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Defense Mechanism

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This is about heroes, and you should know
I do not mean old men with membranous snow
Already patching them on hand and cheek;
I mean the medaled models from the Greek
On whom the air force lavishes technique
Like tennis lessons and engineering toys
Given at schools for preparatory boys.

Say what you will, this flyer on his base
Who attends airdromes is the immortal ace
Training to come out of some urgent East
Greater astride his apocalyptic beast
Than any movie star: the new high priest.
To glimpse him people will abandon cover
And in his thunder die as for a lover.

Pious and helmeted he lives these nones
Attentive to the voices in his phones
And calculating when will be the ides
Through his impatience with the time he bides
In long equations as the slide rule slides;
There is no telling the ominous from calm
In practice runs to drop a perfect bomb.

Nourished and celibate, tanned, tall, erect
As he navigates and crosshairs intersect,
He dreams a lissome girl and highschool kiss:
Physicians have no thought of mending this;
The natural death is one he may not miss:
Whoever said time steals without a sound?
It makes a noise of bandage being wound.

Little by little grows the good machine
Preening equipment as pterodactyls preen;
And when the night pins down the firmament
He goes aloft to fly by instrument
Limning the stars on graphs where light is bent:
To fly in squadron and to walk in squad,
This is the double-natured demigod.

Calvin Thomas, Jr., "Defense Mechanism" from Botteghe Oscure XVI (Autumn 1955). Copyright © 1955 by Calvin Thomas, Jr..  Reprinted by permission of Calvin Thomas, Jr..
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Defense Mechanism

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  • Calvin Thomas Jr. was a promising young poet at Yale when, during the summer of his sophomore year, he attended John Crowe Ransom’s summer school at Kenyon College. There he met influential New Critics like Allen Tate, Mark Shorer, and Yvor Winters, who would later become a mentor. He graduated from Yale in 1951, joined the Air Force, and was sent to Germany. His story “The Comeback,” which sprang from his experience interviewing German war veterans, was included in Stanford Best Stories. Thomas also wrote poems during this time, he alleged, “with no plan for them.” He continued, “but I mailed them off with short stories to [Wallace] Stegner and, to my surprise, learned I’d won the Stanford Fellowship, together with a Thom Gunn, and now belonged to Winters.”

    Though he never published a book, Thomas had poems accepted in Poetry, The Golden Goose, Sequoia, and the journal Botteghe Oscure. Often...

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