Poems by James A.W. Heffernan


On The Tempest, a construction by Varujan Boghosian

In the center,
A little toy boat tilts skyward
Like Pegasus taking off.

With the blue paint on its grainy wooden hull
worn half away by a thousand voyages around the tub,
with its spindly masts slightly askew
and its two square inches of white cotton sail
caught in a frozen flutter,
it trails a little line of  cotton  string
flung to the wavy air.

Across the base extends a row of wooden triangles
in red and blues rubbed down and almost out
by many hands.
They march along
like the pointed rails of a picket fence
or the teeth of a saw
or the teeth of a shark.
From somewhere above or behind or beneath
This row of wooden peaks,
My eyes hear a voice proclaim
Like God in Genesis:
“Let these be waves.”
And waves are just what they are
In the world you have made.

Honorable Mention, New England Writers Winners’ List 1998
Ekphrasis: A Poetry Journal (Fall-Winter 1999).
The Anthology of New England Writers 9 (1999): 11.
Beauty/Truth: A Journal of Ekphrastic Poetry 1.3 (Fall/Winter 2007)


Peering into the moist dark cave of my mouth,
working under the burning white sun of an adjustable lamp,
reaping bits of plaque with a little sharp-hooked scythe,
she lets me count the freckles on her downy cheek,
and see my face reflected in the pupils of each eye
that never looks at mine
but only at the rubble of my teeth and gums.

Her lips are sheeted by a starched white mask
but close enough to kiss
if I could first expel the nickel-plated snake
now sucking up my spit,
and blow away the hook now digging up my plaque:
the buried sediment of all the meals I've had
Since our last date.

Shortly she will sound the depths of my pocked gums:
three millimeters, two, three, three, four
and then a scary five.

Around the molars plugged with silver, crowned with gold,
like brittle columns of an ancient temple patched and propped
by patient archeologists,
she digs right down to bone:

To whatever will be left when  gums are gone,
And I have long since kept my date
With someone else whose work
will bring his face so close to mine
that I could kiss him too--
if only I could break the slender thread
with which he'll sew my mouth
quite shut.

Editors’ Choice, New England Writers Winners’ List 2002
The Anthology of New England Writers 12 (2003): 39.


I think I know why children fear the dark,
And why a moving shadow makes them freeze;
Why pale intruders whisperingly lurk
In curtains rustled by an empty breeze;
Why mouths gone dry cry silently for light
And little eyes grown big with horror stare
At something by the window in the night,
At something they are told cannot be there.

We tell them so. Unsheathing light, we slay
The curtained thing,  and open up its skin:
An empty strip of cloth that we display
To show that nothing’s there.  It’s only wind,
We say to them, and, turning out the light,
We leave them with a nothing—in the dark.

         Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Vol. 2 (2009) 104.


The taste of fevered pillow night and day
Became my warden, and against the bars,
Black lines upon a mattress bare and gray as pabulum,
The flame of my own torment licked its tongue.
And when I flung myself upon my back
And sucked for breath and tried to stretch my arms,
Electric suns hung just above me burning,
Hovered redly, waiting to descend.

The sky was white-capped on the day they took me out,
And we went sailing in a roofless car.
Beyond the ridge my father’s shoulder made,
I saw the blurry greens that floated by;
I saw the treetops lifting, and I gave my cry
To the rainless clouds of that unending sky.


For Andrew and Virginia

No shade of Manet stalks the noonday grass.
No seated nude displays her creamy flesh
to feasting eyes of gentlemen in black.
No nymph disturbs the well-trimmed
or dances to the silent strains
of Giorgione’s lute.

Grey skirted, green sweatered,  black wool stockinged
       in the bright cool light of spring.
my wife sits by me on a slatted bench
in St. James’ Park
as we consume our Easter Sunday lunch:
lamb sandwiches with juicy plums and Kit-
Kat bars
washed down with vin quite ordinaire from
plastic cups.

Already fed, our restless chicks--
       aged eight and six--
have skittered off around a bend of shrubs
to watch the ducks patrol the rippling pond
for bits of manna flung by  passing  hands.

All at once, flailing her arms like wings,
Virginia scampers back to tell us
something totally absurd
about the birds
at the pond.

Incredulous, we send her flying off again,
relieved  the birds will keep
her and her brother entertained
while we sit quietly and munch and sip.

But not for long. Again she comes,
this time with Andrew panting in her wake,
to sieze our hands and tug. Surrendering,
we leave our sandwiches and plums and
to come along.

As we approach the pond,
where plump blue pigeons waddle on the grassy shore
pecking the ground for seeds, or worms,
or tasty crumbs,
we see three pelicans
all plumed in white.
With curving swanlike necks,
black-tipped folded wings,
and long flat tapering yellow bills,
they stand on great webbed feet. 
Stately, tall and dazzling white,
they supervise the waddling,
pecking, feeding pigeons.
Like guardian angels.

One pelican takes a single step,
and thus bestows its shadow on a pigeon
pecking unawares below its long hooked
yellow bill.

Spurning the  breadcrumbs
held out by a shy little hand,
the pelican opens its bill like a pair of scissors,
snaps it shut on the pigeon’s
and throws its own head straight
up and back,
like a rearing horse.
The pigeon’s wings now flutter upside down,
Splayed feet claw the air.

Transfixed, we do not even try to cup the
children’s eyes.
For like the  watchmen in the ghostly play,
They have already seen
what they would have us see.

The grey wings whirr and flutter
as the other pigeons peck away
in the shadow of the pelicans,
and a trendy couple saunters by--
a bloke and his miniskirted bird--
eating chips from a white paper bag.

With lightning gulp
the tall white bird sucks whirring
right down into the yellow bag that dangles
from its lower bill
till just the clawing feet protrude.

A third gulp takes the feet inside.
And thus the feeding pigeon
becomes the great bird’s food:
a writhing bulge
within its yellow pouch.

The children start a race around the pond
as a white-haired gent in smart blue blazer
throws the ducks a bit of crust
and the tall white stately pelican
quietly digests
its lunch.


“But after you have killed these suitors in your own palace,
either by treachery, or openly with the sharp bronze,
then you must take up your well-shaped oar and go on a journey
until you come to where there are men living who know nothing
of the sea, and who eat food that is not mixed with salt, who never
have known well-shaped oars, which act for ships as wings do.
And I will tell you a very clear proof, and you cannot miss it.
When, as you walk, some other wayfarer happens to meet you,
and says you carry a winnow-fan on your bright shoulder,
then you must plant your well shaped oar in the ground,
and render ceremonious sacrifice to the lord Poseidon . . .”

Teiresias to Odysseus in Hades, Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore,

Sand caulking the seams of your face,
you walk the waves of a desert with an oar
on your shoulder,
bearing it high against the wind
like a naked mast.

Sailless seafarer,
shipless voyager,
the sand is your sea now.
you know its heaves and swells,
its sun-struck crests, its shadowed troughs:
they mock you now and then
by turning blue.

And before you in the waves of burning air
an invisible Penelope
weaves a tapestry of shipmates remembered
and shipmates forgot,
shrouded in the sand of the desert that lies
at the bottom
of the sea.


Can anything be more ridiculous
Than binding words in rhyme, as in a truss?
Can anything in poetry be worse
Than that old dog-trot called iambic verse?

Good poetry must be spontaneous,
As Wordsworth long ago instructed us,
And poetry should come as naturally
As leaves uncurling greenly from a tree.

So said John Keats, who like a bird in spring
Instinctively knew how to soar and sing.
Yet even Keats’s birdlike muse sublime
Most often sings within a cage of rhyme.
And even when his verse turns blank, like this,
It carefully preserves its metered gait.

Poor Keats!  Fast manacled to metric rules,
The jingling handcuffs of benighted fools!
If only he had lived in our own time,
He could have spurned all meter and all rhyme.
He could have set his straining voice quite free
To sing just what his heart felt—naturally.

But could he have composed a single poem
Without the beat of meter’s metronome?
And lacking rhymes like hold and told and bold,
Could he have ever minted lines of gold?

We’ll never know,  nor do we need to know,
For now free verse can bravely, boldly go
Where no mere mincing, meter-shackled foot
Could ever lunge, or leap, or spin, or strut.


Can you conceive a problem more absurd?
Can you imagine just how much I’m stuck? 
In all the English language, crammed with words,
The only verb for what I crave sounds just like yuck.
Oh yes, of course, I know, there’s copulate,
But that’s a verb intransitive, my dear,
Which means I can’t--although my need is great--
Do that to you grammatically, I fear.
So from the lexicon of  Chaucer’s time
I pray you let me ardently revive
A verb whose simple yet seductive chime
Sounds just the note I need: then let us . . .  swyve!
If  I swyve you, and transitively, see?
Then just as surely, you’ll be swyving me. 


Once upon a midnight eerie,  as  I brooded,  weak  and weary,
On a topic long since grown a crashing bore;
As I brooded, eyes all bleary, wond’ring when this matter dreary
Would forbear to plague and scourge us like a sore,
All at once there came a tapping of a raven faintly rapping,
Rapping  faintly and all quaintly  at my door.
And the talking of this knocking  plain and painfully repeated
To my ancient aching eardrums o’er and o’er,
Was  a mutter like the utterance from  woolly sheepfold  bleated
Ending  primly but quite grimly,  “Nevermore.”

See the new bridge with the balls,
Giant balls!
What a world of impotence their massiveness forestalls!
See them squatting,  squatting,  squatting
On their pillars day and night!
To some they are as ugly as putrescent pumpkins rotting,
While others hail them gaily as a grand baroque delight,
Keeping  up the quarrel  that interminably  falls
From the balls,  balls,  balls,  balls,
         balls,  balls,  balls,
From our wrangling and our jangling o’er the balls.

So I  asked the raven  tapping  as  he lingered,  faintly rapping
In the dreary  darkness  at my chamber door:
Could  we  ever hope to sever in a single bold endeavor
All  the balls from this new monster  we abhor?
Nearly  dead  with dread prostration  at the thought of such castration,
Croaked the raven roundly,  “Nevermore.”


dimeter dactyls,  the
damnedest of meters, di-
sects what I write.

how I would love  here to
throw in hexameters
just out of spite.