The poems in William Hengst’s Runaway Freight (Aldrich Press: 2016) are energetic, deep, funny, sad, reflective, goofy, honest, revealing, goofy, surprising, self-knowing, and most of all, real. This collection is a memoir that spans 70 years, starting with some early childhood bumps, followed by a winding path of self-actualization. All of the searching comes together in midlife and is expressed in writing, painting, movement, and satisfying work as a gardener for hire, which brings him daily contentment working outdoors in the soil.
His young childhood has a rough start when his sister jams a pencil in his thigh, and “for nothing more than penis envy kicked (him) in the balls.” He becomes withdrawn, doesn’t speak for a year at nursery school—passive aggressive behavior, a psychiatrist might say. There are even spurts of cruelty:
“While still a young boy I invented the magnifying glass.
The end of a Coke bottle when held up to the sun
could make anything vanish…
slugs, worms, the hind end of ants pasted to the sidewalk.”
His mother and father don’t help matters due to their emotional distance. He asks himself, “why each evening she dressed for him. / Why he, not I, was the center of her attention.”
But there are better moments, glimpses of playfulness and budding invention, such as when he’s standing in front of the bathroom mirror: “First a little dab of Brylcreem / then wet down, comb, and re-comb/ my thick brown hair. Admiring myself / from all angles…/ With each whip of the comb I change my persona. / One minute I’m Clem Kadidlehopper, next minute Mickey Rooney, sometimes Vaughn Monroe / crooning “Racing with the Moon,”/…Then the snarl and wink of Bogart, / Here’s looking at you kid!”
Before he goes off to college, he tends to his foreign sports car: “I spent days polishing the grill, / its voluptuous fenders—Betty Grable curves/…I was sure it would be my ticket to hot dates / from Colby or Smith, better still a Bennington babe, / who would fall into my arms / when we cuddled on the back seat.”
As he makes his way to college, the poem continues:
“With the top down I took it up to ninety
on the New York Thruway just to see how it felt.
It felt good. At a hundred, even better.”
In another poem later in the book, his quest for a woman’s love intermingles with his gardener-self’s love of earth as he imagines Darmera Peltata–a plant described in the White Flower Farm catalogue–as “My Sweet Darmera.”
“All day she roams barefoot,
a farm girl with sturdy legs
who doesn’t mind the mud between her toes…
Bits of hay stalks cling to her hair,
which she brushes aside when we lie down at night.”
Moving on to another poem, he harnesses his creative juices:
“Two weeks on an island in Maine,
my tiny college far from town,
forest and ocean were my neighbors…
Each day I lugged easel and canvas over grassy paths
to cliff sides that overlooked the sea…
I was Pissarro, Van Gogh, sometimes Brueghel,
splashing pigment on cloth and swashing it about.”
At age 65 and beyond, thoughts of life’s end trickle in:
“If I could have anyone paint my portrait,
it would be Vincent Van Gogh.
I’d be outdoors walking in a wheat field…
While he painted me, I would ask:
Were you thinking of death
when you painted the writhing wheat field?”
In the book’s final poem, he sees himself as an old man,
“…proudest of his daffodils
the ten-thousand stubby bulbs…
whole hillsides, wooded vales, streamside meadows.
Had there been time he would have replanted America.”
William Hengst’s new collection of poems is a joy to read. I decided to read a few at bedtime, but I became so engaged that I read them all in one evening until after midnight, and was so stirred up by them that I couldn’t fall asleep.
—by Janet Falon, writer and writing teacher