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.
On March 20, 2018, I read from my work at The Post East, part of East Side Storytellin' session 126 (along with singer-songwriter Kiely Connell).
Feel free to listen to the following poems: "A Right Devotion," "Taking Up the Cause of Edification," "One Word Seen through the Lens of Another," "A Poem Is the Light Coming to Surround Us," "A Poem Is a Door of Perception," "Following Minnows Upstream," and "I Once Was Lost."
I wrote “Non-Person” on February 6, 2008 after reading about Romanian poet Nina Cassian. In the introduction to her collection Life Sentence, I was struck by the following passage:
“She has been written out of her country’s literature, its anthologies, its histories, its
textbooks. Her books, even her totally apolitical children’s books, have all been
withdrawn from circulation. At present she is a nonperson; she does not exist.”
Not that any writer would wish to be rejected by the wider culture, nonetheless I began wondering what being a “nonperson” would be like. In many ways, since I live in a radically different country than Romania, my existence as a poet is not thought of as posing a threat to “authorities.” My poems are not scrutinized to detect maligning comments about particular political figures. On the other hand, I am aware that my poems do, in fact, push back against certain values within my culture (and even within poetry itself) that I do not share. I began thinking about subversive ideas I see existing within my poems. For me, at least, there is a freedom in being a nonperson, in remaining unknown, in daily offering my “thoughts unofficial,/unsanctioned, askew.”
How lucky for me:
do not know
If I am a threat;
if I have thoughts unofficial,
if I have set as my task
of a language;
who will know
how I walk beneath maples,
A morning like all others:
I sit on my porch,
for what comes next.
A sniper doesn’t aim.
No decree against me
has been issued.
Authorities are searching
ransacking others’ lives.
A wind brushes against me,
having come from
and whither it goes
I cannot predict.
now moves freely.
How lucky I am,
touched and singled out
I grew up in a Baptist church where I was taught that language is generative. It creates. It moves out over the void and brings, out of nothingness, something into existence. Words do not return void. They have power. That being said, for more than thirty years as a writer, I have assumed that one of my purposes is to challenge, subvert, change, refine, or “overthrow” the language of my culture.
My journals are full of starts and stops, snippets that never went anywhere, ideas and sketches, random lines and images. Once, before going to speak to 5th, 6th, and 7th graders at a local school, I was pilfering through a journal from the early 2000s. I found five lines:
You could sit half your life
and not say one word
about moonlight over cornfields
or that small bloom fish make
kissing the sky of their world.
A few pages before, I discovered a random title, “City Diner,” and the two suddenly came together as a poem, which I used to frame my discussion regarding what kind of language we have versus what kind of language we might aspire to. I have always thought that the most important word in the poem is could. You or I could sit in a city diner and not speak of these things—landscape, beauty, mystery, appreciation. You or I could stay silent, but the poem, at least for me, asserts by implication—“[s]ome insinuation/set loose/now mov[ing] freely—that there is another way to speak to one another in which we acknowledge those things that fascinate and enthrall us.
We live in a world where people in a city diner feel comfortable turning to one another and talking about subjects like weather and sports but don’t feel comfortable talking about “moonlight over cornfields/or that small bloom fish make,/kissing the sky of their world.” Among others, that is the language “I have set as my task” to overthrow. I am trying to establish a language of intimacy and praise, of gratitude and tenderness, of “the premise-rich quiet between two worlds,” of “stillness” rhyming “with every other word.”
Poetry, if it is anything, topples supremacies, deposes dictatorial ideas, unseats convenient assumptions, and dethrones idols. Echoing my book’s title, the small revolution of poetry is to recognize the miracle and the wonder of being a “being,” the mystery of what it means to be “touched and singled out.”
In early July 2006, my family and I took a three-day trip to Dauphin Island, Alabama, where for many years my friend Wil Mills had vacationed with his own family. He told me I had to go to Lighthouse Bakery one morning, sit on the porch, and write him a poem. I said I would, and on the morning of July 5th, I sat with a muffin, coffee, notebook, and a stack of books; and I wrote “Palette” for (and in many ways to) my friend Wil.
Dauphin Island, AL
So much richness, we should say, in the colors coming off the bay
and in this waking to the mockingbird quiver-glimpsed from branch
Who can keep up? Who can spend even one day slaking after
the sip-of-it, the hum-again center, the sweat-drenched headlong
rush of being present in the present?
Turn the words to paint
that will not dry, the paint to words that none can speak. Turn rocks
to birds, birds to blooms, pampas grass to steeples, numberless steeples.
Turn rain to falling notes and sycamores to bursts of twilight trickle-shimmering
down to child hands fluttering back to sky.
Turn turning into coming back,
where every turned out word’s interior sings here and now and grace.
I had just begun a new notebook, and “Palette” was the second poem I wrote inside it, the first being “Along the Trail” the day before, a poem of similar shape on the page. The journal’s pages were unlined, allowing me to write either down the page or to turn the journal sideways and create a wider space—a canvas perhaps, more of a “palette.” In fact, I don’t usually write poems with such longish lines—most of the poem’s lines fall between fourteen and seventeen syllables.
In addition to being a brilliant poet, Wil was also a talented painter. He used his own paintings for the covers of his collections Light for the Orphans and Selected Poems. Among our many discussions regarding poetry, we argued about what a poem should look like on the page. Wil’s favorite metaphor was a field. Thus, lines were essentially furrows; they produced a “yield.” I liked to remind him that some poets thought of the page as a canvas, a spatial and inherently visual representation of the space and pace of thought. The page might be experienced in the way a painting might be experienced, i.e. stood back from, taken in, beheld.
Each of us admired certain “moves” we deemed the other especially good at as a poet. I admired Wil’s musicality, his innate gift to hear the depths of words, their etymologies, their interiors singing in ways I could not imagine. In addition to being a poet and a painter, Wil was also a musician, a wonderful guitar player and songwriter. As “Palette” moves toward the end, I speak of turning “words to paint” and “paint to words,” a nod to Wil’s poet-painter sensibilities. I wanted Wil to see that such mixing, though, such richness in the palette, might also move into the landscape, turning rocks into birds, birds into blooms, pampas grass into steeples, and rain into falling notes. In the last line, even the words themselves are “turned out,” their interiors revealing song. They sing “here and now and grace.”
Wil, on the other hand, admired the ways in which I hyphenated words, juxtaposing unusual pairings. In a very early poem, written when I was 19, I referred to a “bent-weed idea.” He loved that. In poems in my first book, Fall Sanctuary, I used such hyphenations as “ground-bursting,” “shiver-spray,” “mercy-flushed,” “light-stunned,” “tree-shine,” and “slither-clangs.” Within the first two lines of “Palette,” I refer to a “mockingbird quiver-glimpsed from branch/to branch,” while a few lines later I ask—wondering about our ability to keep up with the “palette” of the “richness” of the world—“Who can spend even one day slaking after/the sip-of-it, hum-again center, the sweat-drenched headlong/rush of being present in the present?” Writing a poem for Wil on the front porch of Lighthouse Bakery on an island he knew well, I was trying to have a bit of fun, letting all the ideas of our shared poetry-world merge together, i.e. hyphenate.
Interestingly, “Along the Trail,” the poem I wrote the day before, on July 4th, speaks of finding “a pond along the trail,” despite not expecting to find such a thing. Nonetheless there is a “rightness” in its “being there/and nowhere else…//in the place of its moment/the moment of its place, for where else could it be its being/as intently.” Visually on the page, this poem is a companion piece to “Palette,” but it is also companion in other ways. Wil and I merged in many ways—in friendship, in poetry, in faith—but we also stood separate from another, for where else could we be ourselves as intently? There was a “rightness” in Wil’s poems being the only ones he could write. I certainly couldn’t write poems in the ways he did. Likewise, he could never write the kinds of poems I wrote. Still, we came together as friends, in a fellowship of seeing through each other’s poems a “richness” in the world we might not have seen otherwise.
I often felt that in Wil’s poems, and in my own too—just like that pond discovered along the trail—we were “waiting on what’s next/that hasn’t been before and will not be again.”
And isn’t that the “richness” of the daily canvas any of us glimpses? Isn’t that our shared and deepest song, this singing of what it feels like to be “present in the present”? Isn’t that the turning, the call to repentance, at the center of all words? Isn’t that “the mystery of time”? Isn’t that “here”? And “now”?
Isn’t that “grace”?
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.