Runaway Freight Review

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 He becomes withdrawn, doesn’t speak for a year at nursery school—passive aggressive behavior, a psychiatrist might say.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

Sample Poems from Runaway Freight

Getting Down with Weeds

First appeared in GreenPrints.

Gardener needed to tend a one-acre perennial garden, 
the bulletin board notice read. I called, showed up
and got my first job. Soon more came.

I loved the work. No memos, staff meetings, master plans,
just physical tasks, which promised perspiration
and exhaustion more satisfying than health-club workouts.

Instead of Brooks Brothers’ suits, I wore thrift-store clothes.
I found my middle-aged body could hoist mulch, dig holes,
transplant and plant whole gardens, and most of all, pull—

bindweed, chickweed, duckweed, horsetail,
goutweed, jewelweed, jimsonweed, nutsedge,
knotweed, milkweed, pepperweed, plantain.

Nothing was more satisfying
than getting down on hands and knees
and doing due diligence with—

pigweed, pokeweed, ragweed, goosegrass,
smartweed, snakeweed, snapweed, quackgrass,
wartweed, witchweed, wormweed, nightshade.

 

There’s No Business Like Show Business*

It must have been a Saturday summer evening when my childhood friend and comrade-in-mischief stopped by my home to announce there was a big lawn party going on in the neighborhood and why didn’t we go over and have a look. Rumor had it there would be famous people there, especially since it was the home where Paul Newman had grown up. So I tagged along. We made our way through several yards, stirring up an occasional barking dog, while I recalled the Halloween past when my friend and I had been caught by Mr. Newman in the act of soaping up the Newman’s living room windows. Fortunately it was Paul’s father who caught us and not Paul. But we got a scolding and were forced to wash the soap off before he let us leave. As we approached the Newman’s back yard, we saw a big awning overhead and a high wooden fence that enclosed the entire yard, so we hunched down and squinted through the knot holes, and saw a large crowd of guests standing around sipping summer drinks. And amid them stood a young Paul Newman, just back home to Cleveland after a successful start to his acting career. He was dressed up as a waiter and delivering cocktails to the guests on a tray, which he balanced in one hand. We could hear the tinkling of glasses and the sweet sounds of an orchestra on the terrace. We’d never seen anything like this in our ten years, and to think we almost blew it when we soaped the Newman’s windows. Then suddenly the orchestra stopped playing, and Paul Newman shushed the crowd and announced in his best master-of-ceremonies-voice: “We have a special treat for all you folks.” My friend and I squinted harder through those peep holes to see if we could see who it was, as he continued his announcement: “Ethel Merman, the first lady of the musical theater, has seen fit to honor us tonight.” And then the great lady of song appeared on the terrace, raised her arms in the air and began to sing in that booming voice of hers, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And I swear, as she belted it out, every dog in the neighborhood started howling.

* Song by Irving Berlin from the musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”.

In Search of Real Eggs

Also appeared in Hiram Poetry Review.

A visitor, residing downtown at a Hampton Inn,
I pass on the complimentary breakfast
to walk Cleveland’s streets in search of real eggs.
Every place is coffee-to-go in Styrofoam.

At Au Bon Pain, I ask for scrambled eggs.
The server looks at me as if my skin is purple and says,
We only serve pre-cooked patties with beef.
I imagine bacon sizzling on an old grill, the chef
in greasy apron, his back to the counter,
flipping flapjacks. I sit on padded stool
midst coffee fumes and customers.
Our orders touch down before us like airplanes.

At a natural foods place on Euclid,
the waitress has arms sculpted like Wonder
Woman—her biceps toned, real shoulder
mounds, not too much bulk. She says to me,

We have four kinds of healthy wraps with egg whites.
She rattles off the choices—sprouts and low-fat
cheese, fake meat, dill and tofu, or plain.
I continue to stare at her arms while I order just plain.

 

My Sweet Darmera

I met Darmera peltata in the White Flower Farm catalogue:

Native to northern California, its thick rhizomes
produce dramatic mounds of broad, round, lobed
leaves that resemble umbrellas turned inside out

by a stiff gust of wind. In fall, they turn a spectacular
shade of red. Can grow in full sun if its feet stay wet.

All day she roams barefoot,
a farm girl with sturdy legs
who doesn’t mind the mud between her toes.
Gathers armloads of hyssop and thyme.
Carries pails full of warm milk
from the barn to the butter churn.

Bits of hay stalks cling to her hair,
which I brush aside when we lie down at night.

 


Copyright 2016 William Hengst.  All rights reserved.

Yard Man Testimonial

From back of book.

 

 

“Fire up those engines!” we are commanded by the first poem in Yard Man, and immediately engaged in the often taken-for-granted unfolding of the seasons. William Hengst has the uncanny ability to make what is abundantly alive become even more alive. Though this is a book that looks closely and intelligently at the natural world, it is also a celebration of language: the power of resonant details and the magic and mystery of the very names given to the vegetative world. After taking us through “winter’s long wait”—that challenge to “Asclepias, Astilbes, Asters” and to the human spirit—his book appropriately and triumphantly ends with the same promise with which it begins: “Buds still in their wraps/ponder explosions soon to come.”

—Christopher Bursk, author of The Improbable Swervings of Atoms