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From Here to There
My father wrestles with the chain, slams it
tangled toward the truckbed where it catches
tailgate, slither-clangs to a heap beneath
his feet. Like a serpent of heavy links.
Like the unwieldy weight his bogus life
has been, his trying to move it from here
to there. He curses God, who made him fail.
He turns, commands me pick up what I can.
I do: his stubborn will, his quiet code,
the all day bouts of walking through the yard
to find out what the moles have thieved. The stare.
The muscle pulled. The knife slammed down to hush
the dinner talk. I’ve heaved to get to here,
mid-life, his life, to pack it up for good.
Along the backroads, I test the curves thrown wide
then stitched back in,
rising toward the hills,
toward the ghost shapes of pine,
Paper mill country.
Twenty years then pulp.
Trucks going in and trucks coming out.
This dusk finds me desultory, shucked-off.
The road’s unreachable even when we’re on it.
It goes toward its focus
and hauls us behind.
Its form is composed of the jumbled and scattered,
what somehow still
gets us near the sublime.
Barn. Ditch. Ford Fairlane on blocks.
Middle Bridge looming,
scaffolding the flow.
Something through the brush, out of range, out of range.
I’ve chased the years the way my father did,
slow crawl past Joe Love’s store,
over the bridge to Piney,
the roads arterial, coated with county dust.
Same old narrative as his,
a little moonlight thrown in,
river smell breeze-lodged and constant.
The old man knew his stuff, they say,
could steer through the channel from memory alone,
take the head of the barge
and nudge it, ease it,
all the way in without touching the lock wall,
in the deep deep dull of 3 a.m.,
Whitley in the background,
no stranger to the rain.
I’m following after in my own quiet way,
doing my part
in the family’s loose lineage.
Nudge a word here. Steer toward the deep.
Thirty years behind
and a little too Lethean.
Be we don’t get the road map ever in time.
Only later. Only after—after and always only after.
We get the monotone
of life’s swift answer,
gut-stabbed, wedged where we can’t grab a hold.
I’ve spent the years tracing back
to my father’s slow ways,
born from the river,
its driftwood, its distance,
from his watching, for a living, the ease-past and dazzle.
Dusk has its own course, a daily deduction.
These wheels give it hell
and a merciful hush.
I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level.
But through it all, I go where I’m going.
I know what I know,
and I want to know more.
-from Fall Sanctuary
BIO: Jeff Hardin teaches at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tennessee. His first collection, Fall Sanctuary, received the 2004 Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press. Recent and forthcoming poems appear in Mid-American Review, Zone 3, Puerto del Sol, Smartish Pace, Poem, Potomac Review, The Café Review, and others.
An Interview with Jeff Hardin by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: In the poems of your first book, Fall Sanctuary, I notice that many deal with two distinct themes: religiosity and reaching. Often these themes intersect in poems in which you seem to be reaching for a degree or form of faith that is either elusive or, at times, just beyond the stretch of your fingertips. “Following After” is one such poem in which you come “near the sublime” and, yet, the sublime remains just “out of range.” I’d be curious to know if this “being out of range” is an inner conflict that this poem attempts to confront or is it the conflict itself that, in fact, is the impetus/subject of the poem? Do you feel that writing the poem is an act of exercising “knowing what you know” and desiring “to know more?” Is it the poem that brings you so close to the sublime or that which keeps you from it?
Jeff Hardin: Writing poems definitely gets me closer to the sublime, if that’s what we want to call whatever it is that one gets close to in the composition process. Language itself is “out of range” in that it never quite matches in fullness what one struggles to say. As for myself, I think I write poems because I want to find out what’s possible to say, possible to think about, possible to believe and/or appreciate. Maybe it is this searching, this reaching, that comes through in my poems. Yes, I “know what I know,” and as satisfying as that condition often is, it only makes me hunger for knowing more. Hungering for more seems like a reasonable response to what is already known, and not for the purpose of implying that what is known is thoroughly lacking and incomplete, not to reject the known but to be emboldened and encouraged by the known to walk out into the unknown, into what might be known. I struggled a long time with the ending of “Following After.” For me, a lot seemed to be riding on that coordinating conjunction. If I had said, “I know what I know, but I want to know more,” that would have said something entirely different than what I meant. I settled on “and” because it got the closest, I think, to implying a sense of gratitude, on one hand, for what I know and a trusting anticipation toward what is to come, on the other hand. What I wanted was a conjunction that seemed to suggest that what I know, small as it is, feels like a gift; and of course no such word at that moment could carry that implication, the tone I was “reaching” toward.
AMK: You are extremely playful with form in this book. “From Here to There” struck me immediately for several reasons. First, it’s a beautiful and arresting poem about a memory— a subject I don’t see nearly as much in your poems as in many other contemporary poets. And, second, “From Here To There” is a sonnet; simply defined, a poem composed of 14 iambic lines with an end-rhyme scheme. It’s almost become a form in and of itself, the “follow some but not all” rule of composing the contemporary sonnet. So, the first question is why play with the sonnet form? What does it do for the poem? For the poet? For the sonnet?
JH: I love playing with the sonnet form for all the obvious reasons: the pleasure of how form shapes thought, how meter suggests new words and turns of phrase, how the small frame creates this tension between wanting to break out and wanting to tighten down, between wanting to say more and needing to say less. A sonnet seems a likely place where every word might hum and come alive in relation to all the other words. And why play with the form? Simply put: because so many others have gotten away with it. I don’t know why, but I was pleased when I found out that nearly a fourth of the poems e. e. cummings wrote were sonnets. They don’t always look like sonnets on the page. Maybe it would be a good thing to write a sonnet that nobody knew was a sonnet. I say this because sometimes I encounter writers and readers who seem to value a poem simply because it is a sonnet, as if the sonnet form were privileged, as if the poem by virtue of being in the form of a sonnet is somehow more “worthy.” Maybe, maybe not. To me, a poem should be a good poem not for the fact of its form but for the power of what it tells us about all manner of things, not the least of which is what to make of this existence. If the poem doesn’t give us the “news” we die of not hearing, as Williams spoke of, then putting the poem in a form is simply a cover-up for not having found something “worthy” of being said. I thought I had gotten away with hiding the sonnet form in my poem “The Poet Who Never Achieved” (also in Fall Sanctuary), but enough people figured that one out. Still, people seem to like the poem before they discover it’s a sonnet. I don’t want someone to appreciate a poem because it follows a form; I want the form to be discovered later as another level of appreciation. In other words, the form shouldn’t validate what’s said. What’s said should be worthy enough to stand on its on, having found its shape through the shaping that form exerts. Along those lines, I’ve had several acrostic poems published over the years, and as far I can tell, editors were never aware of the form, or they never mentioned it. They simply liked the poems enough to publish them. That always pleases me.
AMK: “From Here To There” certainly takes its liberties. It makes use of rhyme and slant rhyme but imbeds them within the line rather than presenting them at the end. And while the poem is composed in iambic pentameter, the meter of the poem’s opening line, “My father wrestles with the chain, slams it” is hardly as overt a use of the iambic foot as, say, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” My second question regards the break after the eighth line into a second stanza, which seems a nod to the Petrarchan sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave of eight lines and a sextet of six and usually alters its rhyme scheme while making its turn where “From Here To There” breaks into two stanzas. It would be very interesting to hear your thoughts on why you chose to make such a gesture to the Petrarchan sonnet in particular.
JH: Most of my sonnets are Petrarchan in that I tend to follow the octave/sestet arrangement, though often I write in unrhymed blank verse. Of the six sonnets in Fall Sanctuary, four of them use true rhyme or slant rhyme or a mixture of both. Only two sonnets avoid the use of rhyme, “From Here to There” and “To Anyone Who’ll Listen.” I begin “From Here to There” with four iambic feet then substitute a spondee in the last foot. Those two hard stresses (“slams it”) hope to mirror the reality of the moment. I want the violence of his action to find a counterpart in the meter. I think that’s the moment where the poem begins to move from memory to a made thing, from simple retelling to complex understanding. Though accurate to what really happened—my father really did beat the crap out of a tailgate with a chain—I hope the language matches the sound of that chain slamming and slithering. Then in line two I switch to trochaic meter for a line and a half. To tangle the iambs up? Then I switch back to iambs midway through the third line.
AMK: My apologies for the long questions, but while on the surface these poems may seem quite simple, both are involved with a complexity that is difficult to identify. I mean, you could probably read “From Here To There” a dozen times and not notice the significance of the phrase “I do.” Likewise, in “Following After,” you claim at one moment to “nudge a word here” and yet, in the next moment, you claim to be steering toward some undefined “deep.” It would be interesting to hear how you ideally think a poem of yours approaches complexity as, first, a subject and, second, as an element of craft. Do you think that the complex nature of identifying complexity itself is what these poems, in part, are about? Do you feel that there is much room in contemporary poetry for complexity as an element of craft?
JH: Well, my father was a towboat pilot on the Mississippi river. In “Following After,” I am basically drawing a parallel between his career and my own. With a nudge of the rudders, he could keep barges in the river’s channel, and of course nudging a word here and there, for me, sometimes feels like trying to move toward the depths. Of course, his river is not the same river as mine.
Though I like your question about complexity, I’m afraid I would write for days if I could somehow capture all my random thoughts. In short, yes, there is much room in contemporary poetry for complexity as an element of craft. But exactly what do you mean by “complexity”? Sentence structure? Situation? Idea? The perfection of the perfect word at just the perfect place in the poem? Personally, lucking onto “I do” as the volta in “From Here to There” took seemingly forever. The poem was stalled after I was told to “pick up” what I could. I had no idea where to go from there, how to move the poem from one place to another. Then those two words occurred to me, and I had my way deeper into the poem. They are simple words (“I do”), yet they quickly get complex. They shift the time of the poem from past to present—they echo marriage vows, yet the speaker is ultimately breaking the marriage of lineage between himself and his father. Words, by their very nature, are both simple and complex. The last two words of the poem (“for good”) can be understood in a couple of ways also. They can suggest finality, but they can also suggest a desire to take what is given and to transform it into something of worth.
But simple is also complex. Go read some of Frost’s more “simple” sonnets and then try to write one yourself. Try to write your own version of “Meeting and Passing” and see if you can get so much complexity into mostly monosyllabic words. In your dreams! Or try to write a sonnet like Alicia Stallings’ “Fishing.” Very simple situation and diction, yet Harold Bloom, I hear, is making the poem the subject of his next book. Well, okay, I made that last part up, but you get my point.