Greatest Hits + B-Sides
MaryAnn L. Miller
In Ben Heins Greatest Hits+ B-Sides, Ben Heins describes in his poem “A Hallmark Writer,” “—the raw, unmoving movement of a heart.” There is a sensation of one’s heart stopping that recurs throughout this collection of wrenching songs from the throat of a young poet lamenting the losses of his mentor, his friend, a lover, his father’s presence, his niece’s innocence, and the dementia of a beloved grandfather.
The collection is an extended metaphor for an album of single releases written like rock anthems full of anguish, resignation, and finally hope. The baby on the cover holding a 78 vinyl disc almost as big as he is becomes the man in the last poem “What Billy Joel Taught Me” imparting the wisdom gained from attending a concert with “someone…memorable” and experiencing transcendence: “Sing every word you know, and every word you don’t.”
Heins sings. He wails. In the first poem of the collection “Ben Is” Heins growls and shouts and spurts truncated text talk trying to explain to his mentor, Len Roberts how, “things have changed since you’ve been gone.” One has the distinct sense that Heins is also trying to explain things to himself in this review of life without his treasured friend. The last two lines settle the anguish into perspective “…just as I reached for you, the oak trees were mere toothpicks in the cosmos.”
“Jessica: The Distance” expresses the intertwined kinship Heins has with his niece who is also experiencing being young in America and surviving. The juxtaposition of Jessica’s imagined sexual adventures with Heins’s similar experiences is on the page as side-by-side poems that might be read separately or straight across like a hemistich or half-line form. The straight across reading blends their lives into a “Sacred distance, you cannot divide, that which was carved out of air, and burned to blood long ago.” The truth of genetic connection is expressed so poignantly as this very physical poem leaps back and forth through family heritage.
The cadence, the repetition, the futility of “Read this Fast” is like a one-person call-and-response as Heins rails against his grandfather’s dementia. He shouts out but the answer he gets is an expansion of his grief coming back at him. We learn about his grandfather’s memories through Heins’s exasperation at the stranger-making condition that has invaded his family. We have the sense that there is no language strong enough for the horror of this loss.
And Heins does use powerful language. In “Twenty-One Guns” a “post-hurricane…” phrase: “…like all we had to do was clean up, and it would be over; like the grass never leaned on the concrete sidewalks, a good lump building in its throat.” Again, from “A Hallmark Writer,”
“The same guy who shopped his poetry chapbook, written in long, curse-ridden lines, for seven years, and was rejected, rejected like an Alaskan hunter, who wanted flame to sprout on a frozen lake.” From “The Cloudrunner (for my mother)” “No thoughts of darkness; no memory of despair—I am forever free. I will run on this air forever because it taught me how to breathe.”
In order to sing, one must know how to breathe. The poet sings, however, you may find yourself holding your breath as you read Ben Heins Greatest Hits.
MaryAnn L. Miller, (firstname.lastname@example.org), MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.