Seeing Eye Boy
Terence Winch, the award-winning Irish American poet, transitioned very successfully to a memoir from his childhood in the Bronx with Seeing Eye Boy. The book has incomparable humor and wisdom, doled out by a precocious, imperfect adolescent narrator. Even if you have never read any of Winch’s other work, it is recommended to read. The Bronx Irish children lived a life like no other.
Youngsters descended daily from apartment stoops around Bronx Irish neighborhoods. They paraded up the avenues to the school grounds, filling the morning air with shouts and laughter. Irish American boys played pool, ping pong or boxing in school recreation rooms and joined girls at church dances on Friday nights. Boys played games in the streets like stickball, handball, kick the can, pitching pennies, Johnny on the pony, and marbles. For girls, the games were jacks, hopscotch and jump rope. Kids raised pigeons, flew kites on rooftops, and raced gleefully through alleys and courtyards. In summer, children opened fire hydrants or flocked to sprinklers and wading ponds of nearby parks to relieve the sweltering heat. They rented bikes for 25 cents, jumped on a mobile merry-go-round for a few pennies, and sat on blanketed fire escapes after sundown to unwind in the cool night air. Within this idyll of childhood, Seeing Eye Boy presents the rollicking world of Matt Coffey.
The twelve-year-old Matt offers readers a trip back to the fall of 1957 when the boy’s life is in turmoil. Matt lets a dog named Cookie smell his hand in one scene, only to be bitten fiercely by it. So fiercely, his mother is unsure if Matt will survive the dog’s bite! Of course, all are sorry the event happened, and Cookie has had all her shots, so there is no fear of rabies. This does not spare poor Matt the mocking of Flip Coleman, who says, “Hey, Coffey – we heard you were attacked by a scary fluff ball named Cookie.” As we learn afterward, Flip is a red-haired daredevil with crazy red hair who runs along the roofs, jumps the gap between roofs, and plays with fire.
Another problem is presented by Matt’s new enemy, Bull Burke, who has a sister named Lizzie, with whom Matt and practically every other boy in the story are infatuated. Later on, Lizzie takes an interest in the lad:
So, I blew a whistle and she walked over and we danced all night. After Lizzie kissed me, I thought of the Baldie invasion, my mother getting sick, Paddy telling me about Kevin Barry, and how life has been crazy lately.
In addition to Lizzie’s brother, Bull, the threatened invasion of his block by the meanest gang in the Bronx, the dreaded Fordham Baldies, is another situation he fears will happen. Against these fears, Matt starts to take care of a neighborhood blind man (who turns out to have been part of the resistance to the British during the Irish troubles in the old country). This is where he becomes not a seeing-eye dog but a seeing-eye boy.
All along, we are treated to epigrammatic statements that only the poet Winch could make. Here are a few:
Some people in the neighborhood don’t want anyone but Irish people around here, but my mother says that everyone has the right to try to make a good life for themselves.
Mr. McManus practices the bagpipes in front of his apartment almost every night, and it sounds like a giant cat being strangled to death.
A nun says her only child is a nun, and her only son died. Her husband ran off at the first opportunity, like any sane person.
The writing in Seeing Eye Boy is consistent and natural in a way that leaves you feeling like the main character’s thoughts are your own after only a few pages. The book is a quick read, and it has many short chapters that flow by fast as Winch draws you into the world of Matt. The book awakens the memories of those who knew and loved such places in the 1950s and 60s. The seeming life and death struggles faced even today by teens on the verge of becoming young adults remind one of what one’s youth was. Those struggles to accept oneself, to enter a budding romantic relationship, to feel comfortable in a world that is opening before you, all these come back to the reader and remind them that childhood is not easy.
Matt and his buddies put up quite a resistance to the blows of childhood in the Bronx and the bicycle chain wielding Baldies with firecrackers, water balloons, the mysterious voices in Matt’s head, a dramatic rescue, a horrifying accident, and the eerie sound of the bagpipes. As Matt summarizes, “My mother wants me to be the best in everything, never mind just trying, and I just want to get through the eighth grade in one piece.”
Kirk Greenway (b. 1961, Michigan) has written poetry off and on in one form or another since he was in second grade due to a school assignment. Three years later, he was first exposed to the French language and the violin, and both have intimately influenced him ever since that year. In the language, he found poetry, and in the instrument, fire. In 1983, he saw London for the first time, and his love for that city has remained. His AM paper in Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, “A Metadiscourse on London Office of Works Discourse during the Surveyorship of Sir Christopher Wren,” was a sprawling historical monologue one inch thick concerning the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, a work very different than that of T.F. Reddaway. He lives in a small blue house in Washington Grove, Maryland, with his wife of 19 years, Misook, with whom he shares two sons and clutches of wild birds.
Terence Winch is the author of eight poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Known Universe (2018). A Columbia Book Award and American Book Award winner, he has also written a young adult novel called Seeing-Eye Boy and two story collections, Contenders and That Special Place, the latter drawing on his life as a traditional Irish musician. His work is included in more than 40 anthologies, among them the Oxford Book of American Poetry, Poetry 180, and 5 editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Writing, among other honors. Terence Winch edits the “Pick of the Week” feature on the Best American Poetry site.