Jeff Hardin reads from A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being at the 2019 Southern Festival of Books
I wrote “An Etymology of Sorts” on August 30, 2002. At the time, I was thinking about origins, genealogy, going back and back to find a source, an original relation to myself or to the landscapes that helped to shape my thinking, my presence, and my presence of mind. I considered the prospect of writing a whole series of poems using the stem of “An Etymology…” I wrote titles like “An Etymology of Rain,” “An Etymology of Whimsy,” “An Etymology of Pondside Reeds,” “An Etymology of Barns,” "An Etymology of Sycamore Leaves," and on and on.
“An Etymology of Sorts” was published in the Winter 2005 issue of The North Dakota Quarterly along with two other poems, “Before His Final Day” and “Target Practice,” (a sonnet that later appeared in my third collection, Restoring the Narrative). The poem was later collected in my fourth collection, Small Revolution.
AN ETYMOLOGY OF SORTS
moondrift and mountain laurel,
the path to the falls.
And so much
these clumsy lives
the leaning-halt of barn
and everything beyond.
You speak to me
of garden rows,
and lilac scent.
Whatever it is
we think we know,
with open windows.
More than three decades ago, I began as a narrative poet, writing poems by grounding myself in a location, in a situation, and then exploring time’s hesitant unfolding toward a resolution or insight. Such a poem began in one place and then—through action or gesture—seemed to reach a conclusion. For most of a decade I could turn out poem after poem, based mostly on memory, that gave me the impression I was creating some sense of wholeness through my writing life. I still write such poems, but somewhere around the late 1990s, a different kind of poem began to emerge as a possibility.
There is something about writing short stand-alone stanzas that can lead both to disjuncture and continuity. A thought can occur but then associatively lead anywhere to anything. Or one stanza might be a lens through which to perceive another thought, and then another and another, while each distinct thought (each stanza) could be interesting in and of itself, almost like a small poem, but then all of the stanzas taken together could be larger than any singular stanza. That’s the hope, at least. Better yet, the process of developing a poem could emerge from any connection the mind might make.
Within this “etymology,” what does it mean that the world is a “small wonder”? Is it really small; or is it vast, unfathomable, immense, full of “countless implications” and “the multitudinous mysteries of the moment”? Is “wonder” the source from which all my thoughts emerge, somewhere along “the path to the falls”? My first collection, Fall Sanctuary, explored, to some degree, whether there is sanctuary to be found within the “fall of man.” Perhaps a sense of wonder leads anywhere.
That “so much [is]/unpronounceable” suggests that the world lies beyond our efforts to name it, to hold it, even as it vanishes, even as it hesitantly comes into being before us, even as we, too, “live/these clumsy lives.” We can speak of “garden rows,/of loam/and lilac scent,” speaking alliteratively, associatively, poetically; but, even so, in the end, as we try to trace this etymology of sorts—this etymology of sorting through the emerging details of landscape, memory, and language—anything we ultimately come to know is still “filled/with open windows.”
Can we even keep up with the immensities unfolding before us?
Even the “wonder” we explore, attempting to name its dimensions, its examples, leads us to realize that the word “wonder”—this clumsy attempt to name what we think it is, this seeking after its countless sources—can only be conceived as a kind of openness to the world, window after window. “Wonder” is just wonder after wonder, word after word, gap after hole after emptiness, in any direction we might attempt to search, as endless in one direction—outward, inward, past, present, future—as in any other direction.
What a “small wonder” we ever think anything at all—one thought much less another—and “small wonder” we have these minds so often given to wondering, wandering along wherever the next thought is drawn along.
No Other Kind of World is featured at Poem of the Week, along with sample poems, an interview (conducted by Lana Austin), and links to videos. Check it out.
I wrote “Enthusiasm Gap” on October 3, 2010. At the time I had grown weary of hearing particular language used over and over in the media, words and phrases that I knew, having studied Marketing in college, had likely been poll-tested with focus groups and found to be effective in manipulating people's perceptions regarding a candidate or an issue. Tuning into any news source, I could be assured of hearing key phrases such as “enthusiasm gap,” “dust-up,” “leading from behind,” “too big to fail,” and other politically-charged sound bites intended to “own” a narrative. I remember U2 saying many years ago, about the song "Helter Skelter," "Here's a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back." I wondered if I might, too, steal back the language from political pundits. Shouldn't language have a higher purpose than to gain advantage within a political campaign? I decided to use such sound bites as titles for poems and see where they might lead.
I doubt the pundits, in referring to
enthusiasm gaps, include the one
between my old self and my new, the way
I used to be like driftwood caught in eddies,
while now it seems I’ve hit the rapids, jigging
a jive downstream, not even anxious what
the end will be. And, too, the hard-nosed rage
I thought sustaining all those years has turned
as giddy as a child expecting gifts.
I walk the street and whisper blessings toward
the people that I meet—quite silly, yes,
though just as reasoned as the daily polls
intent on aiding some agenda, non-
disclosed, that pits us one against the other.
During political campaigns, commentators often refer to an enthusiasm gap between the Republican and Democratic parties, i.e. the percentage difference between parties regarding likely voter turnout. In other words, how much more likely are Republicans motivated to vote (how much more enthusiastic?) than the Democrats or vice versa? From the very beginning of my poem, then, I began to move the idea of an “enthusiasm gap” from the political to the personal—my way of stealing back what I consider to be a perversion of language, used for political gain.
In many ways, my collection Restoring the Narrative explores the differences “between my old self and my new,” two of the book’s four sections taking up (and interrogating) the idea of memoir, one’s own “narrative.” The section titled “Creekside,” for instance, locates me in a world of “beer cans up along the hood,” of “rants and curses,” of “murky depths” and drunken stares. The section titled “On Being Asked to Write a Memoir” begins as follows: “The question’s how to build a myth of self/somewhere between the lovely truth of words/and what reality will stubbornly/concede.” There is always a "gap" between reality and our portrayal of it, but shouldn't language be used to bridge that gap rather than exploit it?
The personal—no less than the political—is complicated, though. It is weighed down with questions, myths, agendas, and misrepresentations. Truthfulness about the self has its own distortions. Even so, as the poem begins, I imagine that “a language might/grow weary of abuse, cast anyone/aside and carry on untainted.” Such a naïve hope grounds this collection, seeking a language that “looks back in wonder,” a language “without perversity,” a language where a word “heals, sings, prays, listens,” a language where we might “reach to trace the light,” even a language where we “whisper blessings toward/the people that [we] meet.” Such a language, in our Age, might seem "silly," especially to those who are seeking advantage, but why not consider such a use of language to be "just as reasoned" as any other use of language?
If there is an enthusiasm gap worth exploring, it is the one between those who use language in order to gain power and those who use language “to edify each other, to prove/our souls are knitted.” It is the one between those who use language to pit us “one against the other” and those who posit a language where even the “diphthongs/in their dialectic [are] singing in accord.”
How easy to imagine that such singing might lead us to “something other, something wise,”—to no other kind of world than one where a fullness reveals itself and we “hear no other voice.”
I read for the Huntsville Literary Association's Sunday Salon on October 9, 2016.
Jeff Hardin is professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including Fall Sanctuary (Nicholas Roerich Prize, 2004), Notes for a Praise Book (Jacar Press, 2013), Restoring the Narrative (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, 2015), Small Revolution, and No Other Kind of World (X. J. Kennedy Prize, 2017). His sixth collection, A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being, is forthcoming in 2019.