound,” Heflin says, “yet it’s got a fair bit of unavoidable silliness, because it’s all an attempt at imposing order and imagining we’ve got everything safely figured out.”

Not unlike the rest of us, who bumble along trying to make sense of things, the members of the Order don’t really know what they’re doing. There’s even a suggestion that they’re hoping someone new, like this innocent truth-seeker, will stumble upon the wisdom inadvertently and enlighten them all.

“Nervous Splendor,” the third poem in this section, “Is about the machine this Order has created, or more like inherited from their occult forebears,” Heflin says. “There’s a sense that, though our speaker is giving instructions, he and his whole gang really don’t know what the machine does or exactly how it works. They kind of want this neophyte to stumble upon some answers, but they can’t come out and say that, because they’ll look like the Keystone Cops they must be.”

Each poem in “Exit into Sunlight” is accompanied by a small scratchboard illustration by Dan Darr, an artist and high school art teacher in Arlington, Texas. Darr and Heflin met in high school in Fort Worth when they were fifteen and have been close friends ever since. Heflin invited Darr to collaborate with him on this section by creating small black and white illustrations. He sent no instructions or suggestions, Heflin says, just asked Darr to respond to the poems. Each of Darr’s illustrations, while it might seem straightforward at first glance — an open door, a boat under full sail, rows of locked, numbered boxes — is suffused with a quiet mystery that deepens upon reading the poem.

Though Heflin mentions several times the “silliness” of the Order’s quest for wisdom, he cautions, “We can’t laugh at them too much — they’re just codifying what all of us are up to. You discover one day that you’re alive and you won’t always be. You’d better figure this business out, pronto, because the clock is ticking. These guys have formalized a system for their inquiry, and maybe they are a touch goofy, but at least they’re trying.”

To learn more about Heflin, visit: www.jamesheflin.com. See more of Dan Darr’s artwork at: www.dannydarr.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com.